Editing for Grammarphobes: Possessives and Proper Nouns


A comment left after the March 28 “Possessives” post brought up an interesting question. llevinso wrote, “...when it’s a person’s name that ends in s, what is the correct form? I thought I knew, but I’ve seen it so many different ways, I just don’t know anymore...”

I was going to write a quick response, but when I looked this up in The Chicago Manual of Style and The Elements of Style, there were so many variations, my answer would have been way too long for the comment section. What I found may surprise you.

Both works cite “the general rule for possessive nouns covers most proper nouns” by adding an apostrophe s. Same thing goes for names ending in silent s, z or x.



Dickens’s novels

Marx’s theories

the Joneses’ reputation

Traditional exceptions to this rule are ancient proper names, such as Jesus and Moses, which take just the apostrophe, not the s.


Jesus’ apostles

Moses’ law 

Names with more than one syllable with unaccented endings pronounced “eez” also are an exception. Many ancient Greek and Hellenistic names fit this pattern.


Xerxes’ army

Euripides’ plays

Ramses’ tomb 

The reason there is so much confusion about the possessive forms of proper nouns comes from how to create the possessive forms of polysyllabic personal names ending with the sound of s or z.

The Chicago Manual of Style mentions this dissension among writers and editors. Should one use the apostrophe only? Some editors treat the name like a plural if the ending sound is “zee, and if it ends with an s, treat it like a singular. Both cited works prefer utilizing the rules stated above, but they are not set in stone. The main thing is to be consistent throughout your manuscript.

The Chicago Manual of Style, 14th edition. Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press, 1969. Print. 

Strunk Jr., William, and E.B. White. The Elements of Style, 3rd ed. New York: Macmillan, 1979. Print.


llevinso said…
Thanks for this! I guess I don't feel so stupid for asking now since it seems to be so complicated.
You are not the only one with this grammar issue. I was taught to use just the apostrophe, no matter what.

Thanks for the question.

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