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The Vine

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Home » The Vine

The Vine: November 7, 2012

Submitted by on November 7, 2012 – 10:46 AM30 Comments

I need reassurance.

My son’s name is Atticus, and when I write about his belongings, I put an apostrophe plus an S. “Atticus’s books.” “Atticus’s toys.” “Atticus’s room.” But a few people have corrected me and high school was a long time ago and I am losing confidence. I remember you said years ago that Jesus and Moses are the only ones who don’t get that extra S. Have the rules changed?


Atticus’s mom

Dear Mom,

The rules have not changed, although I didn’t realize myself that those rules include, according to Garnerall “Biblical and Classical names ending in –s” — Jesus and Moses, but also Aristophanes, Grotius, e.g.

But Garner’s ruling stands: “To form a singular possessive, add -‘s to most singular nouns — even those ending in -s and -x (hence witness’s, Vitex’s, Jones’s, Nichols’s).” He adds that AP Stylebook “calls for nothing more than an apostrophe” for nouns ending in -s…but we can chalk this up to the same “save space in typesetting” rationale that tends to advise against the serial comma.

Not that that’s going to stop well-meaning overcorrecters from letting you know it’s “wrong,” but short of sending them online citations, you’ll probably just have to rehearse a polite “oh, really? I’ll have to look that up” while continuing to punctuate it as you have. Meaning: correctly.




  • scout1222 says:

    Just checking in with support for the name Atticus….

  • Lisa says:

    My boss’s last name is Phillips, and I always get corrected when I write out “Phillips’s ____________.” In fact, my auto-correct on Firefox has it underlined with the dreaded (and often incorrect) Red Squiggly Line!

  • katie says:

    Hey Atticus’s Mom – do you live in CT?? My kid went to mini-camp with a kid named Atticus and how many of them can there be? Love the name either way…

  • Mandy says:

    I was taught Jesus and Moses only in law school. Interesting to hear about the classical names, too.

  • Isis Uptown says:

    My husband is named Gus, my mother is named Lois, so I am Gus’s wife and Lois’s daughter. Further, my family name has a silent ‘s’ at the end, so even without the rule, we’d still need the aprostrophe ‘s’.

  • Krissa says:

    I go by Kris, and I always claim my things with an apostrophe S. If someone corrects me, they cannot share any of my things.

  • Kari says:

    Atticus’s mom here! I am relieved to hear that I was not way off base. I was starting to worry, so thanks, Sars (and Nation).

    We live in NC, but obviously the CT Atticus has parents with great taste in names.

  • Elsajeni says:

    Follow-up question: does the exemption for Jesus apply only to, y’know, the Jesus, or does it also affect kids named Jesus? (Or, I suppose, kids named Aristophanes?)

  • Jen S 1.0 says:

    Isis’s relatives!

  • Scarlettb says:

    @Elsajeni – I’m thinking it’s just THE Jesus and THE Moses. So it’s Moses’ flight from Egypt, and Moses’s mother Gwyneth Paltrow.

  • Nora says:

    Follow-up question: How are exceptions like “Jesus'” pronounced? Because I’m hearing a lot of people pronounce these s’ possessives as though the possessive marker weren’t there at all, like “Mary was Jesus mother.” I’m almost positive you still say the possessive, so it sounds more like “In Jesuses name, amen.”

  • attica says:

    You will get additional comfort on this score by reading Eats, Shoots & Leaves, which advocates exactly the punctuation you use, Atticus’s mom.

    I get the feeling this is a fairly recent rule update, though, meaning it wouldn’t surprise me if the people ‘correcting’ you are from an older generation. F’r instance, my mom called me one night a couple of years ago, upset that she saw a chryon on tv advertising a reairing of “Ken Burns’s Baseball“. Back in her day, it was strictly Burns’. It fell to me to let her know the advert had it right. I think she still disapproved, and undoubtedly complained about it to her ladies lunch group, but, there you go.

    As for the commonality of wee Attici? My downstairs neighbor’s son is in preschool with three of ’em. Which is not the point of the letter, I know. I’m just saying we love our Scout’s dad/Gregory Peck. And I should know, right? ;)

  • Isis Uptown says:

    Further, Isis’s husband Gus’s surname also ends in ‘s’, just not a silent one. (My surname is Cajun, his is Greek).

  • Thanks for the smiles triggered by both the letter and responses! To think some people consider punctuation to be a boring conversation topic!

  • Lis says:

    OK Nation, if you see this can you help me out? What about a last name like Barkley? What if I am going over to the house owned by the family who have the last name Barkley? Am I going to the Barkleys’ house? The Barkley’s house? The Barklies’ house? I just don’t know. I feel like it’s the Barkley’s house but that’s singular, which makes me want to go with Barkleys’ but that looks wrong… I’m pretty confidant that Barklies is wrong but I wanted to put it in there for fun… In my group of friends we tend to call couples by their last name and this couple makes it really hard to talk about via email :)

  • Jen S 2.0 says:

    I am very entertained by how many giggles this boring-on-its-surface comment thread generated. Among them: “wee Attici,” “THE Jesus,” and “the dreaded (and often incorrect) Red Squiggly Line.” Also the justifiably possessive (ha! *kneeslap*) Kris, heh.

  • Dorine says:

    Just chiming in with the chorus — keep doing it right, Atticus’s mom. My maiden name ends in an “s,” and it never fails to grind my gears (and my mom’s) to see people fail to do either the possessive or the plural correctly.

  • Alyce says:

    I’m pretty sure it’s Barkleys’ house. More than one Barkley so it gets plural and that takes apostrophe after.

    If the family has the last name of Jones, oh my, then it would be Joneses’ house.

  • courtney says:

    @Lis–I think it’s “the Barkleys” if you’re talking about the couple, or “the Barkleys’ house” for the possessive. I can’t find a rule in the Chicago Manual of Style (which is to me what Garner is to Sars), but I can’t imagine the usual spelling changes for pluralization (stories, ponies, etc.) extend to proper nouns.

  • speedbudget says:

    Old time reader, newly come back and freshly enjoying all that The Vine has to offer chiming in to say never change the spelling of a name. There is the “change the I to Y etc.” rule, but that doesn’t apply to names. And it’s the whole family, so it would be Barkleys’ house.

    However, I hate those signs that people put up that just say “The Smith’s.” The Smith’s what? Shouldn’t it just be “The Smiths”?

  • Chris says:

    @Nora Fowler (which is for British English, so Garner may or may not concur) says you pronounce Jesus’ (or Moses’) the same as the singular in ‘poetic or reverential contexts’. In ordinary usage, add the extra syllable for the possessive s, so Jesus’ sounds like Jesuses. At the church I grew up in, we’d pronounce ‘In Jesus’ name’ as ‘In Jesus name’.

    For classical names, it seems to depend on the length of the last syllable – long e means you don’t pronounce the possessive differently. Pythagoras’ doctrines are pronounced ‘Pythagorases doctrines’; Aristophanes’ plays would never be said ‘Aristophaneses’.

  • Rebecca says:

    Given the number of people who can’t get apostrophes right under any circumstances, I agree that you’ll just have to know you’re right and let it slide. It is so embarrassing to me that my work gives out patient information with incorrect apostrophes. There was also a sign for staff (in a storage room) with such hideous punctuation (maybe 3 or 4 errors? Like everything was wrong) that one night, tired and pissed off about something else, I took a pen and corrected it. Misplaced revenge accomplished!

  • MizShrew says:

    Just wanted to mention that some of us are still stuck with the old rules. I work in advertising and our Proof Department’s default is still the AP unless there is a conflicting client style requirement.

    So you’re right, but lots of people have had it drilled into them the other way, and not just older people. Which doesn’t make it less annoying to get incorrectly corrected, but maybe makes it more understandable?

  • Deborah says:

    CMOS has removed the stricture against the ‘s for biblical and classical names in their 16th edition. I think now they only say no ‘s for names ending in “es” where the pronunciation is “eez”–Xerxes, for example. But my copy of CMOS is in my office at the moment.

    So nearly everyone, including Jesus and Moses would get ‘s.

  • Sandman says:

    However, I hate those signs that people put up that just say “The Smith’s.” The Smith’s what? Shouldn’t it just be “The Smiths”?

    @Chris: Oh, my bob, “The Smith’s” drives me BONKERS. I can see “The Smiths” (signifying that multiple Smiths live here) or “The Smiths'” (meaning that this house belongs to the Smiths collectively) but “Smith’s” or “The Smith’s” can’t be right. Unless the guy lives alone. And over his smithy.

    I think the “‘s” started getting added to family names as a mangling of the “Don’t change the spelling of a name” rule.

    And now I’ve typed “Smith” so much it looks weird.

  • Sandman says:

    Whoops. I should have replied to @speedbudget, not @Chris. Sorry.

  • Cyd says:

    I was taught that the correct way was without the “‘s”–but obviously the times they have a-changed. You will pry the serial comma from my cold dead hands, however.

  • Kristin says:

    Cyd, feeling you on the serial comma. My boss is a comma-hater, damn it, and it drives me batty.

    I recently did some research on this as one of my colleagues has a surname ending in “s” and I wanted to confirm that I was using the possessive properly. Differing schools of thought, including one source that said you didn’t have to include the 2nd “s” if you didn’t pronounce it. ???

    But as Elvis’s dog mama, I use the “s”. :-)

  • Bo says:

    I have a friend whose neighbor made them a nice mosaic sign for the front of their house as a welcome gift. So it’s there. Even though it says, “The Brown’s.” I can almost see him gritting his teeth every time he comes in.

  • frogprof says:

    Can we ignore the fact that I’m “coming a little late to the party and embrace the fact that [I] showed up at all,” so that I can say how much I love every single one of you right now? The serial/Oxford comma [hey, my dad was a Rhodes Scholar, so I call it that naturally] is my one true love, and since it drives my illiterate boss crazy, I use it even more.
    And the possessive of ANYTHING? Seriously, the man hasn’t met an apostrophe he doesn’t want to abuse.
    But I really really REALLY do love you people who care so much about the English language.

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