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Possession.

I like how NO ONE said a damn thing about the similarities in the two melodies, but the tacked-on apostrophe mechanics poll generated plenty of comments.

OK. Let me say right away that despite what I am about to say, IF YOU PICKED THE FIRST ANSWER (Vaughan Williams') I DO NOT NECESSARILY THINK YOU ARE WRONG. Or a bad person. Or scorn-worthy. In fact, it was the choice of professional writers and editors as well most of the non-pro people on my friends list whose writing I respect. I certainly do not hold myself up as an exemplar of the English language, and I'm obviously not a professional writer or editor ... just a nit-picker.

Now then. When I was making the entry, I initially wrote "Ralph Vaughan Williams's Fantasia on Greensleeves," which I do personally believe to be more correct, as do a few of the more linguistically-minded of you. However, it is becoming clearer and clearer that the alternative is, if not the dominant usage, at least appreciably common. And I knew that my choice would look awkward to some people, so I avoided it altogether and made a poll to confirm my suspicions.

A little research pointed me to what I now believe is the source of the shifting tide: the Associated Press stylebook. After consulting a dozen reference manuals, it became apparent that there is a great deal of confusion — and in fact outright dissent — among "authorities" when it comes to forming possessives of singular nouns ending in s. This, from the Oxford Dictionary of American Usage and Style, is fairly representative of the official prescription, and singles out the AP as a rogue.

Singular Possessives.

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). The third exception (a minor point) is discussed at (J).

Plural Possessives.

For most plural possessives, use the ordinary plural form and add an apostrophe to the final -s: Smiths', Joneses', bosses', octopuses'. The one exception is for plurals not ending in -s, for which -'s is added as in the singular possessive: brethren's, children's, men's, women's.

Writers sometimes confound the singular and plural possessives, most commonly by misusing the singular for the plural—e.g.: “I don't much admire the Wales's [read Waleses'] taste in expensive schools” (Guardian). (The reference was to the Prince and Princess of Wales.)/ “According to the lawsuit, on the day before he died, a classmate walked into the boy's bathroom [read boys' bathroom (because it's a school bathroom)] and interrupted Shawn before he could hang himself with a shirt” (Austin American-Statesman).

— "possessives" The Oxford Dictionary of American Usage and Style. Bryan A. Garner. Oxford University Press, 2000. Oxford Reference Online. Oxford University Press. Accessed 13 January 2006. http://www.oxfordreference.com/views/ENTRY.html?subview=Main&entry=t26.e1727&category=

Of course, the "Vaughan Williamses" question was plural, not possessive, so since we never use apostrophes to form plurals, "Vaughan Williamses" is the only acceptable answer. Sorry, that was kind of a trick question. I don't even remember who said what for that one, so don't worry if you got it wrong.

I actually found a grammar forum online that deals specifically with the surname Williams, but the answer, while good, only adds to the confusion.

The vast majority of the reference works I consulted agree with my Vaughan Williams's, but I think it ultimately will come down to pronunciation and a subjective call on what "sounds awkward."

CHW, J'y, H_R, PoP, FMF ... we are fighting a losing battle, I'm afraid.

† † † † †


J.  Attributive Nouns Ending in -ed. Words ending in -ed become awkward as possessives. This happens primarily in law. With such phrases as the insured's death or the deceased's residence, it's better to use an of-phrase—hence the death of the insured and the residence of the deceased. (Or you might try the decedent's residence).

Comments

( 27 comments — Leave a comment )
bardot
Jan. 13th, 2006 11:30 pm (UTC)
i missed your punctuation poll! but oh, thank you for posting this. i get a little irked on the possessives issue.
scythrop
Jan. 13th, 2006 11:39 pm (UTC)
Apostrophes in general take so much abuse!
(Deleted comment)
scythrop
Jan. 14th, 2006 12:01 am (UTC)
Don't be. I think this must be the single most confusing punctuation question in the whole wide world, and having read so much about it, I'm actually more confused than when I started!
redwill
Jan. 14th, 2006 12:23 am (UTC)
''the shifting tide'' is happening to a great degree because this is no longer the 19th century, and words are more often heard over long distances than written. at this point in the life of the internet, the tide may partially reverse, but with more and more broadband, it is likely that things will swing back to their century-long trend toward aural rather than visual. to hear ''Vaughan Williams's'' make it seem as if there is more than one famous Vaughan Williams. it also sounds awkward. it generates both written and said clutter. it both looks and sounds inelegant, clumsy, even ugly. that's why i went with ^Vaughan Williams' Fantasia....^.

no offense intended to you; these things are just tricky and are often matters of personal taste.
scythrop
Jan. 14th, 2006 12:30 am (UTC)
Oh, none taken. But I think the sounding awkward and the diminished use are not necessarily a one-sided cause & effect. That is, I think if we heard Williams's more, it would not sound as awkward to us.

Ultimately, I have to take Mister Rogers' Neighborhood as an indication that it can be truly correct at least some of the time, as an exception, because Mister Rogers did no wrong.
hazel_rah
Jan. 14th, 2006 01:02 am (UTC)
Do you ever hear the second person plural possessive pronoun pronounced as /yallziz/ out in California? I think it's cute.
scythrop
Jan. 14th, 2006 01:11 am (UTC)
Never. But I can definitely hear it in my head!

(Can you believe my mother is anti-"y'all"? Which is just ridiculous.)
hazel_rah
Jan. 14th, 2006 06:12 am (UTC)
Oh my mother was as well. I also remember being steamrolled with WHO'S SHE? THE CAT'S MOTHER? if I ever referred to mum as "she" when she was present.
redwill
Jan. 14th, 2006 06:08 am (UTC)
i love Mister Rogers. in a platonic way, of course. hm... wait a minute, Plato was gay, wasn't he? Alkibiades sure was. that Symposium. whoo. [fans self]
hazel_rah
Jan. 14th, 2006 01:00 am (UTC)
since we never use apostrophes to form plurals

Except for lowercase letters... mind your p's and q's.

scythrop
Jan. 14th, 2006 01:09 am (UTC)
Oh, right. And doesn't binary code consist of 1's ond 0's?
mylaar
Jan. 14th, 2006 03:55 am (UTC)
i ran away from the poll. i know the basic rules but i will bend over backwards to avoid pluralizing a word that ends in s or, worse yet, a plural. no matter how many times i try to get the right way cemented in my brain, when i need to call up the information i get nervous that i'm wrong.

so thank you for this follow-up.
scythrop
Jan. 14th, 2006 05:23 am (UTC)
no, i'm with you...
Regardless of what the follow-up says, I think I'm just going to try and avoid the construction altogether!
redwill
Jan. 14th, 2006 06:10 am (UTC)
Re: no, i'm with you...
oh, the labyrinthine circumlocutions that will ensue. ;)
mordicai
Jan. 14th, 2006 04:40 am (UTC)
i'd probably throw a hypen in there. williams-es-es or something.

but i uh, kinda sound like an idiot sometimes.
personofporlock
Jan. 14th, 2006 07:12 am (UTC)

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.


This was the part of the rule that always particularly stuck in my head. Which is why (even though I generally consider myself a prescriptive grammarian who allows herself to substitute subordinate clauses for actual sentences) I cringe whenever I see a Gus'. "Who do you think you are—JESUS?!?" comes the inevitable inward shriek. The same thing happens when I see a car with one of those "alumni of" license plate frames. "There'd better be two of you in there!"
scythrop
Jan. 14th, 2006 08:08 am (UTC)
And Phibbus' car shall shine from far...
Oh, I am in full agreement — case, number, and gender! I had the alumn[i/ae/us/a] details pretty much boiler-plated into my head by my first Latin teacher (Margaret Hicks: Phi Beta Kappa, College of William & Mary ... just like Jon Stewart), but here in Santa Barbara there is a store called — ohhhh, my God — Russ' Camera. I don't think I need to say any more; this really steels my resolve. How on Earth does this sort of thing happen?! Is it a chamber in the woods of disputed and misspelled possession?

Oh, just kill me now.
puzzled_anwen
Jan. 14th, 2006 10:57 am (UTC)
The second exception is for words formed from a plural.
Hello, I think I tend to think of names like Williams, Humphreys, etc as being a sort of plural, so this is why I would write Vaughan Willams'. Evn though it's probably more of a -son type formation than a plural type one. In speech though, I would almost certainly say Vaughan Williams'.

Oh, and by the way, I listened to a bit of the Vaughan Williams thing and yes, it is really quite similar. Hmm! I couldn't hear it properly though as there was a child listening to stupid telly. Well, watching it.
personofporlock
Jan. 14th, 2006 01:17 pm (UTC)
Re: And Phibbus' car shall shine from far...
Ugh! I wish there were a modern-day version of the library of Alexandria and I could put all the AP stylebooks in there and burn it to the ground so that we'd lose them forever. The AP is my main foe in the battle for the Oxford comma. HELLO!!!

Should I dedicate my book to "My parents, Mother Teresa and the Pope" (AP style)

or

"My parents, Mother Teresa, and the Pope" (Oxford comma style)?
fordmadoxfraud
Jan. 14th, 2006 07:58 pm (UTC)
I suppose it is a losing battle, but I'm not terribly troubled, because we're so clearly right! All of Oxford's recommendations--the apostrophe s to form possessives of nouns ending in -s or -s, the single apostrophe for Biblical or Classical names ending in -s, the single apostrophe for singulars formed from plurals--have a nice linguistic logic backing them up. The extent of the other argument (the one for only a single apostrophe for nouns ending in -s), is just laziness and false similarity: 'Well, both words end in -s, therefore they're pretty much the same, right?'
scythrop
Jan. 15th, 2006 02:45 am (UTC)
We should start a society. The Society for the Preservation of the Post-Apostrophe S. Or something along those lines. We could be half education, half knuckle-smacking!
charleshwhitman
Jan. 15th, 2006 04:11 pm (UTC)
I don't understand why the vast majority of people want to make it harder on themselves by creating a rule and then creating tons of exceptions to the rule. I'm even opposed to the Jesus and Moses exception. I say just add an apostrophe 's' after everything.

But, speaking of which, the thing that really gets my goat is when people use the apostrophe 's' to make a plural (1950's). I mean, seriously, why make it harder on yourself. Just stick to one rule and add an 's' for everything. The New York Times follows the 1950's pluralization rule and it drives me crazy everytime I see it.
scythrop
Jan. 15th, 2006 04:19 pm (UTC)
That drives me crazy, too. I notice it more often like this: back in the 50's. I think maybe people get confused because there is a correct way to do this — back in the '50s — that follows the substitutionary role of the apostrophe. Or maybe they thing 1950s looks confusing? I have no idea.

Anyway, Cambridge is with you on the dropping of all exceptions. Their guide has a hilarious (OK, hilarious to me) two-page-long summary of four different exceptions schema, and how confusing they all are, especially taken together. I would have put the whole section in this entry, but it's not online and the book was in the reference are, ergo I couldn't check it out and scan it.

God, I'm such a dork; I could seriously talk about shit like this all day.
ganatronic
Jan. 17th, 2006 06:11 am (UTC)
You work for the library. Of course you can check it out and scan it.

And did Charleswhitman just use the year form that, in the sentence before, he faulted?

I think most people know about the '50s style of abbreviating years, so it's dumb that there'd be so much confusion about the non-abbreviated form.
ganatronic
Jan. 17th, 2006 06:19 am (UTC)
And yeah, I can hear the similarities between those songs. I had never noticed that before - but they definitely follow a similar structure. It was pretty genius of Nik to what sounded like a great new song by just speeding up an old hit.

I figured most people would be commenting on the songs, and not your stupid grammar problem. And I assumed most of those responses would focus on how classic the second song is, and so Nik would get dusted. Honestly, though, I often have problems with possessives. Sometimes I can't distinguish between singulars and plurals, but I always figure that I'm doing something wrong if there are lots of apostrophes. That's my rule: too many apostrophes = bad.
ganatronic
Jan. 17th, 2006 06:20 am (UTC)
oops. "Nik to *create* what sounded like..."
ganatronic
Jan. 18th, 2006 08:17 am (UTC)
oops. erase "stupid". I forgot about how jokes don't show up well in text.
( 27 comments — Leave a comment )