or, stuff that I dragged out of my head

Location: Moncton, New Brunswick, Canada

Saturday, April 02, 2005


All right. This one won't be easily settled, but that doesn't mean I'm not willing to have a go at it.

How exactly does one pluralize the possessive of a word that ends in "-s"? Suffixing apostrophe-ess is the usual technique for forming the possessive: "John's haircut looks like a pig's breakfast." But when a word already ends in "-s", slapping another ess on the end looks odd to some people: "Louis's megaphone bothered the neighbours's cat." If the word ends in two esses, it looks even worse, and if the following word begins with an ess, well, that's a nightmare slurry of sibilants: "Jess's sister stole the hostess's silverware".

A solution that has arisen is to delete the ess following the apostrophe in some or all of these cases. Some prescribe that the ess be removed only when the next word also begins with an ess: "Marlys' sister is dating Hans' son". Others prefer that the terminal ess be deleted whenever the word ends with "-s", whatever the first letter of the following word: "Dickens' novels are Jules' favourites." With the understanding that the implied ess is still pronounced--it sounds like "dickenses", not "dickens", "juleses", not "jules"--I'm in the latter camp. (Some people don't pronounce that invisible "-s", and I have to wonder why not; don't they want to indicate the possessive? Even if the ess isn't there, can't they assume, as I do, that a bare apostrophe is pronounced like a zed?)

Even if I'm provably wrong, I don't care: it's said of artists and writers that they can't break the rules unless they know them, and I know the rule (if a rule it be); I just don't like it. I think ess-apostrophe looks nicer, and there's plenty of precedent for it, so that's what I'm going to use.

I call it the toilet-seat argument: a man and a woman get into that snarly, unresolvable discussion about the seat and/or the lid. She says, "What if I fall in in the middle of the night?" He counters with, "Hey, guys have to sit down sometimes, too, and you never hear of them falling in. And if we're smart enough to check to see if the seat is down, then you should be, too." And that sort of thing goes on for a while, and eventually something is said that shouldn't be said and feelings are hurt and nothing gets resolved. But as soon as she says, "I just think it looks nicer with the seat down," then as far as I'm concerned, she wins. It is very difficult to argue aesthetic principles.


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