“Don’t Let the Rules Make You Write Something Awkward or Ugly”

From a column by Roy Peter Clark of Poynter on a debate over apostrophes:

What really matters to my readers is punctuation and AP style. There was that issue of the Oxford comma, you may remember. Then the semicolon emerged from its cage, seeking attention. The dash made a dash for the front of the stage.

So, desperate for readers and attention, I give you the apostrophe, the possessive and, yes, AP Style. A firestorm of controversy—a cliché I have condemned countless times—has been sparked by the AP’s announcement that it is considering a change in the way we use the possessive apostrophe. . . .

My take on the topic appears on page 82 of my book “The Glamour of Grammar” (which has 11 chapters on punctuation!). This is part of what I had to say:

Language scholars have a word for the sound made by the letter s. They call it a sibilant, which is derived from the Latin word meaning “to hiss.”

E.B. White once wrote of Florida: “The south is the land of the sustained sibilant. Everywhere, for the appreciative visitor, the letter ‘s’ insinuates itself in the scene: in the sound of the sea and sand, in the singing shell, in the heat of sun and sky, in the sultriness of the gentle hours, in the siesta, in the stir of birds and insects.”

Most language experts advise writers to ignore restrictions that require you to write or say something awkward or ugly, especially something that offends the ear. In this case, let us match punctuation to speech. Let your ear help govern the possessive apostrophe. As long as the snake isn’t swallowing its tongue, let the reptile hiss. . . .

In summary:

  • To form a possessive singular, add an ’s: “Sadie’s ring.”
  • To form a possessive plural, in most cases, add an apostrophe after the s: “The Puritans’ journey.”
  • If the plural of a noun does not end in s, add an ’s to form the possessive: “The children’s field trip.”
  • If a proper noun (a name) ends in an s, add ’s in most cases, but let your ear guide you through the tough ones: “Archimedes’ experiment.”
  • In some 50/50 cases, read it aloud in context, then choose, or flip a coin: “Jesus’ teachings” or “Jesus’s teachings.”

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