Q&A: Showing possession with singular words and names ending in S

Each week, we chat about the quirks and anomalies of the English language. This week is brought to you by the letter S.

Q: Hi AWC, is it apostrophe S or just apostrophe?
A: Whoa… slow down. Slow down.

Q: Can’t sorry, I’m double-parked. So which is it?
A: Can we have some context?

Q: My friends have been arguing about it all week. An example would be “the business’s profits were down”. Or is it “the business’ profits were down”?
A: Ah okay, so single proper nouns too, like “James’ lawnmowing noise was upsetting the neighbours” – that sort of thing.

Q: Well what time was he mowing?
A: Sorry?

Q: What time? Because I’d say after 8am weekdays or 9am weekends, and never later than 5pm. Apart from that, they really shouldn’t be complaining.
A: Umm… Weren’t you in a rush?

Q: Ah, yes. So, which is the one to use – the business’s version or the James’ version without the S?
A: In most cases it’s actually acceptable to use either – even a double-S like in business or a names like Jess. However, “business’s profits” does look weird, so we’d suggest rewriting as something like “the profits of the business”. And according to the Australian Government’s Style manual or the Fairfax Style Guide, they’d prefer you to use James’s lawnmowing.

Q: What about Jesus?
A: He didn’t own a lawnmower. However, while most style guides recommend that names ending in s get the apostrophe-S treatment, an odd little exception is made for classical/biblical names like Jesus, Moses, Socrates etc (Jesus’ followers; Moses’ journey; or Socrates’ teachings) and names ending with an s that have an /eez/ sound – e.g. Menzies’ government.

Q: Seriously?
A: It’s an odd rule, but yes.

Q: A friend of mine said that it should be written how it sounds.
A: Well that’s an option that many people use – it’s still a matter of interpretation though. Some may write “Tiger Woods’ golf game has gone downhill”, sounding it out as “Woods”. Meanwhile others would write “Tiger Woods’s golf game has gone downhill” – pronounced “Woods-iz”. Either way, he’s not winning a lot of tournaments lately.

Q: So what about names that already have an apostrophe, how do you make them possessive?
A: Well, as Grammarphobia says, technically you COULD say “McDonald’s’s new burger” or “McDonald’s’ new burger” but they just look stupid. We would strongly recommend rewriting to something like “The new burger from McDonald’s”.

Q: What’s the new burger?
A: What do you mean?

Q: McDonald’s has a new burger – what is it? I really hope it has egg in it.
A: It was just an example we made up. There is no burger.

Q: Oh okay [wink], not till after 10.30am anyway, right. [wink wink]
A: Do you have something in your eye?

Q: Nope, moving on. So, both options are embraced and accepted then. Sounds like a big grammar group hug… are there NO wrong answers here?
A: We didn’t say that. Never said that. But it’s a little more forgiving than some corners of the possession minefield.

Q: Can you give me one more example, using the classic ‘90s sitcom Friends?
A: Um, sure. “It was in Friends’/Friends’s 49th episode that we discovered Ross’s Star Wars bedroom fantasy.” But remember, we recommend rewriting awkward-looking sentences: “In the 49th episode of Friends, we discovered that Ross had a Star Wars bedroom fantasy.”

Q: That’s still a little awkward. But that might just be the Star Wars fantasy thing.
A: Yes, probably. But generally, rejigging to a sentence without apostrophes is a great option.

Q: Because that’s how other languages do it all the time, yeah?
A: Indeed. English is the only one that decided to bring in the apostrophe shortcut for possession.

Q: And we’re so grateful… said no one ever.
A: That's a bit harsh. But yes, it’s a little like the brainiac who thought introducing cane toads into Australia was a good idea.

Q: Indeed. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have a train to catch.
A: A train? What happened to your car?

Q: Oh I just said that so you’d do away with the chit-chat. You lot do tend to go off on tangents. I’m very busy.
A: Sigh…

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