Compassion International

Tuesday, January 19, 2016

Possessive Names: The Oddity of s's vs s'

Are there any other writers out there who loathe using character names that end in s?"

Not that there aren't dozens of beautiful names with a trailing s. I like Atticus, and I'm also quite fond of my own. And if you're attempting to write about anything concerning the Roman Empire, you can't avoid them: Justus, Ambrosius, Gluteus Maximus. Okay, maybe not the last one. But you get the idea.

Yet one long-standing argument, along with a recent change of stance by the Chicago Manual of Style (CMOS), precludes writers from using such names without suffering a tremendous headache.

Perhaps, by now, you know what I speak of (not "of what I speak," but that's a whole other tirade). Names that end in s have peculiar plural and possessive forms. You've come across this conundrum, I'm sure: "Is that Atticus's book?" or "I'd like to introduce the Williamses."

And it gets worse. What happens when you need to use the plural possessive? "My horse is stabled at the Buckleses's farm."

Oh dear. Suddenly we all sound like cave-dwelling, riddle-loving creatures from Tolkien's Lord of the Rings

"Filthy Bagginses!"

The other option is to remove the extraneous s or es. Yes, this is less accurate from a grammarian's point of view, but it sounds much more natural to our ears. Let's try it again: "Is that James' book?" or "I'd like to introduce the Williams," and especially "My horse is stabled at the Buckles' farm."

Ah. That's better. I no longer feel like the Disney version of Kaa from Kipling's The Jungle Book.

Yes, the above is less accurate if you dig deep. But we don't dig deep in normal conversation, and still the message we intended to convey is unmistakable—thanks to context in speech and the signal of the apostrophe in writing. And a writer will add "family" or "brothers" to "Williams" before making it "Williamses."

I, for one, would rather ignore CMOS' change (or "CMOS's change" by their new convention) and return to their previous preference. 
I think we'd all be more comfortable—with the possible exemption of this guy . . . 

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