Hell’s bells! It’s Hades’ bells! (part 2)

My research suggests there’s enough confusion within each stylebook (APA, MLA, etc.), let alone between the stylebooks, to drive one mad. Maybe it’s just me, but I’d prefer to be driven mad by something more tragic than a misplaced apostrophe. So the only thing to do, I say, is to swear allegiance to one True Religion (stylebook) and dismiss others as apostates, infidels and/or sadly mistaken souls merrily writing their way to Hell.

I have chosen to enter the Church of the Associated Press.

This only clears up half of the confusion for me, however. As I noted, things can get complicated even within one particular stylebook. I’ll try to come down from the mountain, like Moses, with The Ten Commandments (concerning Apostrophe S).

1. Thou shall simply relax when the proper or common noun does not end in the letter s. In these cases, you simply use the Apostrophe S.

to Rabbi Goldman’s relief; to the rabbi’s relief

2.  Thou shall use only an apostrophe with a proper noun that ends with an s. 

Moses’ life story, Jesus’ good works

3. Thou shall keep an eye out for St. James, because St. James’s Palace is the exception to the First Commandment.

4.  Thou shall use only an apostrophe with a common noun that ends in the letter s and is plural.  

the churches’ holiday celebrations, the babies’ baptismal clothes, the boys’ basketball

5.  Thou shall use only an apostrophe with a common noun that ends in the letter s that looks plural but is singular in meaning. 

mathematics’ rules, measles’ impact

6.  Thou shall use only an apostrophe with a proper noun that is plural in form but is the formal names of a single entity.

The United States’ wealth, General Motors’ profits

7. Thou shall double-check what follows a singular common noun that ends with an s to see if the next word begins with an s. Only use an apostrophe if the next word begins with an s.

the hostess’s invitation, the hostess’ seat; the witness’s answer, the witness’ story

8. Thou shall not add an apostrophe to a word ending in s when it is used primarily in a descriptive sense — do not confuse possession with description.

citizens band radio (a band radio for citizens); a teachers college (a college for teachers); a writers group (a group for writers)

9. Thou shall ignore the Eighth Commandment and follow a particular organization’s practice when it comes to a descriptive word in their names. Some choose to follow the True Religion, but some choose to go their own way. For example:  Diners Club, National Governors Association … but Actors’ Equity, Ladies’ Home Journal

10. Thou shall ignore the Eighth Commandment and use an apostrophe to a word ending in s when it used in a descriptive sense in certain phrases.

a day’s pay; two weeks’ vacation; three days’ work

Thou shall follow the Golden Rules.

Just as most of the Judeo-Christian Ten Commandments can pretty much be boiled down to the Golden Rule (“Do Unto Others”), so can most of the AP Stylebook’s on Apostrophe S:

1. Do use Apostrophe S to show possession for a noun ending with any letter but s.

2. Do not use Apostrophe S to show possession for a noun ending with the letter s except when a singular common noun ending with the letter s is followed by word starting with a different letter.

And I’ll end it right there for Catastrophe … er, I mean, Apostrophe S.

— Nadine Siak


Hell’s bells! It’s Hades’ bells! (part 1)

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