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A Word, Please: Rules for handling possessives run the grammar gamut

I don’t remember where, I don’t remember when, but at one point in my childhood I found myself holding a copy of “Helter Skelter,” Vincent Bugliosi’s bone-chilling account of the Charles Manson murders. I didn’t read it.

I was probably 9 or 10 at the time and not really one to devour 680-page, true-crime procedurals. But there were pictures that, I feel, authorized me to dispense the following unsolicited piece of parenting advice. Hey parents: Don’t leave copies of “Helter Skelter” lying around the house.

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Mumble-mumble decades and countless desensitizing movies later, I found the courage to actually read it. I’m about halfway through. (Don’t tell me what happens! I have a good feeling about this Squeaky gal.)

Funny how time changes a person. Back in elementary school, I was shocked by, you know, home-invasion stabbing murders by Beatles-obsessed racist sex cults.

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Today, I find myself shocked by passages like this one: “In this instance, it led to Aaron Stovitz’ being yanked off the Tate-LaBianca case.” And this one: “Manson borrowed Swartz’ ’59 Ford.” And this one: “Ruth Ann answered Gutierrez’ questions.”

And it gets freakier when you consider the context. Those bits were sprinkled among others like “Tex’s orders” and “Susan Atkins’ attorney.”

Thus, halfway through the book, I’m left with just one possible conclusion: The title “Helter Skelter” refers to the method used for forming possessives.

This isn’t the first time I’ve come across writing in which words ending with Z don’t take an S after the possessive apostrophe: Stovitz’ removal, Swartz’ car.

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This method is based on the idea that “sibilants” — letters that sound like S, Ch or Sh — create an exception to the basic rules for possessives. But according to that practice, words ending with X would be treated the same way you treat letters ending in Z: Tex’ orders. So I can’t figure out what the “Helter Skelter” editors were thinking.

I went looking for answers, digging into some old and new publishing guides.

The 1974 edition of “Words Into Type,” an influential publishing guide at the time, says to use both an apostrophe and an S to make a singular word possessive, with no exceptions for sibilants.

They even give “Marx’s” as an example. “Helter Skelter,” by the way, was published that same year.

I remembered that Strunk and White’s “The Elements of Style” had an odd rule about possessives. But when I checked I saw that rule applied only to ancient names ending in sibilant sounds.

So, according to Strunk and White, you’d write James’s hat but Jesus’ words. You can ignore that advice, however. Despite its enduring popularity, this book’s rules really only applied to students writing papers in William Strunk’s classes a century ago.

Recent editions of the Chicago Manual of Style recommend the possessive S with all singular nouns, giving the examples Kansas’s, Marx’s, Jesus’s and Berlioz’s.

The Associated Press Stylebook’s 1993 edition (the oldest copy I have) has special rules for singular words ending in S, distinguishing between proper nouns, “James’ hat,” and generic nouns, “the boss’s hat.”

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But AP makes clear that words ending in X and Z get no such exception. AP’s examples: Butz’s policies, the fox’s den, Marx’s theories.

I checked two other highly influential publishing guides, the AMA Manual of Style and the MLA Style Manual. Both agree with AP that you shouldn’t add an extra S for singular words ending in S: Jones’ hat, Venus’ beauty. Words that end in X and Z don’t get special treatment. Add an apostrophe plus S: Theroux’s book.

All this research led me to the inescapable conclusion that I had spent more time researching the matter than the actual editors. But, hey, it was the ’70s.

June Casagrande is the author of “The Joy of Syntax: A Simple Guide to All the Grammar You Know You Should Know.” She can be reached at JuneTCN@aol.com.

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