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Column: A Word, Please: Bright readers pose challenging questions

My email inbox is a fount of fodder for this column — full of excellent observations and poignant, insightful questions.

In other words, my email inbox scares me to death. It’s a minefield of opportunities to get sideswiped by my own ignorance.

But this week, my shame is your gain, as I scrape together the courage to tackle, out in the open, some recent questions that scared, challenged or outright stumped me.

Take, for example, a question from reader Jeff about reflexive pronouns.


Reflexives are “herself,” “myself,” “yourself” and the other “self” words. I’ve written about them before, giving simple explanations illustrated with simple examples.

As I’ve explained, reflexives refer to the same person that the subject refers to: “Tom gave himself a raise.” See how “Tom” and “himself” refer to the same person? Case closed. Piece of cake.

But Jeff asked about a harder sentence: “Cathy was asked to describe the dialogue that was exchanged back and forth between her/herself and Brad.”

For that one, I had to revisit the rule books.


The reflexive “is used in place of a personal pronoun to signal that it co-refers” with another noun or pronoun in the same clause, says the Oxford English Grammar.

When I consider Jeff’s example in light of that explanation, I see — eventually — that the pronoun does, in fact, co-refer to the subject of the clause, Cathy. So “between herself and Brad” is a better choice than “between her and Brad.”

Reader Paul, meanwhile, had a question that had never occurred to me about the words “last” and “past.”

“When a book title includes ‘a history of the last thousand years,’ would it not be better to use ‘a history of the past thousand years’ instead?” he asked. “The dictionary indicates that either ‘past’ or ‘last’ can be used but that ‘past’ appears to be more appropriate.”

First, kudos to Paul for checking a dictionary. The final say on how a word can be used is always found there.

But Paul had a point. “Last” can be a synonym of “final.” The last 1,000 years of a country’s history, therefore, could be momentarily construed to mean that the country has gone bye-bye. So I agree that “past” is better.

Reader Lenny scared the bejeezus out of me with a series of tough questions about quotation marks.

When you’re following a style in which movie, book and show titles are placed in quotation marks (which is as valid as putting them in italics), how do you make them possessive?


That is, if you’re talking about the book “The Road,” is it “The Road’s” themes or “The Road”’s themes. I researched this question a few years ago for my punctuation book. There’s no clear answer.

So I asked a team of professional editors. They disagreed with each other on whether the apostrophe and S go inside or out.

As for me, years ago I somehow got into my head that the possessive marker should go inside the quote marks. So I prefer “The Road’s” themes.

But Lenny posed a much harder question. Would I choose:

“The Sopranos’” cast members.

“The Sopranos’s” cast members.

“The Sopranos” cast members.

To talk about a family called the Sopranos in the possessive, you would follow the rule for plural possessives, which says just add apostrophe: the cats’ tails, the houses’ roofs, the Sopranos’ cousins.


But we’re not talking about plural people with the name Soprano. We’re talking about a single show called “The Sopranos.” To make it possessive, you could make the argument that it follows the plural possessive rule, which gives you “The Sopranos’” cast members. Or you could argue it gets treated as a singular possessive, giving you “The Sopranos’s” cast members.

A rule in Chicago Style says that when a proper noun ends in a plural word, as does the United States, skip the extra S when you make it possessive: the United States’ laws. That’s as good a guideline as any. So I would go with: “The Sopranos’” cast members

And with that, I resume hiding from my emails.

JUNE CASAGRANDE is the author of “The Best Punctuation Book, Period.” She can be reached at