Back to basics: forming possessives of proper nouns ending in -s

For whatever reason, people seem to confuse (and maybe conflate) forming possessives of plurals with forming possessives of proper nouns ending in -s. I’m hoping to untangle the concepts for them with these last two posts (today’s and the previous one).

First, what’s a proper noun? Well, the easiest example is your own name. Karen is a proper noun. Fred is a proper noun. Oktober is a proper noun. How do we make those into possessives?

Simple. Add an apostrophe and an S.

Karen’s

Fred’s

Oktober’s

You won’t find any contradictions in any style guide to that rule. It’s super simple.

It gets sticky, though, if the proper noun ends in an S.

Which is right: James’, or James’s?

Both. There’s not a damn thing wrong with either version. The Chicago Manual of Style has adopted what is to me a very logical guide: if you say it, write it. We say the last S in “James’s,” so that’s what CMoS calls for.

If the name ends in an -eez sound, you also use an apostrophe and an S. “Xerxes’s troops.”

If the name ends in a silent S, you still use the apostrophe and the S, because you’ll pronounce that final S. “Descartes’s hypothesis”

The former guideline about “historical names” is no longer included as of the 17th edition. (It might have gone away in the 16th, but I don’t have that handy.)

They do provide an alternative guideline, which omits the S from all names ending in an S. However, they also restate their guidance that if it’s pronounced, it should be written, and therefore this alternative is “therefore not recommended.”

Y’all should know by now that I’m a CMoS gal. Of course, if you’re being paid to use AP, or APA, or MLA, or what have you, that’s whose guidance you should be following on this matter. In any case, I strongly recommend ditching whatever you think you remember from your salad days (mine were mostly made with rancid Miracle Whip) and that English teacher who smelled either of Shalimar or English Leather (or, if you were really unlucky, Wind Song or Hai Karate), getting yourself an up-to-date style manual  or a copy of June Casagrande’s The best punctuation book, period. (When you see it,l you’ll understand why I styled it that way and not the traditional all-italic way.)  In all honesty, I reference my copy of that more than I do CMoS because it’s much easier to find what I’m after. (The really esoteric stuff I still use CMoS for, but not the everyday stuff.)

I hope this has helped unmuddy the waters. By all means, if you have questions, leave a comment or hit me up on Twitter. I do my best to answer in a timely manner.

Back to basics: forming plural possessives

Every time I think it’s useless to rehash basic GUMmy stuff, something happens to prove me wrong. This time it was seeing an incorrectly formed plural possessive of a proper noun in a published children’s book.

I saw red.

So, I’m writing what’s sure to become the first in an informal series on the basics. Welcome, and I hope you enjoy the ride.

First, let’s talk about plural formation. There are two basic types: regular and irregular. A regular plural simply adds -s or -es to the singular form, like this:

house/houses

car/cars

An irregular plural sometimes changes the form of the noun, like this:

goose/geese

mouse/mice

die/dice

But sometimes, it doesn’t change at all.

deer/deer

moose/moose

Now, what if we need to form a possessive of those plurals?

Well, for the regularly formed plurals, we only have to add an apostrophe. That’s how it’s done. Honest. Just an apostrophe.

houses’ (as in “All those houses’ exteriors will be repainted according to the HOA’s specifications”)

cars’ (as in “Their cars’ bumpers were torn off in the collision”)

But for the irregularly formed plurals, we need to add an apostrophe and an S.

geese’s (as in “The geese’s diet was organic”)

mice’s (as in “The mice’s blood was sampled every six hours”)

dice’s (as in “The dice’s results were suspect”)

deer’s (as in “The three deer’s hides were tanned behind the cabin”)

moose’s (as in “I heard those moose’s bellows from all the way down by the river”)

Now, what about a proper term, like Taino? That’s the name of the indigenous people Columbus met when he landed in 1492. In the free version of the online Merriam-Webster dictionary, it states that the plural is either “Taino” or “Tainos.” The first one’s irregular (the form doesn’t change at all), and the second is regular (just adding an S). Form the possessives according to the rules: Taino’s OR Tainos’. Context helps the reader know when “Taino’s” is plural. (And if it doesn’t, it should.)

Similarly, if your surname is Dickens, a number of you are the Dickenses. Together, all of you live in the Dickenses’ house. (Sure, you can say “there’s the Dickens house,” but the meaning’s not the same, and it totally misses the point of this post.) It’s a regular plural that adds -es to the singular form, so you use only an apostrophe to form the plural possessive. We’re the Conlins. Our house is the Conlins’ house. Regularly formed plural takes only an apostrophe.

There are no stylistic variations for forming plural possessives. This isn’t a guideline; it’s a rule.

There you have the basics. Remember, this is only for plural possessives. If we need a refresher on forming possessives of proper names like “James,” I’ll cover that in a separate post. (Hint: there are stylistic variations for forming proper singular possessives.)