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.)

Possessed by possessives

Let’s review possessives. Keep in mind I’m a Chicago gal (as in Chicago Manual of Style) so I use their conventions. If you use a different style guide, you can find those guidelines in your manual.

Michael Jones owns a car. It’s Michael Jones’s car. (Add the ‘s. You say it when you speak, so type or write it, too.)

Michael and Sarah Jones own a house together. It’s the Joneses’ house. (Joneses is the plural of Jones. Add just an apostrophe, because plural possessives don’t take the additional S.

Michael’s work is Mr. Jones’s job. Sarah’s is Mrs. Jones’s job.

And I’ll bet they have separate toothbrushes, so there’s Michael’s and Sarah’s toothbrushes. BUT, they probably own the TV in the parlor jointly, so that’s Michael and Sarah’s TV. (Or Sarah and Michael’s TV. Let them sort that out.)

If they have a friend named Jesus Garcia, and he’s got a car too, that’s Jesus’s car. If you’re talking about the Biblical figure Jesus, you don’t add the S; that’s considered a “classical or historical name,” and those take just the apostrophe. Moses’ tent. Xerxes’ troops. Jesus’ birth.

And I’ll leave it at that. If you have questions, comment and I’ll respond as I have time. It’s copy-editing day here.

A market for farmers

I missed the #ACESchat on Twitter yesterday, but I caught up afterward and was happy to see all the discussion about apostrophes creeping in where they really don’t belong (but being accepted regardless). The two big examples discussed were “farmers/farmers’/farmer’s market” and “Veterans/Veterans’/Veteran’s Day.”

First off: If the VA says it’s “Veterans Day,” that’s what it is. They get to decide that, not us. We might be unhappy, but come on. It’s akin to telling someone their name is misspelled because you don’t like the variation they use. Get over it.

It’s a day to honor veterans. The day doesn’t belong to veterans, so there’s no reason for an apostrophe (singular OR plural possessive).

Of course that logic breaks down with “Mother’s Day” and “Father’s Day.” Those are days for honoring parents, but they’re possessive. Because English. Get over it. Check your preferred style guide and move on. Thanks.

Now, as for “farmers market”: Again, it doesn’t belong to the farmers. It’s there for the farmers to sell their produce, wares, whatever. Same as with [fill in the blank] union. Teamsters union. Service workers union. Teachers union. The union is there for the benefit of the workers. It doesn’t belong to them. No need for the possessive form. CMoS says “farmers’ market,” so that’s what I would use if I were being paid to conform to style. However, I personally prefer “farmers market” with no apostrophe. There’s a general moving away from apostrophe usage in this kind of construction, these days. Yay for living language and the attendant mechanics!

Then we come to “children’s hospital.” By the same logic, it should be “children hospital.” But that sounds wrong, looks wrong, and so on — because it’s never been styled that way, that I can find. It’s always plural possessive. The hospital doesn’t belong to the children; it’s for the use/benefit of the children. Like “animal hospital.” Why don’t we say “animals’ hospital” then? Because English. Suck it up, buttercup, check your stylebook, and move on.

The longer I’m in this business, the more strongly I consider one question above all the others: Will the reader know and understand what the words mean? Will the difference between “farmers’ market” and “farmers market” cause confusion? If the answer is “no,” I don’t worry about it. (Again, unless I’m being paid to conform to a specific style manual.)

 

I feel it necessary to thank the following for their input during the ACES chat on 12/3/14, since that chat and their thoughts inspired me to create this post: Mededitor, MANUAL OF HULK, and DriftingEarth.

Creating a “fusion usage”: Blending UK and US (mostly) seamlessly

This is a bit of a departure from my usual types of posts, but I think it’s worth writing about.

I’m in the middle of editing the final book in a wonderful fantasy series by a UK author. I’m in the US. I’ve read a lot of UK authors, though, both historical and modern, so I feel I have a fair grounding in what “sounds British” to American ears. (Thank you, all you UK authors along with Monty Python and “Masterpiece Theatre,” for your parts in my media education.)

In particular I want to focus on one structure: the infinitive verb form + [noun or pronoun, nominative or possessive] + [preposition for the US] + the participle verb form. Like this:

stop Kevin going to town

stop Kevin’s going to town

stop him going to town

stop his going to town

stop Kevin from going to town

stop him from going to town

Standard US usage says we should write one of the following:

stop Kevin’s going to town

stop his going to town

stop Kevin from going to town

stop him from going to town

 

Here’s where I note that the New Oxford Style Manual is precisely that: style. There is no grammar section, as presented in CMoS. Therefore, I have no printed UK grammar reference. What I have discerned from reading, listening, and editing is the following:

In the UK, one says or writes:

stop Kevin going to town

stop him going to town

I’m honestly not sure whether UK usage employs the [preposition + participle] structure. I’ve not seen it, but that means nothing aside from I’ve not seen it.

In order to achieve the “fusion usage” this particular author and I have worked toward, I’ve settled on splitting the difference when this structure appears. Rather than the dreaded “rewrite to avoid,” I simply do not use the prepositional version; I substitute the possessive form of the noun or pronoun and call it finished.

The author and I have discussed this from the very first book. It seems to us that this option maintains most of the sound of the UK usage, and adheres to one of the accepted US forms. We keep the UK spellings, but phrasing that stops a US reader cold is something we work to avoid.

No one’s complained so far.

In days of . . . you’re? No . . . your? Nope . . .

Yore.

Here’s another by-request post, the subject of which you’ve already guessed. (I’m sure of this. You’re smart people.) I know I did a usage tip about this within the last year, but it’s been lost to the sands of time (and Google), so . . . once more into the breach, dear friends.

Your. You’re. Yore. Two of those are personal pronouns. One is a noun. (And, honestly, I don’t see the noun confused for the pronouns very often, myself — but the issue was brought up, so I’ll discuss it. That’s how I roll.)

Your is the second-person singular and plural possessive pronoun. “Watch your step.” It denotes a thing belonging to “you,” whether “you” is one person or many people. (I’ve written before about “thee/thou” and “ye.” Modern English has no separate second-person singular pronoun. “Thee/thou” went out of style. It’s all you, as they say.)

You’re is the contraction for “you are.” (I know you all know this, too, but I’m something of a completist so I’m saying it all again.) The apostrophe replaces the “a” from “are.” When you see an apostrophe, you can be sure the word is either a possessive or a contraction. (There are a very few exceptions to this, but that’s a different post, I think. I don’t want to muddy the waters here.)

Yore is a noun meaning  “time past and especially long past.” (Thank you, Merriam-Webster’s Online Dictionary.) Nowadays it’s often used in a mock-nostalgic sense. It is also noted as being “chiefly literary.” In other words, you aren’t likely to find it in an article in Time Magazine. Interestingly, yore was an adverb in Middle English, but a noun in Old English. I’ll let you poke around on the internet and find out the details for yourselves if you’re so inclined.

I’ll also note here that I’ve never gotten a request about your/you’re that included “yore” from a US writer — only from those in the UK or Canada (so far). I’m not sure what that says, aside from “US writers do not appear to be prone to using the word yore.”

In days of yore, your daily bread was made from grain you grew yourself. You’re in a much better position today, I dare say.

Style manuals are your friends. Honestly, they are.

It occurs to me that many of the questions writers ask in editorial forums (such as the Writer’s Discussion Group at G+) could be answered by a little research. I’m not saying it’s not good to ask; I’m saying that research is a highly useful skill, and writers would do well to practice it. When you want to know how to spell a word, you use a dictionary. (Maybe you even use a misspeller’s dictionary, if you have a serious problem. That’s what they’re for, after all.) When you have a question about how your text should appear, you consult a style manual (or two, or three). If you’re working “to spec” there’s no question about which manual you should use. You use the one you’re told to use, period.

How many spaces after terminal punctuation? Do I use single quotes or double for direct speech? How do I form a possessive of a name that ends in -s?  Are names of restaurants italicized, or enclosed in quotation marks (or perhaps something different from either of those)? What’s the difference between an em dash and an en dash, and how are they used? Should there be terminal punctuation after items in a bulleted list? Should I use “noon” and “midnight,” or “12 p.m.” and “12 a.m.?” And are there periods in those abbreviations, or are they set in small capitals? What about a range of times? Do I have to put the abbreviation after each time, or only the last one?

All excellent questions, and all answered by any one of the major style guides out there. Used copies are readily available if you don’t want to shell out for a new one. If you’re writing fiction, chances are you’ll lean toward CMoS (the Chicago Manual of Style). That might be your best option for nonfiction, unless that nonfiction is medical in nature; then perhaps you’d want to look at the AMA (the American Medical Association) style manual. If you’re writing for the education field, it’s a good bet that you’ll need to check the Modern Language Association’s guidelines (MLA). And, if you’re doing general research work in an academic setting, chances are good you’ll need an APA (American Psychological Association) style manual.

My “day job” consists of copyediting and proofreading content for social media sites for a national supermarket chain and its subsidiaries. I use the AP (Associated Press) manual for that, per the company standards. (AP is used for many news outlets; it’s a very spare style, focused on getting the maximum information into the minimum space.) The company I work for also has a house style guide for the things that AP doesn’t cover, and that document is constantly undergoing revisions (mostly because the two of us who freelance for them ask questions and push for answers, to make it easier on both their in-house staff writers and us). This guide covers not only the social media posts, but also Powerpoint presentations for clients, internal reports, and blog entries. What kind of revisions, you ask? Just this week, it was determined that the word “Associate” should always appear with an initial capital letter when it refers to someone employed by one of the companies (as in “Ask one of our friendly Associates about the rewards card program!”). A couple of months ago, the team decided that tweets should always use an ampersand (&) instead of the word “and,” but should never use “w/” instead of the word “with.” AP style says lists should use dashes, not bullets; the house guidelines supercede the AP version and say always use bullets.

You’ll need to do a little research before you do your research, you see, but I promise you it’ll be worth it in the long run. And if you’re a freelance editor, don’t be surprised if you wind up with a copy of each one on your reference shelf. The only ones I’ve never had call to use are AMA and MLA, but that’s just the luck of the draw. I even went so far as to get a copy of The New Oxford Style Manual for working with British writers, just in case. (I’ve become convinced that British writers can do pretty much whatever they please, as long as they’re consistent. I’m still happy I have that book, though. Makes a great paperweight.)