Monday, January 19, 2009

Ask the Editor: What are the Rules of Possession?

Dear Editors:

Why do I so often see the possessive for a proper noun ending in 's' formed incorrectly?
This is correct: Mr. Ross's book. This is incorrect: Mr Ross' book
This is correct: Paris's dog. This is incorrect: Paris' dog
This is correct: the actress's Oscar, This is incorrect: the actress' Oscar.

Thank you,
Marjorie Levine

Hello Marjorie.

Seasons change, fashions change, times change, and so does grammar.

While it’s true that the standard used to be Mr. Ross’s book and Paris’s dog and the actress’s Oscar, the writing world has moved on from that rule.

Today, the acceptable way of showing possession is “th
e actress’ Oscar.” “Actress” ends in not just one “s,” but two. No need to add a third “s” to the pot. It’s also acceptable to use just the apostrophe, with no extra “s,” when the noun doing the possessing has only one “s,” such as dogs’ house (meaning multiple dogs who share a house).

Technically, you still have a choice when the subject doing the possessing is a proper name. You could write “Mr. Ross’s book” or “Mr. Ross’ book.” However, it is the norm today to skip the additional “s” and write “Mr. Ross’ book” or “Paris’ dog.” This is true with names that end in an “s.” It’s not true for names that don’t end in an “s,” such as Helen. For example, “this is Helen’s decree” is correct. “This is Helen’ decree” is not.

The rule has changed for several reasons.
Fewer letters to type = fewer letters to print for the publisher. (Which also helps explain why one space between sentences is now more acceptable than two spaces.)

The esses don’t seem to go on forever like a snake hissing.

It’s easier to type “Ross’” than to type “Ross’s.”

It changed because it did. Editors started telling writers to drop the “s” to show possession when the noun ended in an “s.” Then newspaper editors began to bellow that the world was running out of esses and reporters should quit wasting them. Somewhere along the line, ordinary people began to drop the additional “s.” Then other less ordinary people followed suit. Then tabloids began to run front page stories ab
out the shortfall of esses and how celebrities were having to name their kids things like “Apple” and “Moonblood” and “Heavenly Hiraani Tiger Lily” and fans wept at the pain of celebrities and began demanding a change.

And then it changed. So we can all thank the celebrities.

Even so, we still use a lot of esses. The “s” has been worn off my keyboard. Along with the “e” and the “r” and the “d” and the “n.” Why is that?

Signed, Helen, who has no “s” anywhere in her name, not her first name, her second, her maiden, her mother’s maiden, or her married name. Thank you, Brad and Jolie and Gwyneth and Tom and all the celebrities everywhere.

Helen Ginger is a freelance editor and book consultant, with an informational and interactive blog for writers and a free weekly e-newsletter that goes out to subscribers around the globe. She coaches writers on the publishing industry, finding an agent, and polishing their work for publication. You can also follow her on Twitter.
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  1. Oh, English, you crazy mutt of a language.

    So, does a name ending in X have any special rules or is X treated like any other non-S letter? My third grade teacher drilled into us that it was "Rex' car", not "Rex's car" and that just doesn't make sense to me.

  2. Excellent article, Helen. I learned some of the "why" re: this subject that I'd been wondering about.

    On the spacing between sentences, I recently edited a book for a new author at All things That Matter Press. I noticed he had double spaces between sentences. I reduced them to single space for the whole first chapter then asked him (when I sent the edits back to him) to please do the same throughout the whole ms. He wrote back thanking me for the thorough editing job and good suggestions for better rewrites, but objected to the single spacing rule. He said he had one previously published book (he's a British author) that was published that way and that was the way he had been taught.

    And the HEAD editor at ATTMP agreed with him - that's what SHE prefers also. I acquiesced, even though when I first sent a ms into the pub for my first book I had used dble spaces and was told they did NOT want that, please reduce to single!

    Go figure.

  3. I say, just soon as you think you've got it right, editors will change thing's'!!!

  4. Interesting post, Helen. I've always been hopelessly confused about this issue, so it's nice to have some clarity about it.

    To tell you the truth, I'm relieved I don't have to add the extra "s" anymore. That used to drive me crazy. Thanks for the insight!

  5. What a clear and delightful blog, Helen.

    It always helps to know why things change, even if the "reasons" make little sense.

  6. Well, hello, folks. I'm a day late because I didn't know my post had gone up. Last time I checked, it wasn't even in the queue.

    I'm with you, Heidi, I would still put the 's after Rex, until my editor with the publisher told me different. And, Marvin, always go with the publisher when it comes to grammar rules and spacing. You are a smart man.

    That's the problem with punctuation, it seems to be in constant flux. No wonder we can't keep up with it!

  7. Thank-you, Helen, for replying to my question regarding the formation of the possessive for nouns and proper nouns ending in 's.'
    I must respectfully disagree with you. The letter in which a proper noun happens to end does not determine the formation of the possessive. I do not think the possessive is formed based on simplicity and a desire to prevent alphabet redundancy.
    The correct formation of the possessive for the singular noun, actress, is: actress's. The correct formation of the possessive for Mr. DeSantis is Mr. DeSantis's.
    Of course, if the noun is plural, the possessive is formed by adding the apostrophe after the final 's.' e.g. The dogs' owner took all her dogs to the park. Here, the owner has more than one dog and "dogs" is plural and the apostrophe goes after the final 's' to form the possessive of that plural noun.

    I was a sixth grade teacher for 34 years and I am now retired. I taught this "stuff" year after year and I think so often the possessives are formed incorrectly not because the rule changed as an energy saving device but because people just don't know how to correctly form the possessive for nouns and proper nouns ending in 's.' If it was an energy saving shtik, we would see 1 for one, 2 for two, and 3 for three.
    Celebrities do not impact my world in the least. Their lives to me are better than a valium. And with regard to names, my friend's last name is Tumi. She named her son "Socket."
    (And it is Rex's car)


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