A punctuation debate made the National Law Journal this week. The current Supreme Court reporter of decisions, Frank Wagner, is retiring at the end of this month. His NLJ interview included the following discussion of differences of opinion among Supreme Court Justices regarding the use of apostrophes with plural possessives.
I wouldn’t call it a “disagreement,” just a difference in preferences. And I doubt it needs to be resolved, at least at the present. When I came to the Court in 1987, the prevailing rule for a regular plural possessive was simply to add an apostrophe after the word’s final “s.” For example, “Congress’.” Over the years, however, four justices informed my office they preferred to add another “s” following the word’s final s-apostrophe — e.g., “Congress’s” — albeit each in slightly differing circumstances. The justices are all highly capable legal writers committed to maintaining their own individual writing styles. Thus, while we try to maintain a high degree of consistency as to style in the U.S. Reports, the Reporter’s Office has always kept a list, and has attempted to assure the incorporation, of each justice’s individual style preferences in his or her opinions. I have monitored the plural-possessives situation over the years, but because a majority of the Court has always continued to follow the original prevailing rule — which I prefer — I have never felt the need to poll the Court to try to achieve common ground. There seems even less reason to do so now, since only three of the four dissenters from the prevailing view are still on the Court.
As Legal Writing Prof blog points out, this interview should demonstrate to students that they must be prepared for grammar and punctuation sticklers at all levels.
My own view on this particular punctuation dilemma is that if you know the alternatives well enough to debate them intelligently, whichever one you prefer is fine by me. You will usually be correct by paying attention to whether you pronounce an additional -s sound, or not, at the end of the word.
(Note: It is somewhat confusing that the example Wagner gives regarding a “plural possessive” was written as a singular possessive. I.e., “Congresses” (not Congress) is the plural of Congress.)