Punctuation Mistakes #3: Possessive of S-Nouns Singular in Meaning

By Maeve Maddox

The rule that plural nouns ending in s form the possessive by adding only an apostrophe is well understood. For example:

the babies’ beds
the writers’ laptops
the witnesses’ testimony

The rule that nouns singular in meaning but ending in s also form the possessive by adding an apostrophe is perhaps not so well understood. For example:

mathematics’ rules
politics’ true meaning
Highland Hills’ late mayor
the United States’ role

Here are some examples from the Web that do not follow the rule:

Incorrect: The world beyond the United States’s borders can be conceptualized in any number of different ways. —Encyclopedia of American Foreign Policy, 2009.
Correct: The world beyond the United States’ borders can be conceptualized in any number of different ways.

Incorrect: Some of them have had weddings on the powder-soft sands of the Bahamas’s beaches. —Business site for wedding photographer.
Correct: Some of them have had weddings on the powder-soft sands of the Bahamas’ beaches.

Incorrect: The United States supports Belarus’s efforts to complete this commercial project as expeditiously as possible. —US government site.
Correct: The United States supports Belarus’ efforts to complete this commercial project as expeditiously as possible.

Incorrect: Cyprus’s parliament rejected its government’s bailout deal with the euro zone without a single vote in its favor. —The Wall Street Journal.
Correct: Cyprus’ parliament rejected its government’s bailout deal with the euro zone without a single vote in its favor.

Incorrect: It turns out that much of General Motors’s profits were derived from the sale of such parts through its Delphi division. —Environmental blog about electric car.
Correct: It turns out that much of General Motors’ profits were derived from the sale of such parts through its Delphi division.

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12 Responses to “Punctuation Mistakes #3: Possessive of S-Nouns Singular in Meaning”

  • James Jenneman

    It’s not nearly so cut and dried as all that. Growing up in the 90s, I was always taught to add the s after the apostrophe after a singular noun or name ending in s. (Granted, my parents, raised in the 60s, were taught the opposite.) I was frequently used as an example of how to construct the possessive of a name ending in s, since my name is James, so this one particularly stuck with me. APA and Strunk and White agree. I didn’t check any other style guides.

    I hate to differ from you, Maeve, and I frequently use your emails to settle debates, but in this case, I’m going to keep doing what I’ve been doing.

  • Catriona

    The suggested forms may be correct but I would never use them because (apart from being hard to punctuate correctly) the possessive form with an ‘s’ sounds too personal for these contexts. I would avoid apostrophes altogether with the more formal ‘of’ possessive form:
    – the rules of mathematics
    – the true meaning of politics
    – the late mayor of Highland Hills
    – the role of the United States

  • venqax

    The rule that nouns singular in meaning but ending in s also form the possessive by adding an apostrophe is perhaps not so well understood.

    I don’t think that is a rule. At least some of the examples don’t fit it. Belarus’s and Cyprus’s are no different from Canada’s endings. They are just proper nouns that happens to end in S, but the same ending applies. Belarus’s is not only okay, but preferable if consistency is one’s aim. Even double-S ending are not violating any rule– Congress’s mistakes are almost as common in political writing as in the real world. Likewise Mr. Ross’s proposal, Mr. Hess’s testimony. That said, leaving off the S following the apostrophe when forming the possessive of nouns ending in S is not wrong, either, but so far as I know is done as a matter of style and (subjective) aesthetics, not due to any rule of English.

  • Paige Gray

    What makes this issue particularly difficult is the variance between style guides.

  • Maeve

    Catriona,
    I agree that the prepositional phrase is the way to go with “mathematics” and “politics.”
    Venqax,
    It’s a rule in AP and Chicago. However, I’m with you on this one. It seems reasonable to follow the usual apostrophe rule for countries and such.
    Paige,
    Absent a particular style guide, it seems to me that writers are free to use their own judgment on some of these apostrophe puzzles.

    Here’s a relevant post:
    http://www.dailywritingtips.com/possessive-of-proper-names-ending-in-s/

  • Greg

    The very first rule of Elementary Usage in Strunk and White states that each of your ‘incorrect’ uses is, in fact, the preferred method. Is “Elements of Style” out of date?

  • Caitlin

    I agree wholeheartedly with venqax and Greg. I would go so far as to say that leaving the poessessive ‘s’ off a possessive singular noun that ends in ‘s’ is incorrect: a hypercorrection of the the appropriately elided ‘s’ of a plural possessive.

    Seeing congress’ for congresse’s grates as much as hearing ‘I’ in object position instead of ‘me’, another hypercorrection.

    However I concede to one style guide that stated, write as you would pronounce. If the possessive ‘s’ is pronounced, write it, if it is unpronounced, leave it off.

  • Phil Radler

    Maeve,
    I must disagree, at least when it comes to the Chicago Manual of Style. The 16th edition online specifies using the ‘s for singular terms (including proper nouns), precisely as demonstrated correctly (and amusingly) by the venerable Venqax. CMOS section 7.15 says “The possessive of most singular nouns is formed by adding an apostrophe and an s.” Pertinent examples include “the bass’s stripes” and (in 7.16) “Kansas’s legislature.” In a return to earlier practice, they retain that format even with names ending in an unpronounced “s,” as in “Albert Camus’s novels” (sec. 7.18).
    AP does drop the terminal “s,” but I would follow CMOS (and Venqax) over AP any week’s day.

  • venqax

    Thank you to my DWT comrades’ nods. Something I’ve noticed recently that is directly relevant to this question: In American history texts there seems to be a movement in recent years from referring to the incidents traditionally known as Shays’ Rebellion* to calling it Shays’s Rebellion. The latter is consistent with the notion that I and others forwarded that ‘s is still the proper termination for the possessive of an S-ending noun (Daniel Shays was the rebelling party, S on the end and all.) I have no idea what has brought this about, or if it is any more than a couple of publishers’ change in style. It still sounds odd to hear it pronounced as such “Shayses” rebellion because the other has been so entrenched, at least in my experience.

    On this (from Caitlin) “If the possessive ‘s’ is pronounced, write it, if it is unpronounced, leave it off.” I recall this issue from another post where a responder from the UK, as I recall, said when he was in (“at”, for him I suppose) school he was taught that even if written, “Mr Richards’ house” it should still be read allowed or pronounced, “Mr Richardses house.” I think he was taught right. Regardless of spelling, we probably should have been “calling” it Shays-es Rebellion all along.

    * For non-Americans, Shays’s Rebellion was a revolt after the American Revolution against the new government because it still couldn’t get the taxation thing right. It kept doing it!

  • venqax

    read aloud, of course. Geesh.

  • Maeve

    Dear All:
    Somewhere in this post I should have mentioned that my sources for this much-challenged “rule” (and some of the examples) are The AP Stylebook and The Chicago Manual of Style. Here’s the CMOS reference:
    7.19 Possessive of nouns plural in form, singular in meaning
    When the singular form of a noun ending in s is the same as the plural (i.e., the plural is uninflected), the possessives of both are formed by the addition of an apostrophe only. If ambiguity threatens, use “of” to avoid the possessive.

    politics’ true meaning
    economics’ forerunners
    this species’ first record (or, better, the first record of this species)

    The same rule applies when the name of a place or an organization or a publication (or the last element in the name) is a plural form ending in s, such as the United States, even though the entity is singular.

    the United States’ role in international law
    Highland Hills’ late mayor
    Callaway Gardens’ former curator
    the National Academy of Sciences’ new policy

  • Michael W. Perry

    I’m with you on this one Mauve.

    When I see a singular noun ending in ‘s’ that’s given the add-another-s treatment, it leaves me feeling like I’m expected to hiss like a snake.

    One ‘s’ with an apostrophe and the context is enough establish the meaning. That second ‘s’ merely makes the pronunciation clumsy, mental or out loud.

    In writing, keeping it simple is always a good move. “Electronic mail” should move from “e-mail” to a final “email” as quickly as the wide understanding the meaning makes possible.

    –Michael W. Perry, author of My Nights with Leukemia: Caring for Children with Cancer

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