Possessives’ Apostrophes: Oh, What a Mess

If a reader checks the entry in Writer’s Web, our online handbook, the rules for using apostrophes seem simple enough, whenever a word ends in the letter S:

For words that are plural, such as “Joneses,” just add the mark.

Singular words are different. They take ‘s, as in “I ran into the boss’s car! What do I do?” or “Is that Thomas’s cat?”

Prediction: in 100 years’ time, the possessives of every word that ends in an S will take a simple apostrophe. That is, of course, if anyone still bothers to punctuate.

For now, however, the situation is hopelessly muddled. Our Writing Consultants try to adhere to the simple rules just given, yet in common usage and under “house rules” for various fields of study the matter of correct usage remains far from settled.  Consider this set of exceptions from the Grammar United site about the different house styles for AP and University of Chicago formats. Happy reading.

Back? Still sane?  Good. Now consider a few classic handbooks and the advice therein.

Diana Hacker, Rules for Writers (6th Ed.)

  • “If the noun is plural and ends in -s, add only an apostrophe”
  • “if the noun is singular and ends in -s or an s sound, add -‘s” (299).

Listen for the “S”? Why? I envision people reading their work aloud, no bad thing to do, to hear that “s” sound.

So let’s try the grandfather of all usage guides.

H.W. Fowler, Modern English Usage (2nd Ed. Sir Ernest Gowers, Ed.)

  • “It was formerly customary, when a word ended in -s, to write its possessive with an apostrophe but no additional s. . . . In verse, and in poetic or reverential contexts, this custom is retained. . . .But elsewhere we now usually add the s and the syllable” (466).

Recent handbooks do a better job.

Patricia T. O’Conner, Woe is I

  • “To indicate ownership, add ‘s to a singular noun or to a plural noun that does not end in s. . .” (151).
  • “If the word is plural and ends in s, add just the apostrophe” (38).

Bryan A. Garner, A Dictionary of American Usage

  • “For most plural possessives, use the ordinary plural form and add an apostrophe to the final s” (509).

While I remain reverential to the late Diana Hacker, whose books have so long had an honored place in writing classrooms,  I am going to come down on the side of the living. American English tends to evolve toward simplicity; in this case, the simpler usage does not remove any nuance from our language, and our Writing Consultants have dragons to slay in student work. They do not have time for this particular gnat, let alone deciding how an S sounds or if the context might be poetic or reverential.

Thus, unless a house style dictates otherwise, our Writing Center and I hold with Garner and O’Conner: add an apostrophe only to plural nouns that end in S. Possessives such as children’s hospital or men’s room are different and easy enough. The plurals do not end in an S.

So there we have it, for even the worst possessive obsessive’s grammar notes.

Mr. Fowler, rest in peace, please. And I am so pleased that you began a sentence with a conjunction, as I just did. Hah.



Making Pronouns Inclusive By Making Them Plural

Faculty members’ ideas vary on this, and our Writer’s Web page about pronoun usage provides the canny advice to ask a professor.

The author of this post is far from “politically correct” in many areas, but it has always made good rhetorical sense to avoid gendering language when an audience includes men and women.

In a pinch, I can rewrite any sentence to keep it both grammatically correct and inclusive. Every summer, we edit our handbook for Writing Consultants, and I am surprised that three female editors still kept in sentences like this one:

“Have the writer identify his main point by asking…” when it is easily broadened to “Have writers identify main points by asking.” This revision has the virtue of brevity.  Using “his or her” seems awkward.

I invite readers to come up with a sentence that cannot be revised by making it plural, save when an obvious gender-specific reference must be made.

Out, Damned (Gravy) Spot!

gravy spot

Image courtesy of “Make your Own Bar-B-Q Sign

Imagine an orator making a speech after a formal dinner, and imagine the speaker doing so very well. In the end, however, a large segment of the audience never recalls the content because of the large gravy spot on the speaker’s tie or blouse.

The speaker lost the audience. So what are the sorts of small errors that make otherwise sympathetic readers stop reading? A general list may be nigh impossible, but I will take a stab at what most perturbs academic readers of student prose. In doing so, I won’t focus on the fatal flaws of novice writing: sweeping generalizations, sentence fragments, lack of support for claims.

  • Confused words. One does not hear the difference, in speech, between the homonyms “here” and “hear,” but in writing, such gaffs make the writer look unprofessional, if not ignorant. See our Center’s list of “Commonly Confused Words.”
  • Overstatement. One study or source does not conclusive proof make, even if it is a valid source or study. Academics expect an abundance of supporting evidence, including admissions as to where more study may be needed or the limitations of a source. One might write “the 2011 study only considered effects on male college students at private universities” as a way to present such data.
  • Names. Student writers often use both first and last names for sources. It may be appropriate to cite a full name on first reference or for clarity when, say, two Smiths have been cited. But in most cases, in-text sources need only a last-name reference. A graver (gravier?) spot is to misspell the name of a source. I once had a reader of an article stop on page one when I did this, back in grad school. He said “after that I did not trust your prose any longer.” Ouch.
  • Format errors. APA, MLA, Chicago, and similar are not systems of fiendish torture. Writers use them to get work into a format needed for a particular journal or conference proceeding. I frequently see errors with a misplaced parenthesis, italics and double quotations both used for titles of sources, and the like. A first cousin of this problem can be adding blank lines between paragraphs, odd indents, and other mechanical gaffs. When in doubt…ask the prof!

These “spots” come to mind right away. Got more? Let me know in the comments section.

Fighting “Link Rot” in Webtexts

It just happened this week. I got an e-mail from a student doing research on the Beat Generation. She’d discovered a site I did a decade ago (or more) using a campus MOO, a text-only virtual world.  My “build” in the world was a writer’s space that resembled my vision of a 50s coffee shop in San Francisco’s North Beach neighborhood.

“RichMOOnd” is long gone but the site about it remains on our server and I guess Google picked it up. The links to Beat-Generation sites have long vanished or moved.

It’s a common problem, but as I read in The Chronicle of Higher Education, a group of scholarly publishers called CrossRef have been working for a decade to solve this problem.  Their plan will provide a sort of digital ISBN for publications.

While I love the idea, it won’t help self-published work (such as this blog). What can writers outside the CrossRef imprimatur do?  I claimed in a publication a few years ago that the hyperlink is the first new form of punctuation to come along in a while. It contains the sense of multiple conjunctions, depending on context. For the link above, it’s an “and” but in some cases it can be “and/but” or “and/or,” depending upon the context and the writer’s intention.

I teach students who are Google-happy to find an academic source for information, preferably one that is archived.  Even when a casual source offers well written content, will it still be there in a year? Students often don’t care, since they they their work to be ephemeral, but if a class project endures, employers and prospective employers might want to see the brilliance on display.

Thus I point students to libraries, government sites, and university pages for “hard links” to at least keep the “rot” minimal.

Language, Perception & Diversity


In Genesis 11, the building of the Tower of Babel is represented as the result of human organization facilitated by a single language.  The tower itself is an ideal representation of written language: made of many small parts carefully assembled into a structure that encourages further construction and reveals complexity through an increasingly elevated perspective developed over time. In the Biblical story, Jehovah’s fear is that humanity will be able to achieve whatever it imagines and this prompts him to prevent this by creating a confusion of many languages:
Genesis 11:5- 9  “And the LORD came down to see the city and the tower, which the children of men builded. And the LORD said, Behold, the people is one, and they have all one language; and this they begin to do: and now nothing will be restrained from them, which they have imagined to do. Go to, let us go down, and there confound their language, that they may not understand one another’s speech. So the LORD scattered them abroad from thence upon the face of all the earth: and they left off to build the city. Therefore is the name of it called Babel; because the LORD did there confound the language of all the earth: and from thence did the LORD scatter them abroad upon the face of all the earth.”

And we might think Jehovah was right. After all, look at what we’ve achieved without a single unifying language: from cuneiform to the Cassini-Huygens Mission, humanity has advanced through a shrinking galaxy of about 7000 languages. But it is a single, shared language that is represented in this story as the key to high human achievement and some believe this today.

I used to believe in the deliberate promotion of English as “the” global language until a student essay took issue with my assertion and made a good argument against it. In a nutshell, my student noted that diversity of language is important for maintaining the broadest possible understanding of our world. He argued that if we had a single global language like the 1500-word “Globish” being promoted today, even if other languages were permitted, the dominant language would naturally drown out and eventually replace them. Diversity of linguistic expression may be as important for human knowledge as biological diversity is for promoting maximum health in an ecosystem.

In The Wall Street Journal “Lost in Translation” by Lera Boroditsky reviews the question of linguistic diversity along with recent cognitive research that indicates a profound connection between language and perception. That our language shapes the way we understand the world seems obvious, but this tenet has been resisted and rejected over the years mostly, Boroditsky claims, due to the influence of Chomsky’s “universal grammar” theory which dismisses differences in languages as insignificant. Boroditsky’s article is full of interesting tidbits about linguistic differences such as various conceptions of “space, time and causality” that demonstrate how profoundly language can shape perception. To explore these differences can only expand our understanding, and so it behooves us to resist any homogenizing force that would eliminate or obscure them.

One linguist who challenges Chomsky’s theory is Dan Everett whose work with the Brazilian Piraha is outlined in “The Interpreter” by John Colapinto in The New Yorker. Unlike our number-obsessed culture with its innumerable systems of measurement, the Piraha only have three quantity words: one, two and many. It only takes a moment to imagine the vast cultural differences we would experience with such a counting system.

With a simple and loose “one, two, many” system of counting, we may have never been able to achieve the $35 laptop recently unveiled by the Indian government, but that may actually be a good thing. Such a heresy might need some extensive defense, so before I’m tied to the stake the short version of my concern is this: the $35 laptop could easily be the same kind of homogenizing force that a single global language would, even if it is used with a variety of languages. As much as I love my Mac and spend hours online, using a computer is just one of many ways of knowing and it has its limits.

The problems of homogenized thinking and experience are just one of several relevant ideas that Aldous Huxley explores in Brave New World where people are cloned, conditioned to hate reading, repeat simplistic slogans and fear nature and natural experience – sound familiar? We can get a glimpse of his insight into the question in chapter 8 in a scene where John Savage is being taught by old Mitsima, an elder on the reservation: ” ‘First of all,’ said Mitsima, taking a lump of wetted clay between his hands, ‘we make a little moon’…Slowly and unskillfully he imitated the old man’s delicate gestures…to fashion to give form, to feel his fingers gaining in skill and power – this gave him an extraordinary pleasure…they worked all day, and the day was filled with an intense, absorbing happiness.”

E-mail From a Deceased Attorney


image credit: Sabrina of Introverted Wife

Usually, I simply delete “scam” e-mails without a second thought. This one, however, got me reading. I wonder if Mr. DeSilva’s legal fee would be “your brain!”

Ah, what magic a simple apostrophe + s can work on a piece of writing.  It can even bring back the dead.

Attn: Dear

My name is Barrister Martinez De Silva , My aim of writing to you is to seek your consent and present your humble self as trustee of my deceased client estate and the bank had issued me several notifications on my capacity as the deceased Attorney to provide a legal representative thereof.

Moreover, the fact that there is no surviving relative or trustee to inherit the estate of my deceased client  which may spur the bank to classify the estate as unserviceable and legally uncollectible after statutory time limit imposed by the law.

If you are interested in my project please contact me immediately so that I can provide you with more details and procedures.


Barrister Martinez De Silva.

Postscript: The comments are flooding in to this site. All of them are spam linked to products (often pornographic or financial). The best so far, however, is quite innocent in its surrealism:

“I found your article, Richmond Writing » Blog Archive » blather and beyond, is one of the most interesting articles about face cream.”

Keep that spam coming! We get great laughs from you spammers!

e.g. i.e. etc. What to do?

Defending the Empire

A reader who uses our Writer’s Web online handbook contacted me concerning my use of “ex.” before an example of correct usage:

 I was of the belief that the correct way to abbreviate "example" was, in fact, e.g., (preceded and followed by a comma), then the example itself.

I realize that the English language is ever-evolving and Latin is considered by many a dead language, but there are a number of other credible sources that still show exempli gratia in its abbreviated form as being the correct expression to use when providing an example.

Thank you for an otherwise valuable resource for the finer points of written English.

Dear Reader:

Language is indeed changing; what is “correct” today will be forgotten tomorrow. No cohort of academics can stem the tide.  Language policies are, at best, like Hadrian’s Wall: it cut off intruders who managed to slip over, so their small bands could be easily wiped out.  On the safe side of the Wall lay the Roman civitates, unarmed and peacefully doing the business of Empire.

Yet no Wall–Hadrian’s included–could withstand a mass onslaught. That is, indeed, what new media, and before it, television and radio have done to formal English.

To your questions: for the sake of modernity, I’m going to retain “ex.” in my examples. For the sake of clarity, however, I won’t abbreviate it. All “ex.” instances will become “example” since the abbreviation might be misconstrued as “former.”

Let us be Stoic about this, as Marcus Aurelius did in the face of change. As he so wisely put it, “If you are distressed by anything external, the pain is not due to the thing itself but to your own estimate of it; and this you have the power to revoke at any moment.”

With this in mind, I teach writers to appeal to their readers. While a few well educated readers like yourself will be offended by my modern usage, in a few years no student I teach–at a selective liberal-arts university–will ever use “i.e.” or “e.g.” or “op cit.” or “idib.” except when writing a paper using the Chicago Manual of Style. Even that will be fleeting as fame and earthly treasures were in Aurelius’ estimation. I do not believe that the “paper” as we know it will even exist in a generation. Multimedia projects will replace it.

Ars Rhetorica will survive this change, as it did when Socrates lamented that his follower Phaedrus would recall nothing important during the arrival of that pesky new technology called writing. Had Socrates’ idea prevailed, would the Romans have plundered–I mean, appropriated–what they did from Athens’ rich heritage?

Take heart! Even as our old Roman stalwarts vanish into the linguistic sunset, the dogged centurion “Etc.” will, however, limp along, often misspelled “Ect.” Its original will remain as meaningful to modern readers (we bloggers do still read) as, exempli gratia, a Roman gladius would against a British Centurion tank.

Once I saw the need to hold some sort of line against language change. No longer, except when students veer into contemporary slang (much of it on the way to becoming formal English). Seeing the following changes in formal academic prose, for instance, I no longer penalize students for contractions or the use of “center around.” These both pained me at various times in my academic career. Now I’ve just moved along since, as Aurelius reminds us, “Every man’s life lies within the present; for the past is spent and done with, and the future is uncertain.”