Recently the Linguistic Society of America highlighted an NPR report on a dispute among Arkansans about how to write the state’s possessive. Also see http://dailyheadlines.uark.edu/10330.htm, and the Arkansas (Arkansas’? Arkansas’s?) state house resolution.

 

(A moment of grateful silence for Americans passionate about punctuation, even as e-mail, txt msgs and IM increase intolerance for anything that requires additional key strokes.)

 

For the English speller update in Office 2007 (and the service pack for Office 2003), I researched possessives of words ending in -s in a variety of style guides. To my surprise, only one required apostrophe-only (New York Public Library Writer’s Guide to Style and Usage). Most observe and endorse the regularization trend, with ‘s after all words, save Jesus’, Moses’, and a handful of other ancient names, varying by style guide (Archimedes’, Socrates’): The Chicago Manual of Style, Strunk and White’s Elements of Style, Fowler’s Modern English Usage (British), Canadian Oxford Dictionary, and (most entertainingly) Australia and New Zealand’s The Macquarie Dictionary.                             

 

The Associated Press (AP) prefers the apostrophe only, although it doesn’t eschew ‘s. The online version is worded oddly (a possessive ending in s?):

 

AP prefers the apostrophe only after a possessive ending in "s," as in Arkansas' popular, or CBS' annual report.

 

So a bit reluctantly (but to the tester James’s cheers), I followed the majority and regularized the forms. Personal integrity therefore requires me to defy Mrs. Heffron’s 2nd grade instruction and refer to my brother Gus’s (not Gus’) business sense. I take comfort that the publisher of Eats, Shoots and Leaves, a book subtitled The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation, refers to Lynn Truss’s book, not Lynn Truss’ book.

 

Fortunately, for Mrs. Heffron’s more conservative students, apostrophe-only forms are also permitted by the speller, because it permits a single quote before and/or after every word: ‘like’ ‘this’. Or ‘like this’. So we’ve covered both Arkansas’ dissenters and Arkansas’s regularizers.

 

But back to Gus’s business: none of the style guides directly address nouns ending in -ness, nominalized adjectives ending in -less or branches of study ending in -ics.

 

For -ness we elected to permit and suggest both ‘s and apostrophe-only forms. Thus this sentence from a University of Pennsylvania essay will pass unremarked through the speller:

 

With this in mind, Authentic Happiness's principal challenge to Hedonism is Wittgenstein's last words: "Tell them it was wonderful!" uttered even after a life of negative emotion and even downright misery.

 

In addition, if a writer erroneously types happines’s, both happiness’ and happiness’s will come up as spelling suggestions. That is, the speller doesn’t simply tolerate the trailing apostrophe: it suggests the apostrophe-only form (and the ‘s form) as a correction for an error. The latter is not the case for Arkansas’ (nor Gus’).

 

For homeless and friendless, more common as adjectives, the speller prohibits the ‘s: friendless’s and homeless’s will be flagged as spelling errors. Sadly, so will the possessor in a phrase referring to organizations called Homeless. As though advocates for the homeless don’t have enough problems. We may have to reconsider.

 

               People from all walks of life, age groups, and professions have participated in Homeless’s programs – in fact, more than 125,000 homeless people participate each year.

 

Finally, I couldn’t bear to force linguistics’s, physics’s, and the like on the English-speaking world. So the speller doesn’t. Arguments for regularization of these forms in the speller will be entertained in this space. (We should also consider adding Heffron and Heffron’s.)

 

               Mari Broman Olsen (Developer)