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Quote of the Day - I never made a mistake in grammar but one in my life and as soon as I done it I seen it. - Carl Sandburg
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Should Snarky S's Sneak Into High Court Opinions? We Need A Ruling.

It's a tough philosophical divide, and one that needs a ruling from an entity with more authority than the United States Supreme Court, since the nine justices can't agree on how to handle grammar.  What am I talking about?  That most confounding of all grammatical rules:  whether to add an apostrophe to a word that ends in an "S."  If you count the votes, however, you'll see that the Supreme Court's ruling in its Kansas v. Marsh June 2006 opinion is 7-2 against adding an extra "S" to a word that already ends in an "S."

Say, for example, "Williams."  Admittedly, I have a dog in this fight.

We're led into this debate by Grammarian extraordinaire Jonathan M. Starble, who is an attorney in West Hartford, Connecticut.  He must be a saint to address this issue since he doesn't suffer from the same malady as Justices Thomas, Stevens, Roberts and me, among many others.  Not others'.   And where does that period go anyway - inside or out? 

Mr. Starble's article, headlined Gimme an 'S' (subscription needed) is a grammatical oxymoron in itself, but that's another story.  He offers an insightful look at the High Court's usage of the plural possessive over the course of several cases, and examines in detail how each justice has approached the problem. 

His conclusion indicates that Justice Thomas adopts the hard-and-fast rule that no word ending in 'S' deserves another 'S' after it.  Justice Souter, on the other hand, takes a more flexible approach:  "s should always be added after the apostrophe when forming a singular possessive, regardless of whether the nonpossessive form already ends in s."

Then he examines Justice Scalia's practice, which not surprisingly is all over the map:  "Scalia appears to believe that most singular nouns ending in s still demand an additional s after the apostrophe."  Then Mr. Starble notes, "it would seem that he believes the extra s should be omitted if the existing s is preceded by a hard consonant sound.  So, whereas Thomas makes his s determination based strictly on spelling, Scalia appears to look beyond the spelling and examine pronunciation as well."

Justice Stephens, otherwise avoids the entire issue, in the case and constructed his sentences to avoid the possessive question. 

So what is the answer?

MIPTC consulted the authorities, as well as Messrs. Starble, Thomas, Roberts, Souter and Stevens, and found a series of rules that will drive even the most dedicated grammarian crazy.  The most widely accepted legal grammarian, Brian Garner (who took on the task or rewriting Black's Law Dictionary) puts the basic rule this way in his A Dictionary of Modern Legal Usage:  "A.  Generally.  The best practice, advocated by [Grammar Gods] Strunk & White in The Elements of Style and by every other authority of superior standing, is to add -'s to all singular possessives . . . To form the plural possessive, an apostrophe is added to the -s- of the plural, e.g. Bosses'."

Not all authorities agree, however.  I guess that's what make some less superior than Mr. Garner advocates.  Take, for example, H.W. Fowler's A Dictionary of Modern English Usage.  Here's what Mr. Fowler has to say:  "It was formerly customary, when a word ended in -s, to write its possessive with an apostrophe but no additional s . . . But elsewhere we now usually add the s and the syllable - always when the word is monosyllabic, and preferably when it is longer."  That's Justice Souter's version. 

For the apostrophe-challenged, here's an easy way to think of it:  add the apostrophe and another "S" if you pronounce the second "S" when you say the word.  For my name, it would be Williams's, even though my grammar checker wants to make it William's.    

But be careful.

For Justice Thomas, it's Thomas'.

At least that's MIPTC's ruling.

Printer friendly page Permalink Email to a friend Posted by J. Craig Williams on Friday, October 20, 2006 at 20:24 Comments Closed (1) |
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