Saturday, September 4, 2010

Apostrophes: Wrap your Big Egghead Around This One

This video from The Onion is absolutely hilarious. While I was howling with laughter, I couldn't help but notice a punctuation goof in this caption:
James' Mother Loved Him Despite Disability

Where does The Onion go wrong? It fails to use an apostrophe + s with a singular noun to show possession.

Quick rule:
  • To show possession with a singular noun, add apostrophe + s. The rule applies even if the noun already ends in s.
  • To show possession with a plural noun that ends in s, add an apostrophe. The ladies' handbags were piled on a chair.

Correction: James's Mother Loved Him Despite Disability


  1. Hey, kids, did you read the quick rule? DM me for extra credit!
    -Mrs. Mitts

  2. I feel I must point out that this post contradicts the Apostrophe Some, which states:

    "Apostrophe alone if the owner is a word that ends in S"

    You say the possessive form of "James" is "James's", while the song would have us believe that it is "James'"

    So, who are we supposed to believe?

  3. Whom are we supposed to believe? Me, of course. And if I'm not trustworthy enough, you can definitely trust Strunk & White's Elements of Style. In fact, they made it rule no. 1: "Form the possessive singular of nouns by adding 's. Follow this rule whatever the final consonant."

  4. Dear Snarky, much as I admire you I must say that here you are not 100% correct when you say that the other way (James') is incorrect. This is a style issue not a grammar rule per se. Not every style guide agrees with you. Therefore, this is just your preference.

    Keep up the good work. I love your blog and continue to share it with all my many word-loving friends, but I hope you will be more prescriptive than proscriptive in the future.

    From Wikipedia:
    "If the singular possessive is difficult or awkward to pronounce with an added sibilant, do not add an extra s; these exceptions are supported by The Guardian,[17] Emory University's writing center,[18] and The American Heritage Book of English Usage.[19] Such sources permit possessive singulars like these: Socrates' later suggestion; James's house, or James' house, depending on which pronunciation is intended."

  5. Weellll, I agree that this is a style issue so there's some flexibility. But it's less a matter of writer's choice than listener's ear. According to the AP Stylebook, the style issue comes into play only when the following word begins with "s." So you'd say "the witness's recollection of events" but "the witness' story." Likewise, it would be "James's mother" but "James' sister."

  6. And, Anonymous, you're REALLY not going to quote Wikipedia anymore, are you? :-)

  7. Yes indeed, I may REALLY, REALLY quote Wikipedia again, especially if the quote refers to other respectable references. But if you do not like Wikipedia, how about Grammar Girl has this to say on this particular issue: "'s a style issue and you can do it either way."

  8. I agree that it's a style issue; many grammar "rules" turn out to be style issues in the end. So in that respect, yes, you can do it either way. But if you're a professional writer or editor, you soon discover that all major publications (and even large organizations like Unicef or Yahoo) follow one of the respected style books (AP, Chicago Manual, Strunk & White, or a mix), and the big three happen to be on the same side of this issue.

    You can often find writers, teachers, and editors on both sides of a grammar issue, depending on where they've worked or where they've studied. Don't get me started on split infinitives and ending the sentence with a preposition. I recall a Grammar Girl post where a reader mentioned The Elements of Style in the comments and GG responded that she'd never heard of it. That doesn't mean she's wrong and I'm right -- just that we've had different influences. She gets that; it's why her headlines say that it's 'her take' on an issue. Admittedly, I've been a Strunk & White devotee since J school and that skews my own take on issues.

    These kinds of discussions happen all the time in magazines and newspapers. I've seen copy editors get in terrible arguments with line editors over where a comma should go. So it's okay to agree that you say potato, I say potahto. ;)

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