Editing for Grammarphobes 2.0: James' Book or James's Book—Which is Correct?


Every Wednesday, Editing for Grammarphobes 2.0 features handy tips to enhance all of our writing, from daily emails to articles to books. After all, everyone needs to write, right?

Hi Karen,

You may have already addressed this issue, and I apologize for missing it; however, how about the subject of possessives? Particularly in regards to those ending in the letter s and where the apostrophe goes. In other words, is it James’ book or James’s book? Thanks in advance.

Sincerely yours,
Nan Smith

Thanks for your question, Nan. It’s good to revisit this from time to time because editing styles change over the years. 

Let’s start with the easy stuff.

Singular nouns are made possessive by adding an apostrophe and an s.


dog's bowl
cat’s litter box

And we all know plural nouns not ending in s are made possessive by adding an apostrophe and an s.


women’s rights
children’s literature

Here’s where it gets more difficult. 

When making plural nouns ending in s possessive, both the Associated Press Style (AP) and Chicago Manual of Style (CMS) say to add only an apostrophe.


states' rights
puppies’ paws

When a noun ends with an s, and is plural in form, but singular in meaning, just add the apostrophe.


United States’ wealth
mathematics’ rules

This also applies to nouns that are the same in both singular and plural form.


one corps’ location
politics’ forerunners

Now we come to the place where AP and CMS split. While CMS states that proper nouns ending in s should take an apostrophe plus an s to make them possessive, AP doesn’t agree, and instead states to just use an apostrophe.


CMS: Kansas’s legislature, Dickens’s novels

AP: Kansas’ legislature, Dickens’ novels

With names that end with s, AP suggests adding just the apostrophe.


Jesus’ life
Agnes’ book
Xerxes’ armies

CMS disagrees and states that an apostrophe and an s should be added, including cases in which the s is not pronounced at the end of the name. 


Albert Camus’s novels
the marquis’s mother
Xerxes’s armies

So, you see, unfortunately, there is no definitive rule, Nan. CMS and AP in the U.S. can’t agree. I looked up the University of Oxford Style Guide in the U.K., and it suggests using just an apostrophe after plural nouns ending with s, but if a name already ends in s or z, the full apostrophe with an s should be added. 

Since it depends the editorial style, it’s good to know whether the publication you’re writing for prefers AP or CMS. If it’s a book manuscript, I’d use CMS. For newspapers or magazines, AP is the best choice. If you’re writing your own blog, you are free to choose which you prefer. 

Whatever you decide, just be consistent. 

I started in magazines, so I tend to prefer AP. I think the apostrophe s, like in James’s book looks a little strange. But, that’s just me. 

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The Associated Press Stylebook, 2016 edition
The Chicago Manual of Style
The University of Oxford Style Guide Online


A professional writer/editor for almost 30 years, Karen Wojcik Berner's wide and varied experience includes such topics as grammar, blog content, book reviews, corporate communications, the arts, paint and coatings, real estate, the fire service, writing and literature, research, and publishing. An award-winning journalist, her work has appeared in several magazines, newspapers, and blogs, including the Chicago Tribune, Writer Unboxed, Women's Fiction Writers, Naperville Magazine, and Fresh Fiction. She also is the author of three contemporary women's fiction novels and is a member of the Chicago Writers’ Association. For more information on Karen, please visit www.karenberner.com.


Anonymous said…
They taught us British English at school, so James's looks more natural to me. :)
Totally understand that, angel011. I guess it's all what you're used to, right?
I side with CMoS on this one. ;)
Mel Parish said…
I generally avoid using character names ending with s in my books for this very reason!

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