Etymology Punctuation Usage

When did “Venus’s beauty” get a second “s”?

Q: I am 50 and I was taught that words ending in “s” (“Chris,” for example) were made possessive by adding an apostrophe (“Chris’ coat”). But in recent years I have noticed another “s” being added after the apostrophe. When did “Chris’s” get an extra “s”?

A: As far as we can tell, an apostrophe plus the letter “s” has generally been used to mark the possessive case of singular nouns since at least the 1700s. This has been true whether the nouns ended in “s” or not.

A 1772 edition of Joseph Priestley’s The Rudiments of English Grammar, for example, says the possessive “is formed by adding (s) with an apostrophe before it” to a singular noun. Examples include one with a singular noun ending in “s” (“Venus’s beauty”).

So a name or other singular noun that ends in “s” (like “Chris”) is usually made possessive with the addition of an apostrophe plus a final “s” (as in “Chris’s coat”).

Here’s the rule, from The Chicago Manual of Style (17th ed.): “The possessive of most singular nouns is formed by adding an apostrophe and an s. … The general rule stated at [that paragraph] extends to the possessives of proper nouns, including names ending in sx, or z.”

[Note: This post was updated on Oct. 24, 2019, to cite the wording in the most recent edition of the Chicago Manual.]

The examples given in the Chicago Manual include “Kansas’s legislature,” “Marx’s theories,” “Dickens’s novels,” “Berlioz’s works,” “Borges’s library,” “Camus’s novels,” and “Jesus’s adherents.”

The manual goes on to say: “Some writers and publishers prefer the system, formerly more common, of simply omitting the possessive s on all words ending in s—hence ‘Dylan Thomas’ poetry,’ ‘Etta James’ singing,’ and ‘that business’ main concern.’ Though easy to apply and economical, such usage disregards pronunciation and is therefore not recommended by Chicago.”

The point about pronunciation is a good one. When a name ends in  “s” or another sibilant sound, we add a syllable when pronouncing the possessive form. So the possessive form of the name “Chris” is pronounced KRIS-ez—a good enough reason to retain the final “s.”

If you’d like to read more, we’ve written before on the blog about forming the possessive of plural names. And if you’re game for a little history, we had an item on how the apostrophe became the mark of possession.

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