The Grammarphobia Blog

How possessive are you?

Q: I am curious why some of us were taught to use an apostrophe plus “s” to make a possessive of a singular proper noun ending in “s,” “x,” or “z,” while others were taught to use just an apostrophe.

A: Many people don’t realize that the conventions of punctuation are largely matters of style, and they’re much more fluid than the conventions of grammar. As we noted in a 2011 post, the customs of punctuation sometimes shift.

We wrote that an apostrophe plus the letter “s” has generally been used to mark the possessive case of singular nouns for at least three centuries, and that this has been true whether or not the nouns ended in a sibilant like “s,” “x,” or “z.”

Fowler’s Dictionary of Modern English Usage (4th ed., edited by Jeremy Butterfield) has this to say:

“The apostrophe before s became regulated as an indication of the singular possessive case towards the end of the 17c., and the apostrophe after s was first recorded as an indication of the plural possessive case towards the end of the 18c.”

Fowler’s says these “basic patterns” apply to proper names ending in “s.” So add an apostrophe plus “s” to a  singular name, Butterfield writes, “whenever you would tend to pronounce the possessive form of the name with an extra iz sound, e.g. Charles’s brother, St James’s Square, Thomas’s niece, Zacharias’s car.”

However, he notes that “gross disturbances of these basic patterns have occurred in written and printed work” since then, and “further disturbances may be expected in the 21c.”

In the mid-20th century, it was not uncommon to be taught to drop the possessive “s” and use only an apostrophe after words ending in a sibilant (as in “Charles’ brother”). Although this isn’t a common practice today, it’s still sometimes seen in published writing.

The Chicago Manual of Style (17th ed.) says some writers and publishers still prefer a system “of simply omitting the possessive s on all words ending in s.” However, the manual says that this system is “not recommended” because it “disregards pronunciation.”

This is what the Chicago Manual advocates: “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 s, x, or z.”

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

To show just how changeable these customs can be, we wrote a post in 2018 on shifts in possessive forms of ancient classical or biblical names that already end in “s,” like “Moses” and “Euripedes.”

The traditional custom had been to add just an apostrophe, but in current practice the additional “s” is optional, depending on whether or not it’s pronounced: “Euripides’ plays” or “Euripides’s plays,” “Moses’ staff” or “Moses’s staff,” “Jesus’ teachings” or “Jesus’s teachings.”

As Pat writes in the new fourth edition of Woe Is I, “Let your pronunciation choose for you. If you add an extra syllable when pronouncing one of these possessive names (MO‑zus‑uz), then add the final s (Moses’s). If you don’t pronounce that s (and many people don’t, especially if the name ends in an EEZ sound, like Euripides), then don’t write it.”

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For veterans, an old war story

[Note: We’re marking Veterans Day with an abbreviated version of an article that Stewart wrote more than 48 years ago when he was a war correspondent for United Press International in Vietnam.]

A hilltop rescue in Vietnam

By STEWART KELLERMAN

QUANG TRI, South Vietnam, Aug. 22, 1971 (UPl) — Joe Lester won the lifelong gratitude of three GIs the other day. He saved their lives.

Stewart Kellerman in Vietnam

The episode began Friday morning when .51-caliber antiaircraft rounds thumped into the engine of a tiny observation helicopter whirring at treetop level below the Demilitarized Zone between North and South Vietnam.

“I just didn’t want to believe it,” said the pilot, Warrant Officer Bill Halevy, 21, of Tuckerton, N.J. “I didn’t want to believe we were hit. I didn’t want to have to go down there, right in the middle of all those Communists.”

But down went the OH6 helicopter, hitting the rocky ground and crumbling into a ball of plastic, metal and wire. Halevy and his crew members—Specialist Fourth Class William Hillegas, 26, of Allentown, Pa., and Spec. 4 Joel Gibson, 19, of Cypress, Calif.—lived through three of the most hair-raising hours of their lives.

It all might have ended in tragedy for them if not for the quick action of their platoon leader, Capt. Joseph M. Lester, 26, of Aurora, Colo.

All the American troops involved, however, considered this just another day’s work for U.S. helicopter crews scouting the ridges and valleys below the DMZ in support of South Vietnamese troops fighting Communists in the area.

Halevy and his men were flying over a ridgeline about four miles north of Artillery Base Fuller, searching for a North Vietnamese battalion believed in the area. Their helicopter went down near a stream at the bottom of the ridge.

“As soon as we were hit I decided I wouldn’t be captured,” Halevy said. “I’d have shot myself instead. I’d save the last bullet for myself. I don’t want to be a prisoner of war. Your family worries and nobody knows what’s going on.”

After they pulled themselves from the wreckage of the helicopter, the downed crewmen could hear Communist soldiers messaging each other by whistling. As the whistling got louder the three Americans began moving up the ridge in hopes of signaling rescue helicopters.

“I never crashed before and I expected the worst,” Hillegas said. “Crashing was the hardest part for me. After that, when I realized I was still alive, I just wanted to get up that hill and away from the Communists as soon as I could.”

It took them about one hour to climb through the thick underbrush on the ridgeline and reach the top. All the time they kept low, trying to avoid the troops searching for them. The incessant whistling got louder and louder, never letting them forget the danger that was there.

At the top, they found a clearing. For two hours they waited and waved their fatigue jackets to get the attention of U.S. helicopters trying to find them.

Lester was in another OH6, one of a half dozen helicopters looking for the downed crew. As soon as he spotted them, he flew to nearby Camp Carroll, dropped off his other two crew members and returned empty to pick up the three downed men.

Lester received a Silver Star for going down and getting the three airmen. The three downed men were recommended for Bronze Stars.

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Shadows on the wall

Q: I’m stumped by the use of “due” in this sentence by Bertrand Russell about Plato’s cave allegory: “Inevitably they regard these shadows as real, and have no notion of the objects to which they are due.”

A: In the cave allegory, as you know, a group of people have lived chained to the wall of a cave since childhood, and shadows cast on the wall by a fire behind them become the prisoners’ reality.

In History of Western Civilization (1946), Bertrand Russell discusses the allegory, a Socratic dialogue in Plato’s Republic, written in the fourth-century BC. Here’s an expanded excerpt that puts Russell’s sentence into context:

“Between them and the wall there is nothing; all that they see are shadows of themselves, and of objects behind them, cast on the wall by the light of the fire. Inevitably they regard these shadows as real, and have no notion of the objects to which they are due.”

In that last sentence, “the objects to which they are due” means “the objects to which they are attributable” or “the objects that they are due to” or simply “the objects that caused them.”

We wonder if Russell’s awkward wording may have been due to his unwillingness to end the sentence with “due to.” However, the so-called rule against ending a sentence with a preposition is a common misconception that we’ve written about on our language myths page.

As for “due to,” the usage showed up in the 17th century as an adjectival phrase meaning “caused by” or “resulting from.” But over the last century and a half, it has also been used adverbially as a compound preposition meaning “because of” or “on account of.”

The newer usage is now accepted by all 10 online standard dictionaries that we regularly consult. Lexico, the former Oxford Dictionaries Online, cites this example of “due to” used to modify a verb: “he had to withdraw due to a knee injury.”

Despite the acceptance by dictionaries, some traditionalists still object to the usage. The critics insist that “due to” should introduce an adjectival phrase that modifies a particular noun.

When “due to” first showed up in writing, according to citations in the Oxford English Dictionary, it was used adjectivally in the predicate to mean “attributable to a particular cause or origin; derived or arising from; caused by, consequent on; as a result of.”

The OED’s earliest example is from a scientific treatise: “The motion of the Oyly drops may be in part due to some partial solution made of them by the vivous spirit” (The History of Fluidity and Firmnesse, 1669, by Robert Boyle).

However, the OED says the usage was rare before the 19th century, when it widened to include the use of “due to” as a compound preposition meaning “as a result of, on account of, because of.”

The dictionary’s first example for “due to” used adverbially as a compound preposition is from another scientific treatise: “electric currents produced by periodical variations of temperature at its [the earth’s] surface, due to the sun’s position above the horizon” (1840, Royal Society report on a British expedition to Antarctica; we’ve expanded the citation to include the verb).

“This use became well established during the 19th century, and is now usually regarded as acceptable standard English, but began to be criticized in usage guides in the early 20th century, apparently beginning with H. W. Fowler,” the OED says.

In the 1926 first edition of his Dictionary of Modern English Usage, Fowler says “due to is often used by the illiterate” as “a mere compound preposition.” But in the 2015 fourth edition, Jeremy Butterfield says “it looks as if this use of due to is now part of the natural language of the 21c.”

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Lock, stock, and barrel

Q: Can you explain the expression “lock, stock, and barrel”? I know that it means all of something, but does it refer to the actual parts of a firearm?

A: Yes, the individual words refer to parts of a gun, but the phrase itself has almost always been used figuratively.

The “barrel” here is a gun barrel, the “stock” is the handle, and the “lock” is the firing mechanism where loose powder is exploded in old-style firearms (hence terms like “flintlock,” “matchlock,” and so on).

The phrase was inspired by an old joke about a rural Scotsman who takes his worn-out gun to be repaired. But it’s virtually beyond repair, and the gunsmith suggests he should simply buy a new one. The Scotsman replies that he’ll settle for a new stock, a new lock, and a new barrelin other words, a whole new gun.

We’ve seen dozens of versions of the story, dating from the late 1700s onward. Usually the weapon is called a “gun,” but sometimes it’s a “pistol,” a “musket,” or a “fowling-piece” (a light shotgun). This is the earliest reference we’ve found to the story:

“When we think of the other improvements which this work would need, before it could be rendered useful, we cannot help recollecting the story of a gun which, in order to be repaired, required a new stock, a new lock, and a new barrel.” (From a review of a book on agriculture in the Monthly Review, London, March 1790.)

And the Scottish poet Robert Burns referred to it in a letter written in April 1793: “Let him mend the song, as the Highlander mended his gun; he gave it a new stock, a new lock, and a new barrel.”

The resulting figurative phrase—originally “stock, lock, and barrel”—means “as a whole; entirely,” or “the totality or entirety of something,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary, and its earliest examples are from Scottish authors.

The OED’s first confirmed figurative usage is from a letter written by Sir Walter Scott on Oct. 29, 1817, in reference to an old fountain on his estate: “Like the High-landman’s gun, she wants stock, lock, and barrel, to put her into repair.”

We found this 1819 example in the writings of another Scotsman: “I am afraid that if the Americans continue to cherish a fondness for such repairs, the highlandman’s pistol, with its new stock, lock, and barrel, will bear a close resemblance to what is ultimately produced.”

(From a letter written on Feb. 10, 1819, by John Duncan, commenting on Americans’ readiness to overhaul their state constitutions. His letters were published in Glasgow in 1823 as Travels Through Part of the United States and Canada.)

And this Oxford example refers to a financial disaster: “Even the capital likewise—stock, lock, and barrel, all went.” (From Lawrie Todd, an 1830 novel by John Galt about a Scotsman who emigrates to North America.)

In our searches of old newspaper databases, we found that the phrase persisted in that order (“stock, lock, and barrel”) well into the 20th century, though it fell off sharply in the 1930s.

Meanwhile, a version with the first two nouns reversed—“lock, stock, and barrel”—had started appearing in figurative use as early as the 1820s (we’ve seen reports of an 1803 American example, but we can’t confirm it). By the mid-19th century the newer phrase was quite common in both Britain and the United States.

The OED’s earliest confirmed example in which the reversed phrase appears figuratively is from a Pennsylvania newspaper:

“Congress are in possession of the flint, powder, gun, lock, stock and barrel, and still we exclaim with the old lady, take away the musket” (the Adams Centinel, Gettysburg, April 7, 1824).

And we found this example in a work of Irish fiction published two years later: “Maybe you might have the heart to say another word;—one—jist one—that ’ud save poor Peery Conolly sowl an’ body, lock, stock, an’ barrel, an’ ould Matthew along wid him, that’s goin’ to ruination an’ smithereens” (Tales by the O’Hara Family, by the brothers John and Michael Banim, London, 1826).

Why was “stock, lock” reversed to “lock, stock”? We can only suggest that perhaps the resulting phrase came easier to the tongue. Today, as the OED notes, it’s the usual form, and the original “stock, lock” version is “rarely” used.

As for the individual words in the phrase, “lock” in the weaponry sense is defined this way in the OED: “In a gun or firearm which uses loose gunpowder: a mechanism by means of which the charge is exploded.”

The term appeared originally as part of a compound, “firelock.” Oxford’s earliest example is from a 1544 document in the state papers of King Henry VIII: “Some of them shute with maches not having the fyre lockes.”

Other “lock” compounds refer to various firing mechanisms or weapons using them: “matchlock” (first recorded in writing in 1638), “gunlock” (1651), “wheel-lock” (1670), and “flintlock” (1683).

By the time those later compounds were recorded, “lock” was also being used by itself to mean a firing mechanism. Here’s the OED’s earliest example:

“Others carrie … some Peeces, with the Match readie lighted … and haue the best lockes that possible may bee found in all Europe.” (From Discours of Voyages into ye Easte and West Indies, a 1598 translation of a work by Jan Huygen van Linschoten.)

The use of “lock” for part of a gun evolved from the familiar noun for a fastener with a sliding bolt and often operated with a key. That earlier “lock” has been around since early Old English and was “inherited from Germanic,” Oxford says.

As for “stock,” it too has an ancient history and was derived from Germanic. The original Old English noun, now archaic, first meant a tree stump and later a block of wood.

The earliest use of “stock” in weaponry emerged in the late 15th century, when it meant a gun carriage for mounting a cannon or artillery piece. The term in this sense was first recorded as “gunstok” in 1496 and as “stokke” in 1497, according to OED citations.

A “stock” later came to mean “the wooden portion of a musket or fowling-piece” or “the handle of a pistol,” the OED says.

Oxford’s earliest example is from a law enacted in 1541 during the reign of Henry VIII: “Any handgun … shalbe in the stock and gonne of the lenghe of one hole Yarde.” (Note: In early use, a “handgun” meant a firearm carried by hand, as opposed to a cannon.)

Finally, “barrel” in the weapons sense, a use first recorded in the 17th century, comes from the familiar noun for a large roundish wooden cask.

That earlier noun came into English in the early 14th century from French (baril), the OED says, but the ultimate source is medieval Latin (barile). Oxford adds: “The Celtic words (Welsh baril, Gaelic baraill, Irish bairile, Manx barrel) sometimes cited as the source, are all from English.”

It was only natural that the hollow cylindrical metal tube of a firearm should come to be called a “barrel.”

The earliest use in the OED is from Two Treatises (1644) by Sir Kenelm Digby. Here Digby describes an experiment for demonstrating the power of suction, and we’ve expanded the citation to get in the rather alarming context:

“Take the barrel of a long gun perfectly bored and set it upright with the breech upon the ground, and take a bullet that is exactly fit for it … and then if you suck at the mouth of the barrel (though ever so gently) the bullet will come up so forcibly that it will hazard the striking out of your teeth.”

He adds later, “I remember to have seen a man that was uncautious and sucked strongly that had his fore-teeth beaten out by the blow of the bullet ascending.”

Do not try this at home!

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