A Word, Please: Universal challenge: possessives of singular nouns ending in S

I grew up in a family of people who had a lot to feel bad about. As the middle child, it was my job to make them feel better.

"Don't feel guilty about feeding us Twinkies for breakfast every day. When you think about it, they're basically rolled pancakes."

You get the idea.

Making people feel better about their shortcomings became part of my DNA. That explains a lot about my interest in grammar. Most people I meet feel uniquely inadequate in that arena — as though they happened to miss school on the one day everyone else got a comprehensive grammar education.

I tell them over and over: "You're not inadequate. Everyone's in the same boat."

Over time, I've gathered many bits of evidence to prove it. But none is more striking than the "correct" way to form possessives of singular nouns ending in S.

Here, according to the Chicago Manual of Style, are three correct possessives: James's words, James' sake, James's seat.

Notice how one of those doesn't have an S after the apostrophe? Bizarre, right? It gets worse.

Here are correct possessives according to the AP Stylebook: James' words, James' sake, James' seat, the boss's words, the boss' sake, the boss' seat.

No those aren't typos. AP treats James in a manner different from Chicago. And, yes, some instances of boss have an apostrophe plus S while others have only the apostrophe. If you're looking for a logical pattern here, my advice is: Don't.

Of course, most people don't use these publishing guides. They rely instead on books like Strunk and White's "The Elements of Style." So here, according to Strunk and White, are some correct possessives: James's words, James's sake, James's seat, Jesus' words, Jesus' sake, Jesus' seat.

From James to the boss to Jesus, there's not a single one of these examples — not one — on which all three guides agree.

In light of this utter chaos, is it any wonder that grammar can make even the smartest, most highly educated people feel like dolts? Clearly, the fault can't lie in the individual. It lies instead in crazy rules that seem bent on making people feel dumb.

The book publishing world prefers a system where the possessive form of most singular words ending in S takes an extra S after an apostrophe, but it makes an exception when the next word is "sake."

Many news outlets prefer a system with separate rules for proper names like James and generic nouns like boss, then they tack on special rules that kick in when the next word begins with S. The long-obsolete William Strunk had a classroom system of treating "ancient" names like Jesus as different from everyday names like James.

Plus there are other weird rules thrown in that deal with things like pronunciation.

This is confusion we don't need. The basic rules for forming possessives are confusing enough — for example, one kid's bike, two kids' bikes, one woman's bike, two women's bikes.

Luckily, rules for words that don't end in S are universal. So you don't have a bunch of books contradicting each other. But still, they can be tough to keep track of.

And don't get me started on plural possessives of words ending in S, like the Thomases' house. Rules for those, though universal and unflinching, mess almost everyone up.

Want an easy solution for those pesky singular words that end in S? Just pick one the following styles. Either always use the apostrophe plus S: James's job, the boss's job. Or don't: James' job, the boss' job.

Whatever you do, don't feel bad about your grasp of the subject. Unlike the late-sleeping parent with the get-your-own-breakfast-Twinkies policy, you're not to blame.

JUNE CASAGRANDE is the author of "It Was the Best of Sentences, It Was the Worst of Sentences." She can be reached at JuneTCN@aol.com.

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