Forming Possessives with Nouns Ending in 'S'
A few weeks back, there was a lengthy discussion of plural possessives – does one add apostrophe and ‘s’ to plurals ending in s, or just the apostrophe. Thus is it Kansas’s or Kansas’. Or Arkansas’s or Arkansas’.
The consensus was: it depends upon the style guide you are using.
I decided to follow up with some more research, and the answer is even more convoluted than I thought.
The Associated Press (AP) and Modern Language Association (MLA) call for only the apostrophe when the noun ends in S – Kansas’, Arkansas’, boss’, and rowboats’. But Strunk & White and the current Chicago Manual of Style (CMS) prefer the apostrophe S for all uses – Kansas’s, Arkansas’s, boss’s, and rowboats’s. But at least these guides offer a blanket rule. Other guides provide more convoluted advice.
The New York Times and Boston Globe use apostrophe S when the final S is not sibilant – so Arkansas’s but Kansas’, boss’, and rowboats'.
Has it always been this confused? Apparently, a century ago, the Chicago Manual called for apostrophe S with one-syllable words, but longer words received only the apostrophe – boss’s but Arkansas’. Later, CMS swung into the MLA camp, but its most recent edition changed course again.
Other academic guides – APA, AMA, and ACS – largely avoid the issue.
Frustrated by the confusion, the Legal Times turned to the United States Supreme Court in 2006. But as usual, they found the Court deeply divided. In the case of Kansas vs. Marsh, the Legal Times found 7 justices preferred Kansas’ in their opinions, while 2 (Scalia and Souter) used Kansas’s.
In 2007, the Arkansas state legislature went so far as to debate a law that would make Arkansas’s the official state possessive.
What is a writer to do? If you are a student, ask your teacher.
We older writers are on our own. I recently asked a full-time professional writer (a monthly major magazine piece, several non-fiction best-sellers [two adapted for movies], and fellow softball parent) how he handles these style differences. He said he just picks one, is consistent in its use, and let the editors change it to suit the house style (his magazine prefers one method and his publisher another).