Possessive of Proper Names Ending in S

By Maeve Maddox

Should one write “Jesus’ name” or “Jesus’s name”?

Which is correct, “Travis’ friend” or “Travis’s friend”?

The questions on the use of the apostrophe to form the possessive keep coming. This post is about how to form the possessive of a proper name that ends in -s.

Most stylebooks agree that the rule for forming the possessive of a singular noun ending in -s is formed by adding ’s:

the boss’s birthday
the bus’s wheels
the witness’s testimony

When it comes to forming the possessive of a proper name that ends in s, guides disagree.

Some stylebooks recommend a single apostrophe for Biblical or classical names like Jesus and Achilles, but ’s for names like James and Charles; others say, “Treat all names ending in s the same.”

The Chicago Manual of Style once recommended a single apostrophe to form the possessive of Biblical or classical names:

Moses’ tent
Achilles’ helmet
Jesus’ name

Some guides still recommend this usage, but CMOS has changed its policy in a spirit of consistency; now it recommends that all proper names ending in -s form their possessive by adding ’s:

Moses’s tent
Achilles’s helmet
Jesus’s name
Travis’s friends
Dickens’s novels
Descartes’s philosophy
François’s efforts
Tacitus’s Histories
Kansas’s legislature
Euripides’s tragedies
the Ganges’s source

Equally consistent, the Associated Press Style Book opts for a single apostrophe for all proper names ending in -s:

Moses’ tent
Achilles’ helmet
Jesus’ name
Travis’ friends
Dickens’ novels
Descartes’ philosophy
François’ efforts
Tacitus’ Histories
Kansas’ legislature
Euripides’ tragedies
the Ganges’ source

The New York Times style manual generally agrees with CMOS, but adds this wrinkle:

Omit the s after the apostrophe when a word ends in two sibilant sounds…separated only by a vowel sound: Kansas’ GovernorTexas’ populationMoses’ behalf… But when a name ends with a sibilant letter that is silent, keep the possessive s: Arkansas’s

Disagreement on the issue of apostrophe s vs. plain apostrophe goes all the way to the Supreme Court. Justice Clarence Thomas believes that the possessive form of a name like his should be formed by adding only an apostrophe: “Justice Thomas’ opinion.” Referring to the case Kansas v. Marsh (2006), Thomas wrote “Kansas’ statute,” but his colleague Justice Souter wrote “Kansas’s statute.”

If you write for publication, how you treat the possessive of proper names that end in -s will be determined by your employer’s house style.

If you are free to choose which style to follow, keep in mind that the writer’s goal is to convey thoughts as clearly as possible to readers. Style guides exist to assist writers in this goal, but it seems to me that there are problems with the recommendations of all three guides mentioned above.

I prefer the guidelines given in the Penguin Guide to Punctuation:

A name ending in s takes only an apostrophe if the possessive form is not pronounced with an extra s. Hence: Socrates’ philosophy, Ulysses’ companions, Saint Saens’ music, Aristophanes’ plays.

The reasoning behind this rule is that as we don’t say [sok-ru-teez-iz], there’s no reason to write “Socrates’s.”

Punctuation is supposed to aid readers, not puzzle them. It’s no help to readers unfamiliar with English pronunciation to mislead them into trying to say [dick-inz-iz], or [u-rip-uh-deez-iz] by writing “Dickens’s novels” or “Euripides’s plays.”

The bottom line is that stylebooks do not agree on whether to write “Jesus’ name” or “Jesus’s name,” “Travis’ friend” or “Travis’s friend.” Writers not bound by a specific style manual must make their own decision and be consistent with it. Personally, I’d write “Jesus’ name” and “Travis’s friend” because I would say “[jee-zus] name” and “[trav-is-iz] friend.”

Related Post: Charles’s Pen and Jesus’ Name

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23 Responses to “Possessive of Proper Names Ending in S”

  • Nancy Romness

    Thanks for this clarification, Maeve. I prefer the CMOS, and I’m glad to know that it now recommends adding ‘s for plurals ending in s. I make an exception only for Jesus. One consistently hears “in Jesus’ name we pray…” (not “Je-zus-ses”)
    I once received, as a teacher gift, a little decorated chalkboard that read “Mrs. Romness’ classroom.” I had to find a white paint pen to change it to “Mrs. Romness’s classroom.” It doesn’t bother me a bit to see letter s three times in a row. The apostrophe s makes the word’s spelling in line with the way people say it.

  • Precise Edit

    I’m with CMOS on this one. It is consistent and follows common pronunciation. I don’t pay attention to the AP guide because I don’t write for a newspaper. Still, as you say, choose a style and stick with it.

  • Curtis

    Apostrophe rules may be some of the most complex we have. CMOS tried for consistency and more simplicity, but got clumsiness as an unintended consequence; for example, ‘waitresses’s.’ Say that out loud in front of a cop and he’ll run you in for being drunk.

    My fallback style guide is Garbl’s, because it’s free and online. They drop the ‘s for words ending in s. I think it’s a lot easier to read, but I also like the suggestion to spell it the way you pronounce it.

  • thebluebird11

    I’m having deja vu here…didn’t we just discuss this LOL
    I am not crazy about the -s’s construction (as I mentioned in the prior post); it looks a bit cluttered to me, and also I agree with Curtis (and, by extension, Nancy’s reference to the pronunciation and spelling of Jesus’) to spell things as pronounced. Of course spelling things as they are pronounced will generally get you in hot water, so I guess that in personal informal writing, do what you want, but in formal writing or for job purposes, use the style guide you’re given or pick one and stick with it, so that later nobody can come after you and ask what on earth possessed you to do what you did! “But it says so right here in my CMOS…”

  • venqax

    I am all in favor of consistency– always add an ‘S. That construction is self-contained so why should it make any difference what it is being attached to? OTOH, I do remember learning that certain biblical and other “classical” constructions like Jesus’ and Moses’ were exceptions that were never written with an additional S. Why was never made clear, it was just presented as idiomatic.

    But the appeals to pronunciation don’t ring true. As far as I know, whether or not you write, “the Stevens’s” or “the Stevens’ “ you are still supposed to say the Stevens-es. So yes, it should be in “Jesuses” name we pray, regardless of how we spell it.

    @Curtis: We are still talking generally about singular nouns. You would never write or say “waitresses’s”; as a plural it would always be waitresses’

  • venqax

    A related anecdotal note. American history books have traditionally referred to the uprising led by Daniel Shays in 1780s Massachusetts as Shays’ Rebellion. Just recently I have noticed newer books changing the reference to Shays’s Rebellion. Looked odd at first, but really makes sense when all of the above in the article is considered. Finally, change for the Good!

  • James Smith

    If anyone were paying attention to these things, it might have some good points. In reality, no one cares about grammar.

    Only today, I read an article by a young woman “about to graduate” and looking for a job. It was riddled with misspelled words, grammar errors, including the ones mentioned here, as well as ‘their’ for “they’re” and “to” for “too.”

    Even worse, I regularly see similar errors in sites such as BBC.com and other media sites. Apparently, even proof readers are a thing of the past, much less actual editors.

  • Paul K. Bisson

    I love the Penguin’s preference. Grammar with a dose of common sense!

  • loaner35

    venqax, I believe you were right the first time. The Chicago Manual specifies two names ending in s that take a final apostrophe only: Moses’ and Jesus’. But I believe there is a pattern here that can be extended to other nouns/names. For example, Francis, ISIS, Shays, etc. My devised rule is to add apostrophe to the final s in nouns/names to avoid the cacophony or awkwardness of three consecutive sibilants.

  • Janine

    which is correct : this is regarding the Moses family Surname: do i say “The Moses’s are a wonderful family”? or “The Moses’ are/is a wonderful family ” ? or is this just wrong altogether… please help with this….have a super debate going on about this.
    thanks

  • Charmaine

    How about on names like Janice or Nice. It’s Janice’s or can it also be Janice’ or Nice’?

  • Noreen

    To clarify, you’d write Jesus’s disciples, right?

  • Patrick

    I realize this is months after the fact, but…

    @Janine – neither of those are correct, you’re just trying to pluralize Moses in your examples. You don’t insert an apostrophe when making a noun into the plural form. So it would be “The Moseses are a great family.” I usually avoid the situation altogether and say something like, “The Moses family is great.”

  • Katie

    I prefer the pronunciation-based rule. I came here to try to find out whether I should write “Sanders’s” or “Sanders'”. I’m tending towards “Sanders'” as I wouldn’t pronounce it Sandersez.

  • Eric M. Bram

    The New York Times’s rule is particularly asinine: to add the extra ‘s’ when it’s not pronounced but omit it when it is pronounced. Penguin’s rule is the most logical: add the extra ‘s’ when it’s pronounced (Jesus’s teachings, Kansas’s rivers) and omit it when it’s not pronounced (Bernie Sanders’ campaign, Arkansas’ rivers). As the author says, rules are supposed to help the reader (or writer), and the Penguin rule is the only one that does, as well as being logically consistent.

  • Glyn Louk

    Thanks for all the helps and not not help’ because help does not end in s. If it did; helps’ But it doesn’t. If it was a proper name; Helps, then it is Helps’. I hope I said that right. I am trying to find my style without another telling me what it should be; thus; I am a freelance writer. When it comes to Jesus, and not avoiding the possessive nature style; Jesus’ I find myself avoiding when in doubt or don’t remember rule set for myself. That comes in time so with that, all that I read here was very helpful, and informative. I hope I can give me an A just for this. Without editing: 1; A. I gave myself an A then. If you do not take care of yourself nobody else will. God helps those who helps themselves. Again, thank you.

  • Michael Stolting

    Over two and one-half months since the last post.
    I strongly agree with Eric M. Bram. The Penguin rule is logically consistent and should help any reader or writer when confronted with this grammatical conundrum.
    Today, April 28, 2016, the New York Times had an opinion page title:
    “Bernie Sanders’s Legacy” I can’t really see how this is clear, logical, or grammatically correct. However I cede the argument to those who would cite CMOS and other sources that it can be used. I simply don’t find that use helpful. I’ll stick with the Penguin rule.

  • Ross Loram

    Great article. I just had to stop by and mention the mess people get in with my name, Ross. No matter which rule I have followed over the years, people will always tell me I should be using the other. I think I may point them to this page in future! 🙂

  • Marko

    What about a name like smukerss Jones. He is famous. Would it be smukerss’s? That seems like lots of sss to me. I’m 10

  • Mel

    I agree with Marko!

  • Paul M

    @Charmaine – exactly … and what about Joyce and Reese?

  • Scott T

    I realize that there’s some debate and/or confusion on the subject, because there are two conflicting schools of thought.

    One school that’s concerned with capturing the actual pronunciation in writing–which ends up looking pretty clunky for names like Ross’s. While the other school is to simplify writing by applying the rules more consistently–which gives names like Ross’ a more streamline appearance.

    I can understand the logic behind each approach–but my personal preference is definitely the latter of those two, because it’s much more aesthetically pleasing and easier to spot mistakes. I like being able to look at something and quickly see that it’s wrong, I shouldn’t have to spend any time thinking about the way something is pronunced or recalling weird biblical exceptions. If you’re in favor of using pronunciation as your guide, while I understand your logic, it’s clearly the inferior school of thought.

    Writing is visual, I don’t care how something is pronounced, because my ears don’t have to look at it–but my eyes do! Remember this IS English we’re discussing here–so there’s a million different words that we’ve taken from other languages, that the spelling of some words compared to their pronunciation can be nightmarishly illogical! You cannot build the foundation of a rule on such a shaky foundation and expect it to work–the fact that respite doesn’t rhyme with despite should be enough proof of my point.

    Then if you throw in people that can’t speak properly, how could you ever expect them to then follow grammatical rules in writing?!

    Which brings me to this little exchange I saw between @Charmaine and @Paul M. Seriously?! NONE of those words you idiots mentioned ends with an “S!” The reason you two are confused comes down to your either a terrible grasp on the alphabet or the worst reading comprehension I’ve ever seen!

    Also, @Charmaine who the hell is named “Nice?” Do you know someone named Janice that goes by Nice as their nickname or something–or is it pronounced like the city in France?

    Finally, @Paul M–I think you know damn well that it’s Reese’s, because he’s quite famous for his peanut butter cups and his “Pieces.”

  • Maeve Maddox

    Scott T,
    Profanity and personal attacks are not typical responses to the posts on this site. If you were feeling some unrelated personal pain when you wrote the comment, I hope things go better for you soon. If you are simply modeling the prevailing fashion of incivility to strangers, perhaps you could confine your comments to a site more accepting of that style. http://www.livescience.com/21837-internet-comments-angry.html

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