An apostrophic dilemma

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.)

This Post Has 7 Comments

  1. Jeremy Hager

    I’m so anal retentive about this issue that I pride myself on being one of those annoying people who points it out in magazines.

    I always thought that one thing we should strive for, though it is a rarity in English (consider “through” and “rough”), is consistency. If all singular nouns not ending in s are followed with an apostrophe s, it seems reasonable that those ending in s should as well. Furthermore, we don’t vocalize, for example, the possessive form of Jess, by saying “‘Jess’ law book.” More common (I’d venture so far as to say MOST common) would be “‘Jesses’ law book” (keep in mind I’m just going with how the word SOUNDS). That said, it makes sense, for consistency’s sake, that we mimic this difference in the written form. Jess should be Jess’s, and not Jess’. I was also under the impression that renowned, historical nouns that ended with s were exempt from this rule, i.e. Jesus’, Augustus’, and I’ve seen the example of Congress’. That’s Jeremy apostrophe s two cents.

  2. Tom Kamenick

    “You will usually be correct by paying attention to whether you pronounce an additional -s sound, or not, at the end of the word.”

    I’ve always thought this is the least helpful “rule” I’ve ever run across. There’s no rule about whether you pronounce an additional s, so this “rule” doesn’t help the decision be any less arbitrary.

  3. Jessica E. Slavin

    Hmm. Well, for instances, let’s take Jones. If you wanted to say, the house that belongs to the Jones family, you’d say, “the Jones’s house,” right? And if you wanted to refer to two houses that belong to two different Jones families, you’d say “the Joneses’ houses,” not “the Joneses’s houses,” right?

    I think, actually, that this pronunciation issues is what the traditional rule regarding the punctuation of plural possessives) is trying to help you with (more than punctuation).

    But then, I am often wrong.

  4. Jessica E. Slavin

    Sheesh, and I meant “the issue,” and the unmatched parentheses should be paired with one before “regarding.”

    Also, I wanted to add one more point–doesn’t it make some sense to have the rule regarding whether to add an -s correspond to pronunciation, since even the ridiculous rules of English spelling are meant to, at least in large part, signal how to pronounce the written words?

  5. Bruce Boyden

    I prefer the additional “s,” but if I was on the Court, I’d prefer consistency even more.

  6. DM Shell

    The same has become true regarding acronyms and abbreviations.
    It used to be clear that an acronym had to be a “word” (formed by an abbreviation).
    Now it seems that the distinction has been lost and abbreviations are considered to be acronyms.
    I too am one of those annoying people who continues to point out the difference (in this case).

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