Questions on Apostrophes

Question (From and oil company secretary): I have some questions from an agreement I am re-typing. The questionable words are in red italics in the following two examples.

. . . paid invoices and cancelled checks for materials purchased and for subcontractor’s and any other third parties’ charges

Answer: I can't see your red italics, but I'll just follow the bouncing apostrophes.

For the first sentence, I recommend consistency. Subcontractor and third party should both be singular or should both be plural. Deciding which one, however, is a bit of a trick because the "s" of the possessive is getting confused with t he "s" of the plural.

Let’s try substituting a noun that forms its plural by internal change instead of an "s" suffix. What do you prefer?

. . . paid invoices and cancelled checks for materials purchased and for journeyman’s and any other workman’s charges


. . . paid invoices and cancelled checks for materials purchased and for journeymen’s and any other workmen’s charges

I prefer the plural. Thus, I recommend:

. . . paid invoices and cancelled checks for materials purchased and for subcontractors’ and any other third parties’ charges

Question 2: Here's the second example:

. . . (including, without limitation, attorneys’ fees and costs of litigation, whether incurred for a protected party’s primary defense or for enforcement of its indemnification rights hereunder)

Answer: For attorneys’, I prefer the plural, as it is in the original copy. This is a judgment call, but I follow my preferences in your first example, and note, as well, that attorneys never travel alone.

For party’s, however, I recommend the singular for reasons of clarity. Each party has only one defense. If we change to "protected parties’ primary defenses," it is not clear whether each party has one defense or might have several.

General Comments: This is a lot more complicated than it looks, and your decisions on these small-scale matters do affect the meaning of the discourse. You are wise to be mulling this over.

Question: Here's the problem:

Three nights accomodations?

Three night's accomodations?

Three nights' accomodations?

Three nights accomodation?

Three night accomodations?

Answer: First things first. It's A-C-C-O-M-M-O-D-A-T-I-O-N-S. Never give a travel agent the impression that you are willing to do without a full complement of perks¾ even if those perks are only doubled M's.

Perhaps it is on this reasoning that hotel accommodations are usually in the plural. Thus, accommodations, not accommodation. And that leaves us with the three nights. I recommend the plural, which eliminates both three night and three night's. The only remaining question is whether this is a possessive. This is a judgment call, but I don't think it is. I think it's a construction that is in the genitive if it's animate and in the accusative if i t's inanimate. At the moment, the only example I can think of is:

an enemy of the state

a friend of mine.

This leads me to recommend three nights accommodations. Many style manuals (including the Associated Press Stylebook) would recommend that you recast the sentence to avoid ambiguity. This, of course, would yield your subject line: accommodations for three nights. But where's the challenge in that?

Whew. That was a tough one. I'm off to seek three nights accommodations in the Caribbean (note spelling: "R" deprived).

Question: In American English, how are words that end in "s's" pronounced? For example, if Jones is pronounced as "Jonz," how is Jones's pronounced? And if the above were written to end with the apostrophe (Jones'), is the final "s" silent?

Listening to the radio, I notice that many announcers seem to treat the final "s" as silent; but I feel the final "s" should be pronounced as a separate syllable, even in cases where the word is written to end with the apostrophe only.

Answer: Radio and television announcers pronounce words the way those words are written by news writers. News writers follow conventions in style manuals that are written to match the preferences of the audience for that medium. Most news writers follow newspaper-style conventions, which are set out in, for example, The Associated Press Stylebook and Libel Manual. The AP recommends that possessives of proper names ending in "s" be formed by adding an apostrophe only (no extra "s"). Thus, in AP style, the possessive of Jones is Jones'.

Different style manuals handle this in different ways. The Chicago Manual of Style, which is the manual for book editing, recommends that most possessives of proper names include an extra "s." It makes exceptions for Jesus, Moses, and names of more than one syllable with an unaccented ending pronouned "eez." Thus, Euripides', not Euripides's.

Spelling conventions are in some sense an attempt to replicate pronunciation. When style manuals make pronouncements on spelling, they imply that the presence of an extra "s" means that most educated speakers customarily pronounce that sound. The reason that this system cannot simply be reversed to produce pronunciation rules is that style manuals are directed at written language, and they are thus also interested in visual consistency and eliminating visual distractions.

In short, it is not possible to look at the spelling of a word and make safe assumptions about common pronunciation. The system goes from pronunciation to spelling—not from spelling to pronunciation—and there are many other variables at play.

Nevertheless, the best of the style manuals (q.v. The Chicago Manual of Style) give at least ambient advice on this point. Here's Chicago's rule 6.30:

How to form the possessive of polysllabic personal names ending with the sound of "s" or "z" probably occasions more dissension among writers and editors than any other orthographic matter open to disagreement. Some espouse the rule that the possessive of all such names should be formed by the addition of an apostrophe only. Such a rule would outlaw spellings like "Dylan Thomas's poetry," "Roy Harris's composition," and "Maria Callas's performance" in favor of "Thomas'," "Harris'," and "Callas'," which would not commend themselves to many. Other writers and editors simply abandon the attempt to define in precise phonic or orthographic terms the class of polysyllabic names to which only the apostrophe should be attached and follow a more pragmatic rule. In essence this is, "If it ends with a z sound, treat it like a plural; if it ends with an s sound treat it like a singular." Thus they would write "Dickens', Hopkins', Williams'," but also "Harris's, Thomas's, Callas's, Angus's, Willis's," and the like.

Thus, no one can give you rules for the pronunciation of any (and all) words of a given type, but it is possible to get answers (or at least opinions) for specific examples.

Witness's, for example, is formed from a common—not a proper noun. All style manuals agree that it should be written with the extra "s," and I am willing to say that most educated speakers pronounce that "s."

Jesus' (along with Moses' and names of more than one syllable with an unaccented ending pronounced eez) is among the traditional exceptions to the general rule for forming the possessive. There is no extra "s"—spelled or pronounced. The Chicago Manual notes that this practice began "for reasons of euphony."

Jones in the possessive is harder. The AP Stylebook tells you to add only an apostrophe. Chicago tells you to add "'s." Chicago's more complicated rule 6.40 produces "Jones'" because Jones ends with a "z" sound. This latter rule is the only one truly based on pronunciation.

The Grammar Hotline recommends witness's (spell and pronounce the extra s), Jesus' (neither spell nor pronounce the extra s), and Jones's (spell and pronounce the extra "s"). The last of these is the only one I am not sure about. A variation in that form would be acceptable if it were treated consistently.

Question: Which of the following sentences are correct?

a. The engineer could not determine the buttress' effect on the bridge support.

b. The engineer could not determine the buttress's effect on the bridge support.

c. The witness' statement was not corroborated by the evidence.

d. The witness's statement was not corroborated by the evidence.

Answer: Both buttress and witness are common nouns, so the rule is uniform across stylebooks: Add the "'s" unless the word following begins with a sibilant. This rule generates:

b. The engineer could not determine the buttress's effect on the bridge support.

c. The witness' statement was not corroborated by the evidence.

Note, however, that it also generates:

e. The witness's testimony was not corroborated by the evidence.

Question: Where do I place the apostrophes in the words employees and supervisors?

1. Are your employees happy?

2. It is a fact that happy employees are more productive.

3. One way to do this is to let your employees know you value and appreciate them.

4. The seminars are divided into two categories: All Employees and For Supervisors Only.

Is there an easy way to determine when to use apostrophes?

Answer: None of these constructions requires an apostrophe. Every use of employees and supervisors is a noun. In sentence (1), employees is the subject of the sentence. In sentence (2), employees is the subject of its clause. In sentence (3), employees is the subject of a clause that is acting as the object of an infinitive. In sentence (4), employees and supervisors are nouns in close apposition to the object of a preposition.

Most nouns in English take an apostrophe only when they show possession. In such cases, they modify other nouns, and are actually adjectives. Thus, the following sentences would require an apostrophe.

5. We are concerned with our employees' happiness.

6. Unhappiness can affect our employees' productivity.

7. Employees' job satisfaction depends on constructive feedback.

Question: Could you tell me which would be the correct use of the apostrophe in the following sentence:

Click here to go to satisfied client's/clients' sites.

Answer: I would guess it's clients'—plural and possessive. Client's could be correct, but only if you have only one satisfied client, and that client has many sites.

This, of course, could be the case, but if it is, I recommend against admitting it.

Question: How would one pronounce the following, assuming the family's last name is Brown, and consists of more than one person?

The Browns' dog ran away?

Would it be pronounced with one final s or two?

Answer: I recommend pronouncing this plural possessive with a single sibilant, pronounced "z." It is spelled as you have it: Browns'.

Question: I have found different opinions at work on the possessive spelling of Red Cross in the following sentence:

He was presented the American Red Cross’ highest honor for his heroic life-saving efforts.


He was presented the American Red Cross’s highest honor for his heroic life-saving efforts.

Answer: Oh dear. I don’t suppose I could distract you by telling you that lifesaving is a single word, could I? I didn’t think so.

Different style manuals give conflicting advice on how to form the possessive of a singular noun ending is "s." The AP Stylebook and Libel Manual (the approved stylebook for newspaper editing) recommends an apostrophe with no "s" following. Thus : "the Red Cross’ highest honor."

Newspapers are interested in saving space, and in generating rules that are easy to apply consistently.

On the other hand, The Chicago Manual of Style (the approved stylebook for book and academic editing) recommends an apostrophe followed by an "s." Thus: "the Red Cross’s highest honor."

Chicago allows refinement of this rule according to consistent editorial preference. In particular, it recommends that Jesus, Moses, and Greek names ending in the "eez" sound eliminate the extra "s." It also describes a system for deciding how to form the possessive based on probable pronunciation of the base noun. In short: "If it ends with a ‘z’ sound, treat it like a plural; if it ends with an ‘s’ sound, treat it like a singular." This rule generates




—and also—



—and, of course—


In the end, the most important principle is to avoid distracting the reader, and the best way to do that is to ensure that you apply the rule you choose consistently.

If you are writing or editing newspaper copy, choose Cross’.

Otherwise, you’ll have to make a decision. The Grammar Hotline endorses the form that is based on pronunciation, namely Cross’s, but acknowledges that a consistently applied Cross’ is a worthy and justifiable editorial decision.

Question: Headline in paper reads: "Whose Got Tyson’s Millions?" Why not "Who’s"? Please send advanced explanation of which one is correct and why. Advanced means an explanation beyond "Who’s is the contraction of who and is ."

Answer: I’m not sure how far the Grammar Hotline can advance your correct analysis of the error in this headline, but perhaps you will settle for long-winded.

Whose is possessive pronoun. Who’s is a contraction. It might be useful to add that who’s can be a contraction for any two words that elide letters between who and "s." You mention who is, but who has also contracts to who’s.

The latter two words are, of course, the words meant in the headline you quote. The writer meant to ask, "Who has got Tyson’s millions?" This is a colloquial way of asking, "Who has Tyson’s millions?" Note that has can be contracted when it is a n auxiliary verb, but not when it is the main verb. Nobody would ever write, "Who’s Tyson’s millions?" Is, on the other hand, can be contracted when it is a main verb. It would be grammatical to ask, "Who’s Tyson?" meaning "Who is Tyson?"

Assuming that Tyson is Mike Tyson, I suppose we might explore the possibility that the grammatical error serves as a literary device intended as a slur on the educational achievements of Mike Tyson, but such an exploration would be legitimate only if b y "advanced," you mean "silly."

Question (From an N.C. State graduate student): Is there any elegant way—or I'll just take the correct way—to handle possessives of titles? "Crime and Punishment's" plot seems wrong, but "Crime and Punishment"'s plot looks ridiculo us. One can write around the problem, of course, with the plot of "Crime and Punishment" or the "Crime and Punishment" plot, but sometimes I'd just rather not. I can't put italics or underlining in the e-mail (nor can I usually use them in n ewspaper headlines), but the rules there would be nice, too.

Answer: I'm relieved that you're willing to take the correct way, because there certainly isn't any good way. The clearest formulation of the rule is in Words into Type (p. 222):

When a possessive must be formed for a quoted word of phrase, the apostrophe and "s" are placed outside the closing quotes; but try to avoid this construction by rewording. "Stardust"'s first line is . . .

Better: The first line of "Stardust" is . . .

Of course, there are not many examples of titles of compositions that fall into this category in conventional print environments, since book titles and titles of longer works are conventionally italicized. The typographical convention is to form the po ssessive ending in roman type when a proper name is in italic. If you think about it, however, even this rule supports placing an apostrophe "s" outside the quotation marks.

As you note, the problem is particularly acute in e-mail environments, where font changes are impossible and typographical conventions are most closely akin to newspaper conventions. On the Grammar Hotline, I prefer to indicate italics by underscores b eginning and ending the italicized phrase. This is almost as awkward as downgrading to quotation marks, but I like it better because I have to use quotation marks to set off so many other kinds of things, including words used as words.

As unsatisfying as it may be, then, the solution is "Crime and Punishment"'s. I join you in regretting this deeply.

Question (From a corporate communicator): Now that I am in a corporate environment, I find myself sometimes at odds with the bible (aka MLA Handbook). My firm is acronym crazy, and I need to request more than one C of A. Interoffice communication shows this as C of A's. Every fiber in my body resists this. My inclination is C of A(s). I believe it is a plural vs. possessive situation. What is your take on the matter? Just because the company does it this way does not mean it is correct. Besides, the same person could be generating all of the documentation I am seeing involving this area, and that person may not know how to use apostrophes! Thanks for your input.

Answer: I grieve to report that I think you're on the wrong track on this one. You're right that this is a plural, but if you think about it, when have you ever seen an "s" marking a plural encased in parentheses?

I usually check two types of stylebooks to answer questions on the Grammar Hotline. In this case, their advice conflicts a bit, but neither comes up with the parentheses solution.

The Chicago Manual of Style recommends that "so far as it can be done without confusion, single or multiple letters used as words . . . form the plural by adding 's' alone." The operative phrase here, of course, is "so far as it can be done with out confusion." This example is confusing. Let's read on. "Abbreviations with periods, lowercase letters used as nouns, and capital letters that would be confusing if 's' alone were added form the plural with an apostrophe and an 's.'" Result: C of A's.

The Chicago rule generates inconsistent forms for "the three Rs," and "straight A's." The Associated Press Stylebook and Libel Manual opts for consistency. In the category of "Single Letters" under "Plurals" it notes tersely, "Use 's. " Result: C of A's.

It's my guess that every fiber of your being is actually resisting the noun C of A. Every fiber of my being is resisting the noun C of A, but I think if I could get past that particular gag reflex, I wouldn't have any trouble with C of A's.

P.S. What is a C of A anyway?

Question (From an N.C. State sorority member): I found this error in word usage in my sorority newsletter for last week: "All Chi Omega's do not need to attend the Greek Awards Ceremony in the Rose Garden on Tuesday, April 26." I think that it s hould have read: Not all Chi Omega's need to attend the Greek Awards Ceremony in the Rose Garden on Tuesday, April 26.

Answer: You're right about the misplaced modifier, but this is not the most distracting error in the memo. All Chi Omegas should learn that the plural of Chi Omega does not require an apostrophe. Thus, the memo should have read: "Not all Chi Omegas need to attend the Greek Awards Ceremony in the Rose Garden on Tuesday, April 26."

Question (from the Internet): What is the correct way to write the plural and the possessive of Hughes? I believe the plural is Hugheses or Hughes' and pronounced with two syllables, similar to "uses." And what about the possessive: Hughes' or Hughes's? Some of my friends spell and pronounce the singular and plural the same way. That really bugs me sometimes. Help!

Answer: I feel your pain. I run the Grammar Hotline, but my real name is Nancy Margolis. My friends have taken to pluralizing Margolis with a completely imaginary form of a Latin plural: Margoli. This, of course, is technically incorrect. If Margolis were, in fact, a Latin word, it would be a third conjugation noun, and the plural of a third conjugation noun is formed by changing the "-is" ending to "-es." Nobody, however, has ever referred to us as The Margoles, and I have to admit that The Margoli has its charms. Furthermore, I make it a point never to correct the language usage of my friends. I figure that in the long run the proprietor of a Grammar Hotline is unlikely to have enough friends to spare.

Anyway, the answer is that the plural of Hughes is Hugheses. It is not Hughes', no matter what the guy who woodburns the mailbox signs at the State Fair seems to think. Apostrophes show missing letters or possession. They are not used to form plurals.

Your question on the possessive, on the other hand, is open to editorial judgment.

You need some background. There are a lot of editorial style manuals around, and they sometimes give conflicting advice. The conflicts are not really whimsical; different style manuals are written to generate prose that is intended for different kinds of audiences. Let's divide them into two camps.

One kind of stylebook is intended for popular publications on short deadlines. A typical example is the Associated Press Stylebook and Libel Manual. The AP Stylebook tells you to form the singular possessive of a name ending in "s" by simply adding an apostrophe.

Another kind of stylebook is intended for longer, more scholarly publications with more forgiving deadlines. A typical example is The Chicago Manual of Style. Chicago tells you to form the singular possessive of a name ending in "s" by adding an apostrophe and an "s." Chicago grants exceptions only to Jesus, Moses, and Greeks whose names end in "eez." Come back if you change your name to Euripides.

Question (From an N.C. State undergraduate): General Homeowners, Homeowner's, or Homeowners' Meeting?

Answer: Not Homeowner's—unless only one resident attends the meeting—in which case it isn't clear who is meeting whom.

Maybe Homeowners'—though this isn't a case of possession in the pure sense.

But the Grammar Hotline recommends Homeowners, which implies that Homeowners is really just a generic adjective. The use of nouns as adjectives is a common way for the language to grow.

Another issue that you didn't ask about is the hyphenation of the term. Does general refer to the homeowners or to the meeting?

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