This may seem like a silly subject to write about, but I must admit that I’ve had trouble using the apostrophe appropriately in the past, especially regarding its use with proper nouns that end in “s”.
It’s become a personal dilemma for me since the main character in a couple of my novels is named Jon Masters. I feel as though, as I write about murder, I’m also murdering the English language at times.
How do I refer to Jon’s wife in my writing? Is she Jon Masters’ wife or is she Jon Masters’s wife? Well, I looked up the accepted method to depict such a possessive proper noun and my confusion worsened. The Associated Press Stylebook recommends using just an apostrophe after the name—in this case, Masters’. But other writing experts recommend adding the apostrophe PLUS an “s” after the name—as in Masters’s.
A noted e-newsletter on English grammar, called GrammarBook.com, devoted a blog to the subject and stated that the rule to be followed is this: “Forget the apostrophe until you write out the entire word. A correct possessive apostrophe can never entangle itself within any word.”
So if I used this rule from Jane Straus’s GrammarBook newsletter, then I could be assured that “Jon Masters’s wife” would be the correct way to write that phrase! But interestingly, my computer’s spell check underlines this spelling in red—indicating that I made an error. (Sigh!)
Does this mean that The Associated Press Stylebook is correct and a noted English grammar expert is wrong? Further research findings (noted here and here) give conflicting rules. One states that only an apostrophe is needed after a word that ends in “s” to show the possessive, while another states that an apostrophe PLUS an “s” is needed after a word already ending in “s” when writing a possessive noun. (More Sighs!!)
As I decide which is correct, another thought comes to mind. What is the proper way to write the possessive when the proper noun is plural—for instance, when referring to both Jon Masters and his wife, Gwen?
Well, the rules are quite clear when it comes to the plural of a proper name ending with an “s”. The rule states that you always use an “es” after the “s”—in this case, I would refer to the married couple as the Masterses. That’s a mouthful to say the least, but it is correct.
And how would I write the possessive of that word? Would it be the Masterses’ house or the Masterses’s house? Again, when using the plural of a possessive proper noun ending in “s”, the rules are quite clear also. The rule states that one adds only an apostrophe after the existing “s” in a proper noun that is also plural and ends in “s”—in this case, Jon and Gwen’s house would be written as the Masterses’ house. Although correct, that phrasing does sound rather awkward. When all is said and done, I might circumvent this rule entirely and instead phrase it as “the house of Jon and Gwen Masters.” (Another Sigh, but this time with a Smile!)
While there are some discrepancies between The Associated Press guidelines and the Chicago Manual of Style, modern English literature seems to adhere to three specific guidelines for apostrophes with possessive proper nouns: If the noun is singular, add an apostrophe before the “s”—as in Jon’s. If the noun is singular but ends in “s”, also add an apostrophe before the “s”—as in Jon Masters’s. If the noun is plural and ends in “s”, just add an apostrophe—as in the Masteres’ house.
Although I have these rules firmly in command now and will apply them in the editing of my work, I’ll leave you with one disclaimer: these rules don’t necessarily apply to my friends across the pond, over our northern border, those Down Under or writers in other nations that use the English language as their written word.
My research tells me that I can only safely say that these rules seem to apply to writers within the borders of the United States who are writing for a domestic audience.
Thoughts? Comments? I’d love to hear them!
Ain’t English, in all its variants, grand? Nice summary of an arcane problem.
Thanks, Suzy. I’ve heard it said that it isn’t proper English unless it’s confusing! That certainly applies to possessive nouns. 🙂
James, funnily enough I have been looking into this myself, as a bunch of characters in my current WIP have names in archaic Greek – they live around 1200BC and a lot of male names of that kind end in -s. Of course in their original language the names would change in more complex ways for parts of speech so sorting out a mere apostrophe should be easy!
Anyway, over here in England the rule is simply “if it’s singular, you have s’s, if it’s plural, you just have s’.” So the name Antos would go to Antos’s but the plural noun clans would go to clans’.
Which is the same as you found in your own research!
Richard, I have a good friend who is writing a novel set in ancient Greece and I had the pleasure of editing some of her chapters. Oh my, those names – they made my head ache! The best of luck with your WIP and thanks for the info regarding the rules followed in England for possessive nouns. All the best to you!
It did occur to me after reading some of the other comments that you could make life simpler for yourself by choosing the name Jon Master rather than Jon Masters! For me it was an unexpected problem and sadly one which I don’t think I can avoid….
Aargh. I remember some very confusing English classes on the subject. If you read a sentence out loud and it sounds awkward, like “Masterses’,” then from a readability standpoint it is probably wrong even if it is right according to an expert. I think you never want your reader tripping over a construct and interrupting your story’s flow. Since someone will tell you you are wrong no matter what you do, I suggest you make it easy to read.
Good advice for the practical writer and good advice for this writer to follow. Thanks, Walt!
I got a headache just reading this one Jim! LOL! You are talking to the comma queen. I figure my editor will tell what’s wrong or right. But I’ll go with Walt’s comment. Go with what’s easy to read. I was taught that most readers (about 80 %) read at the eight grade level. Make it easy reading Jim…
Yes, I agree with you and Walt, Diane – keep it simple and easy to read/follow. All the best to you!
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Richard Rydon, Fiction Writer says.
Yes, you did murder English spelling in your very first sentence where you used “it’s” instead of “its”!
Although the meaning is obvious, anyway, “it’s” is reserved for the abbreviation of “it is” not the possessive s.
It’s an exception.
I enjoyed your article, nevertheless.
Hmmm, although I reread my blogs several times before posting and have my wife read them also before posting, “its” certainly did slip through. You should see how red-faced I am now. Thanks for catching the error, Richard, and rest assured that the misstep has been quickly corrected. All the best to you!
I must admit I had noticed it but assumed it was a cunningly crafted play on the blog contents!
LOL – Although I must admit that I tried to think of a way to make it seem intended with my initial reply to Richard Rydon, I could find no clever way to pass it off as intentional. Thanks for your comments…and kinds words. All the best!