An apostrophe question that is slightly different, I swear.
January 23, 2009 8:01 AM   Subscribe

Punctuation question. Gentle reader - what connotation do you get from seeing Jesus' or Jesus's OR Niklas' or Niklas's? (Possessives with or without the 's' for nouns ending in 's'.)

My googling and previous ask-mes tells me either can be correct. But I am wondering if there is a different connotation with or without the 's'. (Is one considered British, or colloquial, or more American etc.?)
posted by typewriter to Writing & Language (43 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
I don't know if this is exactly a "connotation", but I recently learned that, when reading out loud, I say Jesus' and Jesus's exactly the same way. But my husband, along with several friends, do not say them the same way. I think this is distracting when they read out loud because it's ambiguous. But, YMMV.
posted by dpx.mfx at 8:07 AM on January 23, 2009

I'm from the UK, my name ends in s, and I have always written it using the Jesus' form - it's the way I was taught. I've always thought that those writing Jesus's either weren't taught correctly or have reverted to using it since Jesus' looks awkward and seems less natural. I don't know which is more correct, but both are understandable to the reader and both seem widely used so it's probably a case of personal choice. I've always pronounced both forms as "jesuses."
posted by fire&wings at 8:09 AM on January 23, 2009

the "s's" form always seemed less formal to me, and made me imagine an older lady back home in Douglasville, Georgia, saying something like "Well, Jay-zuh-suss pank paynies". Extra syllables always makes me think "American South".
posted by amtho at 8:09 AM on January 23, 2009

Wikipedia on the subject.

I would have always used "Jesus's" as the noun is singular, but have since learned that it is commonplace for certain proper nouns (including Jesus) to drop the s after the apostrophe.

Tacking my own question on the end, I was recently discussing this with colleagues in respect of an acronym that ende with S. "DOGS" is the (made up) acronym ... let's suppose it stands for "Delivery Optimisation Group Services". I contend that it should be DOGS's whilst my colleagues believed it should be DOGS' ... any views?
posted by saintsguy at 8:13 AM on January 23, 2009

I was always taught to do it Jesus' and that Jesus's was wrong. In America, btw.

Oddly enough, we were never taught how to say it. I still don't know if it's "Jesuses cupcake" (which follows the typical pattern but is hard to say) or "Jesus cupcake" (which is how it's written).

... in confusing times like these I usually just go with "My Lord and Savior's cupcake."
posted by simplethings at 8:15 AM on January 23, 2009 [4 favorites]

I find "s's" simply redundant and choose not to use it.

s' just seems more correct to me for that reason.
posted by wocka wocka wocka at 8:16 AM on January 23, 2009

I grew up learning that you should ALWAYS omit the final s (i.e. Jesus') for words that end in an s,z, etc sound.

But like you, typewriter, I've since found out that either seems to be accepted and now, I stress out a tiny bit every time I'm faced with this situation.

I wonder if there was a push in the recent past to for dropping the final 's' for those words (in the educational arena). In my case anyway, it was drilled into me that it was WRONG WRONG WRONG and I was an illiterate if I didn't avoid the s's situation as if my fitness as an educated person would therefore be in jeopardy. It's not surprising to me that I now have a natural aversion to the s's combination

Personally, I've always pronounced it 'essess', so it was always jarring that I wasn't allowed to write it the way I said it (and heard it said), so lately, I've been trying to reprogram myself to write it Jesus's, even though every spell checker seems to flag it as incorrect.

(btw. 29 yrs old. Grew up in SE Ohio hills)
posted by johnstein at 8:17 AM on January 23, 2009

In fact, I always have been taught to omit the 's' and just go with the apostrophe. BUT I have been just handed back my manuscript from my publisher for proofing with apostrophe 's'. I am probably going with just the apostrophes, but I wanted to make sure that I knew what it meant, and was not some super old-fashioned style thing.

(Canadian, so there might be some British influence in my education.)
posted by typewriter at 8:22 AM on January 23, 2009

I was always taught to do it Jesus' and that Jesus's was wrong. In America, btw.

I was taught this too. Every other "s"-ending word or name would get the 's (so you'd have Niklas's), except for Jesus (Jesus'). That's for the dude with the beard and the sandals; I don't know what the protocol is for the boy's name Jesus.

FWIW, I went to Catholic school. Maybe they didn't want the Lord's name to sound awkward.
posted by giraffe at 8:23 AM on January 23, 2009

(Canadian, so there might be some British influence in my education.)
I'm British. I was taught the following rules for possessives:
* Ends in a single "s" - add an apostrophe.
* Ends in any other letter or a double "s" - add apostrophe-s.

Jesus' house.
John's dog.
The princess's tiara.
posted by buxtonbluecat at 8:27 AM on January 23, 2009

As many above, I grew up (Catholic school, Midwest) taught to use the Jesus' form, omitting the extra 's. This was especially important to me since the name I was called ended in S. Then again, I am old I grew up being taught such nonsense as "always type two spaces after a period" and "sex is sinful", both of which turned out to be oh so wrong, so that's something to consider.

Now that I am older, I have put away some childish things. Today I use Jesus's and such instead. It strikes my modern ear as less ridiculous and pretentious sounding. Then again, I also throw tennis balls at people who pronounce the T in often and write in the passive voice when they want to sound correct. I find these things ridiculous. I do a lot of rewriting when acting as editor. :)

Since this is not a grammar question, though, and you asked specifically about what it connotes, I say: those who write Jesus' (and pronounce the T in often!) strike me as a little pretentious, as if they are trying a bit too hard to be "correct."

Those who write and say Jesus's, on the other hand, come across as a little more down-to-earth, more honest and more modern to me.
posted by rokusan at 8:28 AM on January 23, 2009

I'm American, was taught s' for names like Jesus, and enforced that rule when I worked as an editor. However, everyone around me says s's for singular names that end in s, and now to insist on s' seems a little stuffy. So now s's seems natural if the name is singular (Jesus's). I still use s' if the name is plural ("the Clarks' dog").
posted by PatoPata at 8:30 AM on January 23, 2009 [1 favorite]

I grew up (public school, New Jersey) taught to omit to the extra 's. I have a vague memory of being told by a high school teacher that the convention changed--and for some reason, I remember her saying this in reference to MLA guidelines. I wouldn't be surprised, as they do change these rules, often for what seems like (to me) no apparent reason.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 8:32 AM on January 23, 2009

I'm the only one I know who uses s's. But, what little punctuation I know came from the Strunk and White my brother gave me in 1983. So, when I see s's, I assume that that person also read S&W.
posted by qldaddy at 8:39 AM on January 23, 2009

I'm from Boston and was taught to omit the extra s, but now that I am an editor I learned that both are correct and that what you use depends on the style guide you follow.
The house style where I work dictates the extra s, so now that looks normal to me. Your publisher might have internal styles also, or might be working from a different standard style guide like Chicago.
posted by rmless at 8:39 AM on January 23, 2009

I'm a book editor in the U.S.

Chicago Manual of Style uses 's for possessives at the end of words/names ending in s (e.g., James's book), BUT accepts the traditional exception to to the general rule in using the apostrophe alone with names like Jesus and Moses (e.g., in Jesus' name). There is also an exception for names of more than one syllable with an unaccented ending pronounced eez -- e.g., Euripedes' plays, Xerxes' army, Surtees' novels.
posted by scody at 8:40 AM on January 23, 2009 [2 favorites]

Here's what the most recent edition of the MLA handbook has to say on the matter (for a generally American perspective):

"To form the possessive of any singular proper noun, add an apostrophe and an s.

Venus's beauty
Dickens's reputation
Descartes's philosophy
Marx's precepts"

The St. Martin's Handbook for Canadians offers the same rule (using "Keats's poet" as their example for a possessive proper noun).

The Harbrace College Handbook for Canadian Writers, on the other hand, offers this little caveat:

"Adding an apostrophe and s is never wrong, but an apostrophe without an s may be added to a singular word ending in s when another s would make the word difficult for pronounce: Sue Rogers's essay or Sue Rogers' essay; Moses's deliberations or Moses' deliberations."

So, there's at least one Canadian source that admits a pronunciation issue. Not sure how helpful this is for you, but it really aided my procrastination efforts on a Friday morning, so thanks for that!!
posted by Hellgirl at 8:41 AM on January 23, 2009

Oh, so to answer your question more directly: when I see someone using s's, I simply assume they're using Chicago (or were taught based on Chicago's rules) or another style guide that uses the rule.
posted by scody at 8:42 AM on January 23, 2009

I didn't even consider it, but as PatoPata says, I do indeed still use/enforce the trailing apostrophe for plural possessive: "the Clarks' dog" is the only way I would accept it.
posted by rokusan at 8:44 AM on January 23, 2009

I learned to drop the double s's, but it may be a newer stylistic choice. I just checked my 1959 edition Strunk & White's The Elements of Style and this is covered in the very first rule on the very first page:

1. Form the possessive singular of nouns by adding 's. Follow this rule whatever the final consonant. Thus write,

Charles's friend
Burns's poems
the witch's malice

Exceptions are the possessives of ancient proper names in -es and -is, the possessive Jesus', and such forms as for conscience' sake, for righteousness' sake. But such forms as Moses' laws, Isis' temple are commonly replaced by

the laws of Moses
the temple of Isis

The pronominal possessives hers, its, theirs, yours, and oneself have no apostrophe.
posted by VulcanMike at 8:45 AM on January 23, 2009 [1 favorite]

This Chicago Manual of Style is what most US publishers use as the basis of their editorial style; I'm not sure what the equivalent for Canadian publishers is, but here are some relevant CMoS excerpts:
7.17- The possessive of most singular nouns is formed by adding an apostrophe and an s, and the possessive of plural nouns (except for a few irregular plurals that do not end in s) by adding an apostrophe only. . . . Since feelings on these matters sometimes run high, users of this manual may wish to modify or add to the exceptions.

7.21 - To avoid an awkward appearance, an apostrophe without an s may be used for the possessive of singular words and names ending in an unpronounced s. Opt for this practice only if you are comfortable with it and are certain that the s is indeed unpronounced.

7.22 - Where neither an s nor an apostrophe alone looks right (as with such names as Isis), avoid the possessive and use of instead.
In addition to the rules and exceptions, there is an entry for "alternative practice":
7.23 - Those uncomfortable with the rules, exceptions, and options outlined above may prefer the system, formerly more common, of simply omitting the possessive s on all words ending in s—hence “Dylan Thomas’ poetry,” “Maria Callas’ singing,” and “that business’ main concern.” Though easy to apply, that usage disregards pronunciation and thus seems unnatural to many.
posted by camcgee at 8:46 AM on January 23, 2009

what little punctuation I know came from the Strunk and White my brother gave me in 1983. So, when I see s's, I assume that that person also read S&W.

I follow Strunk & White too, but as mentioned above, S&W says to use s' for a very select group of names like Jesus.
posted by Jaltcoh at 8:51 AM on January 23, 2009

I was taught to omit the apostrophe only if the word is plural, except for Jesus, who is a special case for some reason.


Jesus' cupcake
Nicklas's cupcake
The cats' cupcake (the cupcake belonging to both of my cats, lucky bastards)
posted by amarynth at 8:57 AM on January 23, 2009

You said you want connotation. When I see a construction like Jesus', I think American and standard-issue. When I see a construction like Jesus's, I think British and educated. I'm not saying that's correct, but that's the connotation they have for me.

The hanging apostrophe of Jesus' and the double s of Jesus's both look awkward, so I would always write around this problem if I could: the words of Jesus, the moons of Mars, the hands of Manos, etc.

When I have to choose, I choose according to the style guide I am supposed to follow. If I were you, I would choose a style guide and stick to it, or maybe follow my publisher's house style.

By the way, I think there are lots of little rules that people follow about this. Is the s silent or sibilant? Is it a single or double s? Is it a plural of a word ending in s? And I think I've seen somewhere (where?) that some people have a problem with modifying Jesus' name Jesus's name the name of Jesus by adding punctuation. (As I see amarynth has just noted.) Follow a style guide.
posted by pracowity at 9:03 AM on January 23, 2009

Technically it is correct to use s's unless you are dealing with classical names. That is "Socrates' house" and the like.
Otherwise the Chicago Press style guide says to use the extra s. Place names however it can differ.
posted by opsin at 9:13 AM on January 23, 2009

Oh, I missed someone beating me to the Chicago...
posted by opsin at 9:14 AM on January 23, 2009

There is a very simple rule that I always recommend to people who don't have professional reasons to be rooting around in style manuals: if you hear it, write it. If you say /'niklasǝz/, write Niklas's. If you don't pronounce the possessive s, don't write it. Problem solved!
posted by languagehat at 9:14 AM on January 23, 2009 [1 favorite]

When I see Jesus', I think This person is also going to say "Midas' touch" and "octopus' garden" and probably "I ate pea's for lunch" because someone has been teaching wobbly inconsistent rules.
posted by darksasami at 9:19 AM on January 23, 2009 [4 favorites]

How you say it and how you write it don't necessarily have anything to do with each other: this is English, after all.

I agree that a singular noun forming a possessive always takes 's. Garner, Strunk, White, and Fowler all agree, which to me is the be-all and end-all of the matter.

I think that people probably got confused about the rule, since plural nouns, usually ending in s, add an apostrophe only. Then, as is common, they overcompensated/miscorrected themselves by making another, wrong, rule, just as nowadays you'll often hear "She gave the book to he and I" because they have been told that "he and me" is wrong without understanding that it is only wrong as the subject, not the object.

From Garner, who agrees with Strunk & White:

To form a singular possessive, add -'s to most singular nouns—even those ending in -s and -x (hence witness's, Vitex's, Jones's, Nichols's). E.g.: “Noting Congress's move to regulate maternity hospitalization, managedcare advocates predict that politicians would legislate health care” (U.S. News & World Rep.). Although the AP Stylebook (6th ed. 1996) calls for nothing more than an apostrophe if the word already ends in -s (p. 163), most authorities who aren't journalists demand the final -s as well (i.e., Bill Forbis's farm, not Bill Forbis' farm). See William Strunk, Jr. & E. B. White, The Elements of Style 1 (3d ed. 1979).

There are three exceptions to this rule. The first is the standard one: Biblical and Classical names ending in -s take only an apostrophe, hence Jesus' suffering, Moses', discovery, Aristophanes' plays, Grotius' writings. (No extra syllable is added in sounding the possessive form.) The second exception is for words formed from a plural. Thus General Motors should make General Motors', not General Motors's—e.g.: “A merger by General Motors will excite great interest in an enforcement agency simply because of General Motors's [read General Motors'] size” (E. W. Kintner, An Antitrust Primer, 1973)

And from Fowler:

Add 's to names that end in s when you would pronounce them with an extra s in speech (e.g. Charles's, Dickens's, Thomas's, The Times's, Zacharias's); but omit 's when the name is normally pronounced without the extra s (e.g. Bridges', Connors', Mars', Herodotus', Xerxes'). With French names ending in (silent) -s or -x, add 's (e.g. Dumas's, le Roux's) and pronounce the modified word with a final -z.
posted by thebazilist at 9:27 AM on January 23, 2009 [2 favorites]

As someone whose last name also ends in an "s" I feel strongly about this (perhaps unjustly -g). I never add another "s" in these cases, just the apostrophe. It's simply more economical and language always develops in an efficient manner. Just my iconoclastic take on the subject.
posted by Taken Outtacontext at 9:28 AM on January 23, 2009

(Why are so many people addressing the grammar as if there's a right/wrong answer when the question begins by acknowledging both are "correct" and clearly asks for connotation? Is it some kind of grammar-nazi reflex?)
posted by rokusan at 9:50 AM on January 23, 2009

Copy editor, proofreader, Chicago's bitch, and I fucking love the apostrophe-s. Love it. It just makes sense. I was taught s-apostrophe (American, 1980s), but it seems like apostrophe-s is in fashion right now; s-apostrophe looks a bit outdated to me. I hope apostrophe-s is here to stay.
posted by fiercecupcake at 9:51 AM on January 23, 2009 [3 favorites]

I was taught the s's in school, but started sometimes using s' after reading The Elements of Style:
Form the possessive singular of nouns with 's. [...] Exceptions are the possessives of ancient proper names in -es and -is, the possessive Jesus', and such forms as for conscience' sake, for righteousness' sake.
In cases where either would be technically correct, the s's seems more formal to me for some reason.
posted by paulg at 10:07 AM on January 23, 2009

As my first name is Thomas, I have my radar tuned for this issue. People who write "Thomas' friend" impress me with their esoteric knowledge of the special rule; writing "Thomas's friend" will mark you as a crude person, lacking class and polish. I wince, because it's my fucking name and I feel like that's not how it is done.

You can tell me about Chicago all you like, just as the Brit who calls someone "cunt" in a room full of US company can try to explain it away - too late, you've already lost, you've marked yourself as one of the lesser people, ignorant and uncouth.
posted by Meatbomb at 11:46 AM on January 23, 2009

It's all "both are equally valid" until you need to refer to something possessed by several Jesuses. What should I do then, Chicago Manual of Style? Answer me that.
posted by Mike1024 at 12:06 PM on January 23, 2009 [2 favorites]

My last name ends in s. If I see it written s' rather than s's, I think that the writer must not have a good grasp of the rules of English grammar. I always correct it to s's when I'm editing. So count me as someone whose feelings on the matter are the exact opposite of Taken Outtacontext's, Meatbomb's, and darksasami's. I judge people who use s's with my name as more educated than those who use s'.

I form no opinions about people's crudeness or lack of class based on their grammar, as I try not to be judgmental.
posted by decathecting at 12:15 PM on January 23, 2009 [1 favorite]

writing "Thomas's friend" will mark you as a crude person, lacking class and polish.

Yes, because we all know how popular the Chicago Manual of Style is among the vulgarians of the world.
posted by scody at 12:21 PM on January 23, 2009 [2 favorites]

Just for clarification, decathecting, I think you'll find that you and I agree. We probably also agree on the irony of being called "a crude person, lacking class and polish" by someone who requires the use of "fucking" and "cunt" in a thread on minor grammatical points.
posted by darksasami at 1:33 PM on January 23, 2009

How you say it and how you write it don't necessarily have anything to do with each other: this is English, after all.

I'm very well aware of that, from both my linguistic and editing backgrounds. It so happens that in this case, they do; as I said, if you don't want to get into the minutiae of stylebooks, it's a very serviceable rule. People who say things like "I feel strongly about this" or "writing [whatever form they don't like] will mark you as a crude person" can be ignored, since they have no concept of the arbitrariness of English style and mistake their own prejudices for truths about English. Trust me on this: write it the way you hear it, and you won't go wrong.
posted by languagehat at 1:41 PM on January 23, 2009 [1 favorite]

the irony of being called "a crude person, lacking class and polish" by someone who requires the use of "fucking" and "cunt" in a thread on minor grammatical points

Actually, he's spot-on. Instead of concrete blocks, I have a rusty Camaro propped up on past editions of the Chicago Manual of Style in front of my trailer.
posted by scody at 2:51 PM on January 23, 2009 [2 favorites]

Surname ending in Z here. I always write s' (or z'). Never the other way; it looks sloppy.
posted by cmgonzalez at 11:12 PM on January 23, 2009

I use s's because I've always been taught that it's the most technically correct, but that s' is also an "acceptable use." I wouldn't ever correct someone for using s' but it strikes me as less formal.

I pronounce them both the same. That's one thing that does bother me about s': I feel like you (almost?) always pronounce that final s, therefore it should not be omitted. I hadn't given it much thought until I read languagehat's comment, but I suppose sometimes you don't pronounce that final 's -- something like "John Williams' guitar" should in theory not bother me to read. However, to be honest, it just nags at me to not see the s's anyway, again because it feels less formal.

I also feel like always using s's leaves no ambiguity about whether the subject is singular or plural, and I'm a fan of being as clear as possible. If someone is in the habit of calling others by their last name, and writes "Williams'," I might wonder whether they mean the whole Williams family or just one member of it.
posted by Nattie at 11:37 PM on January 23, 2009 [1 favorite]

I agree that a singular noun forming a possessive always takes 's. Garner, Strunk, White, and Fowler all agree, which to me is the be-all and end-all of the matter.

That's incorrect. Strunk and White doesn't say you "always" add 's to a singular noun to make it possessive. They say you generally do so, but there are exceptions for certain names like Moses and Jesus.

Also (this is not a response to the above comment), I agree with languagehat that the written version should conform to the spoken version. For instance, people wonder if you should write Congress' bill or Congress's bill. I can't imagine that that anyone would say "Congress' bill" (pronounced the same as "Congress bill") out loud, so it doesn't make a whole lot of sense to write it that way.
posted by Jaltcoh at 12:46 PM on January 25, 2009

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