Charles’s Pen and Jesus’ Name

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Commenting on “When to Form a Plural with an Apostrophe,” Luke S. raised another question:

What gripes me . . . is the misuse of the apostrophe to form the possessive without the extra ‘s’: “Charles’ pen” needs correction to “Charles’s pen.”

Ah, Luke, would it were so simple as that!

Even the Chicago Manual of Style, so authoritative in so many ways, makes this observation on the use of the apostrophe to form the possessive:

Since feelings on these matters sometimes run high, users of this manual may wish to modify or add to the exceptions.

When I taught in England, the textbook I used gave the rule that ancient names ending in -s took only an apostrophe, while modern names took apostrophe s: Achilles’ heel, Jesus’ name, St. James’s Park.

This rule was no doubt derived from Fowler:

It was formerly customary, when a word ended in -s to write its possessive with an apostrophe but no additional s, e.g. Mars’ hill, Venus’ Bath, Achilles’ thews. In verse, & in poetic or reverential contexts, this custom is retained. ..But elsewhere we now add the s & the syllable, Charles’s Wain, St James’s not St James’, Jones’s children. . .

After many paragraphs setting forth the correct use of using the apostrophe to form various possessives, the CMS offers an alternative:

Those uncomfortable with the rules, exceptions, and options outlined above may prefer the system, formerly more common, of simply omitting the possessive s on all words ending in s—hence “Dylan Thomas’ poetry,” “Maria Callas’ singing,” and “that business’ main concern.” Though easy to apply, that usage disregards pronunciation and thus seems unnatural to many.

This apostrophe business is felt to be of such import that there has even been legislation on it:

In February 2007 Arkansas historian Parker Westbrook successfully petitioned State Representative Steve Harrelson to settle once and for all that the correct possessive should not be Arkansas’ but Arkansas’s. Arkansas’s Apostrophe Act came into law in March 2007. –ABC News [USA], 6 March 2007.

Before you start making jokes about the priorities of the Arkansas legislature, know that no less august a body than the Supreme Court wrestled with apostrophe usage in 2006.

Justice Thomas’ opinion was that whenever a singular noun ends in “s,” an additional “s” should never be placed after the apostrophe. The dissenting opinion was that an “s” should always be added after the apostrophe when forming a singular possessive, regardless of whether the nonpossessive form already ends in “s.”

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10 thoughts on “Charles’s Pen and Jesus’ Name”

  1. I was taught to go by the number of sibilants in the word, to determine if the word took an apostrophe only, or the apostrophe+s.

    A sibilant on the front of the word is not counted, but otherwise, a word that has any sibilants “inside” the word, plus a sibilant on the end, uses the apostrophe only. Remember that x and z are sibilants, too. “Xerxes” is a good example. That middle x is a sibilant, so it’s Xerxes’ horse.

    Texas, Kansas, Aristophanes, Moses, and Jesus are other examples with a middle sibilants, plus a sibilant on the end.

    Moss, Zeus, James, and Sanchez each have one sibilant on the end—so we use the apostrophe+s. “Arkansas” (ark en saw) has only the middle sibilant—the “s” on the end is silent—so it takes the apostrophe+s.

  2. Maeve, we follow the same guidelines given by your former textbook. S-apostrophe-S for modern names, and S-apostrophe for ancient names.

    Thus: “This is Charles’s book,” but “That was Moses’ leadership.”

    Now, if only we could find a clear definition of “modern” and “ancient.”

  3. So it’s Charles’s book until medical science manages to make Charles live a couple of thousand years, and then it’s Charles’ book, if he hasn’t lost it by then? 🙂

    (I like Deborah’s explanation. I’ve never heard of any rule for it, but that one seems to fit my intuition.)

  4. My wife and I were actually taught that you don’t add an ‘s to words ending with an s throughout our school years. So — according to all of our English teachers — Jesus’s or James’s would be marked as incorrect. But Jesus’ or James’ was correct.

    But it’s not the first time I’ve been told that something I learned in school was wrong. 🙂

  5. Peter,
    Me too–Deborah’s explanation makes a lot of sense.

    Do you think that in a couple of thousand years English will still have apostrophes?

  6. I’m with Isaac on this one. In the UK we were taught to always use just the apostrophe.

    The extra ‘s’ was always incorrect in our English lessons.

  7. I was taught at primary school that when a possessive word ends in s, no matter whether it’s plural, singular, ancient or modern, it doesn’t get a further s after the apostrophe. As I got older, I noticed a wide range of usages in written work and so the argument still intrigues me.
    I now tend to write automatically without the second s and then wrestle with it when I’m reading it back.

  8. Why do so many make this possessive singular business so complicated, when a simple principle resolves the matter entirely? Namely,

    WRITE what you SAY.

    This is exactly what Fowler’s “Possessive puzzles” indicates, as well as Rule 1 in Strunk and White.

    If you SAY “In Jesus’ name”, without an extra “s” sound, then by all means WRITE that. This pronunciation was ubiquitous in churches in the US when I was young, and is still common today. But many today, especially if not reciting prayers or clerical clichés, say “In Jesus’s time”. No problem — if that’s what you SAY, then WRITE that.

    What makes no sense at all, and is as inexcusably jarring to thoughtful readers as would be “my father’ moustache” or “with Your Honor’ permission”, is someone’s writing “Elvis’ mother” when what they say is “Elvis’s mother”. I’ve been listening to pronunciations since before Elvis’s truck-driving job, and I have never once heard a single person utter the possessive of “Elvis” as two syllables.

    Indeed, I think we can attribute the growth of the deplorable habit of writing what scans as nonsense — in attempting slavishly to adhere to some imagined or mis-remembered “rule” —– to the tabloids’ headlines about Mr. Presley in the 50’s. No doubt hoping to attribute divinity to The King by emulating the then-common possessive form in phrases like “in Jesus’ name we pray”, the tabloids started writing “Elvis’ mother”. Then others too inept or lazy to use common sense followed suit, just as the same people write “between you and I” or “my wife and myself” because they think there’s some “rule” prohibiting the words “and me” in “proper English”. (Many school children who get sick of being “corrected” for natural usages like “Me and Johnny went to the movies” learn that avoiding “me and” or “and me” in favor of “and I” will keep the grammar teachers off their backs.)

    By the 70’s or 80’s the tabloids had come up with not only “Xerox’ president” but even “Liz’ 47th wedding”. If we SAY what’s WRITTEN there, we see how abysmally stupid that spelling is. Perhaps the tabloids are also now writing “Bush’ presidency” and will soon reach “your dog’ telepathic powers”. This raises a second principle for those cowed into believing that they must always obey some Authority instead of using their own common sense:

    Don’t side with the tabloids.

    It doesn’t take more than a few moments’ perusal to see that the Times of London, the New York Times, the Washington Post, and so on, never write nonsense like “the boss’ daughter”.

    But the simplest thing is just to WRITE what you SAY, which makes clear to your readers what you want to convey to them, which is surely what good writing is all about, isn’t it?

  9. Question: What does Je’sus mean with an apostrophe, and why would His name be written in this form?

  10. Pops Finn, I think you’re describing what Deborah is saying, but I still like your tirade — it’s justified. Anyways, now I can pray in Jesus’ name in peace. (I once met a girl who always prayed in Jesus’s name and I forever felt like, “Are we all doing it wrong? Why don’t we all say this?!”)

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