If you have a name like mine that ends in “s,” you’ve probably wondered, worried, and even belabored about making it possessive …
Is it Ms. Butters’s farm?
or Ms. Butters’ Farmgirl Sisterhood? (Shameless plug.)
And if you’ve looked for advice, you’ve probably found conflicting information, leaving you baffled, bewildered, and mystified.
When I have a question about grammar or punctuation, I often look in my handy go-to guide, Woe Is I: The Grammarphobe’s Guide to Better English in Plain English. This lighthearted look at the English language, by Patricia T. O’Conner, contains sections like “Pearls Before Swine: Blunders with Numbers,” and “The Living Dead: Let Bygone Rules Be Gone.” But when I thumb to “Yours Truly: The Possessives and the Possessed,” I see that Patricia says, “If the word is singular, always add ‘s, regardless of its ending.” Example: “The dress’s skirt, which resembled a tutu from one of Degas’s paintings, was ruined.”
But I find that advice confusing. If we sound out that example sentence, we say “the dress-es skirt,” but we don’t say “Degas-es paintings.” Right? Well, actually, in French, the ending “s” in “Degas” is silent, so that might not be a good example. (And it’s interesting that both of Patricia’s other name examples are foreign names with the dreaded silent “s” ending (Camus’s, Jacques’s), so I’m still confused.) But substitute my name, “Butters-es cows,” for example, and you’ll see what I mean.
I’m not a fan. Of the rule, not the cow. I love my cows!
So, delving a little further, I go to my publishers’ bible, The Chicago Manual of Style, which says, “Possessives, The General Rule: The possessive of most singular nouns is formed by adding an apostrophe and an s, and the possessive of plural nouns, by adding an apostrophe only.” It goes on to say, “Proper nouns: The general rule covers most proper nouns, including names ending in s, x, or z, in both their singular and plural forms …”
Have I lost you yet? No? Well, carry on …
So, I interpret that to say, again, “Butters-es cows.”
Still don’t like it.
But the beauty of the Chicago Manual is that it has lots of exceptions and options. Reading a little further, I see a section called “Exceptions to the General Rule and Some Options,” which includes this advice: “When the singular form of a noun ending in “s” looks like a plural and the plural form is the same as the singular, the possessive of both is formed by the addition of an apostrophe only (politics’ true meaning).”
Aha! This is looking more like Ms. Butters’ cows!
A few paragraphs down, I find the mother lode, a little entry the Chicago Manual calls “an alternative practice.” It suggests: “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.”
Eureka! I’ve been reassured. It’s Ms. Butters’ cows, not Ms. Butters-es cows. I’m sticking with how it sounds. And I’m following the rules. At least the rules for “those uncomfortable with the rules.”
Like the Dalai Lama says, “Know the rules well, so you can break them effectively.”
Amen. Continue reading