I don’t recall when it became so complicated. When I was a kid, if you possessed something, you slapped an apostrophe at the end, followed by the letter s. Bam! You were good to go …
I guess as I grew up, so did my vocabulary and the complexity of what I wished to convey with the written word. At some point, I realized the Apostrophe S wasn’t the be-all and end-all when it came to signifying possession. Sometimes you dropped the letter s; sometimes you doubled up with the letter s. The thing is — it has never been clear to me when I’m supposed to kick the letter to the curb, and when I’m supposed to keep it. Was it the length of the word that was important? Whether it was a proper noun? Whether it was followed by a word beginning with the letter s?
Whether I was wearing red socks that day while the editor was wearing green?
I decided to finally nail this piece of punctuation down, but the matter is more complicated than I thought. Different stylebooks say different things. Putting aside the AP Stylebook for a moment, you’ll find:
Strunk & White and the current Chicago Manual of Style (CMS) prefer using the Apostrophe S for all uses.
[I can live with that.]
The Modern Language Association (MLA) call for only the apostrophe when the noun ends in s.
[You want to be that way? Fine. I can deal.]
But other guides provide more convoluted advice, and get downright wonky when it comes to whether the noun in question ends in s.
The New York Times and Boston Globe use Apostrophe S when the final s is not sibilant. In other words, use Apostrophe S if the word doesn’t end in an s (hisssssing) sound; use just the apostrophe if the words ends in an s that sounds … well, like an s. It would be “Arkansas’s way of doing things” but “Kansas’ other way of doing things.”
The American Psychological Association (APA) rule is to “use an apostrophe only with the singular form of names ending in unpronounced s.” Therefore, it would be “Descartes’ philosophy” as opposed to “Socrates’s philosophy.” Or, back to the States: “Arkansas’ way of doing things” but “Kansas’s other way of doing things.”
[That’s just crazy talk!]
This is so confusing that, in 2006, the Legal Times turned to the United States Supreme Court for some sort of guidance. In the case of Kansas vs. Marsh, the Legal Times found seven justices preferred to drop the s (Kansas’) in their opinions, while two used the ole Apostrophe S (Kansas’s).
In 2007, the Arkansas state legislature went so far as to debate a law that would make Apostrophe S the official state possessive (Arkansas’s)!
This is about as clear as mud. So, I’m just going to nod pleasantly whenever someone starts to tell me that, according to the MLA, I’m supposed to have an Apostrophe S … or someone hisses that my Apostrophe S is incorrect because, according to the New York Times … nod pleasantly, reach for my AP Stylebook, and beat them senseless with it.
In other words: my next posting will focus on the AP answer to all of this.
— Nadine Siak