The Grammarphobia Blog

Possessed by saints

Q: My sisters and I were wondering why schools named after saints are possessive (St. Aidan’s Grammar School, St. Mary’s High School, St. John’s University) while other schools, religious or otherwise, are not (Glen Cove Elementary School, Friends Academy, Brigham Young University).

A: We haven’t found any authoritative explanation why schools named after saints generally use the possessive (as in “St. Hilda’s Academy”) while other schools don’t (“Millard Fillmore Junior High School”).

The Oxford English Dictionary doesn’t shed much light here, though it does have a small notation that applies to churches: “The possessive of names preceded by ‘Saint’ is often used ellipt. in names of churches, as St. Paul’s, St. Peter’s.”

Perhaps this elliptical church convention was passed along to religious schools. In any case, the possessive form seems appropriate in this situation.

When a school (or church or hospital) is named for a saint, it’s consecrated to and placed under the protection of the saint, not merely named in someone’s honor.

By the way, we’re using the term “possessive” here, though “genitive” would be a better term. The possessive is one kind of genitive, but genitives involve relationships much wider than simple possession or ownership.

A genitive can express relations like measurement (“a week’s vacation”), affiliation (“Sylvia’s book club,”) kinship (“Percy’s cousin”), description (“a bachelor’s degree”), and so on.

There’s another point to be made here. Schools whose names include “of” instead of ’s are also genitives. So “Academy of St. Hilda” is the grammatical equivalent of “St. Hilda’s Academy.”

This seems to work with saints but not with mortal beings. We somehow can’t imagine a school named “Millard Fillmore’s High School” or the “High School of Millard Fillmore.”

For whatever reason, there does seem to be some underlying difference (celestial versus earthly?) that would account for this convention. However, we’ve found that while the pattern is widely followed, it isn’t universal.

Not every school named for a saint has ’s. Examples include St. Bonaventure University in western New York and St. Catherine University in Minneapolis/St. Paul.

And not every school named for an ordinary person lacks the ’s. Take Paul Smith’s College in upstate New York, named after a 19th-century hotel owner. As the school’s style guide says, even on second reference the name has ’s, as in “Paul Smith’s alumni” (who, by the way, are called “Smitties”).

Granted, Paul Smith’s is exceptional. “When a college is named after anyone except a saint, the apostrophe is rare,” Robert L. Coard wrote in the journal American Speech in 1958.

It’s colleges named after saints that generally have the ’s, he said, noting the half-dozen American schools called St. Joseph’s College.

“But even here the tendency to use the uninflected form appears,” he said, “as in St. Joseph College, West Hartford, Connecticut.”

He added that the ’s is usually omitted when “the result would be harsh or cumbersome,” as in “St. Francis College” or “St. Mary-of-the-Woods College.”

Where churches are concerned, it seems that the modern tendency is to dispense with the ’s. We gather that this is a style matter that churches or dioceses decide for themselves.

Writing in the National Catholic Reporter in 2005,  E. Leo McManus noted “a trend to eliminate the troublesome apostrophe by jettisoning what is popularly called the possessive case” from the names of churches dedicated to saints.

When he was a boy growing up in Rochester, NY, he said, his family’s church was known as St. Anne’s. But it’s now listed in the Rochester Catholic Directory as “St. Anne.”

Similarly, he said, “St. Monica’s in Rochester is now St. Monica; St. Salome’s in Irondequoit is now St. Salome; and St. Helen’s in Gates is now St. Helen. Only St. Patrick has, so to speak, held his own, for there are eight St. Patrick’s parishes and but one St. Patrick in Cato. Almost all of the 15 churches dedicated to St. Mary are popularly in the possessive case.”

McManus suggested that mistaken notions about possessiveness may be at work:

“The disappearance of the unruly apostrophe may be the result of having confused the role of the possessive case,” he wrote. “It was the Anglican bishop and grammarian Robert Lowth in 1752 who first called what had been the genitive case the ‘possessive.’ That may have contributed to the erroneous belief that the only function of the possessive is to show ownership.”

If you don’t believe that church names are inconsistent, just look at London’s famous Church of St. Martin-in-the-Fields, the short form of which is St. Martin’s.

As James Graham wrote last year in the journal British Heritage, in the United States there are at least 20 churches named after the original, and those names are written all kinds of ways—with and without hyphens, with and without ’s after “Martin,” and with “Field” in the singular as well as the plural.

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