The Grammarphobia Blog

Biblical commentary

Q: I hear the possessives of “Jesus” and “Moses” pronounced two different ways: with or without an “uz” sound at the end. Are both pronunciations correct?

A: For many years, it was customary to add only an apostrophe in forming the possessive case of a biblical or classical name already ending in a sibilant sound, like “Jesus” or “Euripides.” The final possessive “s” was neither added nor pronounced.

So, for example, the traditional practice was to write “Achilles’ heel” (not “Achilles’s heel”); “Jesus’ sake” (not “Jesus’s sake”); “Hercules’ strength” (not “Hercules’s strength”); “Moses’ commandments” (not “Moses’s commandments”), and so on.

Most style guides still follow that tradition, but the practice is no longer universal. Increasingly in recent years, classical and biblical names have come to be treated more like modern ones—at least in the way they’re written.

The Chicago Manual of Style (16th ed.), which is widely used in the publishing industry, now recommends that biblical and classical names form the possessive with both an apostrophe and “s,” even if they already end in “s,” “x,” or “z.”

Among the examples given are “Jesus’s adherents” and “Tacitus’s Histories.”

But what about pronunciation? Generally, the addition of the apostrophe and “s” adds a final syllable.

But the Chicago Manual makes an exception for certain classical name: those ending in an “eez” sound, like “Sophocles” and “Aristophanes.”

The editors write: “In a departure from earlier practice, Chicago no longer recommends the traditional exception for proper classical names of two or more syllables that end in an eez sound. Such names form the possessive in the usual way (though when these forms are spoken the additional s is generally not pronounced).”

The “eez” examples given in the style guide are “Euripides’s tragedies,” “the Ganges’s source,” and “Xerxes’s armies.”

So if you were following Chicago Manual style, you would write “Achilles’s heel,” but you would pronounce the possessive name without the extra syllable: a-KILL-eez heel.

However, this wouldn’t apply to a classical name like “Zeus,” which doesn’t end in an “eez” sound. So “Zeus’s wrath,” according to Chicago, would be pronounced with the extra syllable: ZOOSE-uz rath.

Keep in mind, though, that style customs are not written in stone; they change over time. And most style guides still recommend the old practice (an apostrophe without “s”) with biblical and classical names ending in a sibilant sound.

We just wanted to alert you to the fact that the ground here is slowly shifting.

However, it’s safe to say that if you add an apostrophe plus “s” when writing the possessive form of a name like “Jesus” or “Moses,” then you should add the extra syllable “uz” when pronouncing the name

But if you write the possessive forms in the traditional way (“Jesus’ name,” “Moses’ wisdom”), then don’t pronounce what’s not there.

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