Thursday, May 11, 2006

Roberts's Rules of Style

My desk wrote the headline "The Case of Roberts's Missing Papers" last night, and the reporter whose name was on the story received several e-mail messages (some more polite than others) pointing out the "error" of not using Roberts'.

Lesson No. 1 here, of course, is that the reporters don't write the headlines.

Lesson No. 2: This is a matter of style, and Washington Post style calls for Roberts's. Styles vary, but if one style must be declared more correct than the other, Roberts's wins.

"The Elements of Style," in fact, makes the principle Rule 1 in Chapter 1. Sayeth Strunkwhite:

1. Form the possessive singular of nouns by adding 's.

Follow this rule whatever the final consonant. Thus write,

    Charles's friend

    Burns's poems

    the witch's malice
  Exceptions are the possessives of ancient proper names ending -es and -is, the possessive Jesus', and such forms as for conscience' sake, for righteousness' sake.

The aggrieved readers' aggrievedness is an interesting demonstration of how well Americans have been "trained" by Associated Press style. It is true that most U.S. newspapers, because most U.S. newspapers follow AP style, would write Roberts'. AP says:

SINGULAR PROPER NAMES ENDING IN S: Use only an apostrophe: Achilles' heel, Agnes' book, Ceres' rites, Descartes' theories, Dickens' novels, Euripides' dramas, Hercules' labors, Jesus' life, Jules' seat, Kansas' schools, Moses' law, Socrates' life, Tennessee Williams' plays, Xerxes' armies. (An exception is St. James's Palace.)

There are myriad rules within the rule -- tiny points on which virtually no two stylebooks agree -- but in general USA Today agrees with AP while the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal agree with the Post.

The Chicago Manual of Style is to more formal publishing what the Associated Press Stylebook is to newspapers, and it takes the formal route:

The possessive of most singular nouns is formed by adding an apostrophe and an s, and the possessive of plural nouns (except for a few irregular plurals that do not end in s) by adding an apostrophe only.

(Note that Roberts as a last name does not mean "more than one Roberts.") Chicago gives Burns's poems and Dickens's novels as examples.

Words Into Type has a similar entry.

So does Garner's Modern American Usage:

To form a singular possessive, add -'s to most singular nouns--even those ending in -s, -ss, and -x (hence Jones's, Nichols's, witness's, Vitex's).

The most interesting exception, addressed by some of the above, is for Sox, as in Red Sox and White Sox. The obviously correct solution is Sox', as the spelling is an analogue of Socks (plurals take the apostrophe alone) and, of course, people just don't say "Sox's."

For much, much more on this topic, see "The Elephants of Style."


AHL PR said...

I was surprised at the number of matches for Sox's I found doing a Google search. I would've thought Sox' would be a no-brainer as well.

Do any of the style books -- especially AP's -- address proper nouns ending in a silent S? Arkansas's looks a little odd, but I wouldn't know how to pronounce Arkansas'.

Dr Zen said...

In my idiom at least, "Charles's" is pronounced "Charlesiz", while "Jesus'" is pronounced more as though the "s" was geminate. I wonder whether that it what has led to the common convention here in Australia and in the UK to write single-syllable names with and polysyllables without the "s".

Bill said...

Yes, I just explained how both are common and correct, but it's absurd to imply that publications should have no policy against writing "Roberts'" in one sentence and "Roberts's" in the next.

Bill said...

I would write Illinois's and Corps's. The style manuals are split. Some manuals also differentiate based on whether the final syllable is accented. "The Elephants of Style" includes a chart showing how the major stylebooks handle the possessives of Kansas, Texas and Arkansas (the Arkansas ruling would apply to Illinois).

Alexandra said...

This whole style manual thing kind of bothers me. What it means is that a newspaper or publisher can change the rules. "Roberts's" is grammatically incorrect; there are no acceptions made for such a construction. But because it is printed in the newspaper that way, people will assume its use is correct, and it filters its way into modern language. And Sox' is also incorrect, "Those ending in s or x should always be followed by 's when used possessively in English" (Fowler's New Modern Usage, speaking particularly of French words, but it is applicable here.)

Bill said...

Sigh. I'll repeat myself: Roberts's is the formally correct version. Roberts' is the style shortcut. Perhaps you're confusing all this with the rule for plurals? If Robert Wagner and Robert Goulet buy a vacation house together, yes, it's the Roberts' vacation house, not Roberts's. But the chief justice, thank goodness, is only one person.

Sox's is ridiculous, precisely because of that rule on plurals.

None of this has anything to do with "grammar."

aparker54 said...

If I may riff off on the introduction to "Elephants of Style" -- On principle, I tend to ignore Strunk & White. A top editor made the copy editors make "however" postpositive but not ultimate, and that was a lot of work. Sadly, I worked at AP-style papers.

I adore "Elephants."

Bill said...

Seems to me that if you do or don't pronounce two s's in James'/James's you'd do the same with Roberts'/Roberts's.

Nicole said...

I smell a tagline, Bill: "Lawyers enjoy my humorous explanations."

Jasmine said...

I came across this cartoon and thought you might like it: Bob's Quick Guide to the Apostrophe

Unknown said...

Alexandra above is concerned about correct grammar. However, she used the word "acceptions" instead of "exceptions" in her concerns. Everyone makes mistakes it is not the end of the world.