A Word, Please: No 'S', for goodness' sake!

Once you’ve seen “embarrass,” and “supersede” and “its” in print a million times, there’s a chance that the next time you write one of these words, you’ll get it right without thinking about it — a better chance than for people who don’t read as much, anyway. That’s why an SAT test prep company I worked for years ago had us tell students in our vocabulary course: read, read, read.

But every once in a while, I come across a spelling or punctuation issue so odd that no amount of innate word smarts can save you. This came to my attention recently when a very word-savvy friend, author Carolyn Howard-Johnson, asked me how to write “conscience’ sake.”

“Seems like something you’d remember if you’d ever looked it up,” she wrote.

Indeed I had looked it up. And though I didn’t remember what I’d learned, I knew where to turn for answers. That’s half the battle. The “Chicago Manual of Style” addresses the matter in its section on possessives. The “Associated Press Stylebook” talks about it in its discussion of apostrophes. Two of the usage guides I use talk about it in the S listings under the word “sake” and one of them includes the matter under a special sublisting in its possessives section.

Because they all disagree on where to file this discussion, you won’t be surprised to learn that they also disagree on how to write it. One, Chicago, even disagrees with its own previous editions.

Chicago considers the expression to be possessive: conscience’s sake. But in the last few editions changed its mind on whether to put an S after the apostrophe. The old 14th edition had told readers that “tradition and euphony dictate the use of the apostrophe only: for appearance' (conscience', righteousness', etc.) sake.”

But the 16th edition says that except for cases in which the word ends in an S, like “goodness’ sake,” go ahead and add the extra S, as in “appearance’s sake.” They’ve dropped examples that use “conscience,” but their ruling on “appearance” applies.

The “Associated Press Stylebook,” however, says that regardless of whether the word ends in an S, like goodness, or just ends in an S sound, like conscience, don’t add an extra S. So per AP’s 2004 guide, it’s always: goodness’ sake, appearance’ sake and conscience’ sake.

Unlike these style guides, which are all about consistency, usage guides are more about broader understanding. So “Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage” leaves you more wiggle room when it says that most “for … sake” expressions include the extra S, with a few notable exceptions: “The apostrophe plus S is only avoided when the S is never added in speech, as when the expression is a fixed idiom (as for goodness’ sake and for conscience’ sake are).”

“Garner’s Modern American Usage” doesn’t much like the extra S in these expressions, either: “The traditional view is that in the phrases ‘for goodness’ sake’ and ‘for conscience’ sake,’ no final S is added to the possessive.”

But Garner adds, “In practice, writers follow this exception with ‘goodness’ but not with ‘conscience’ (the prevalent form in American English being the almost unpronounceable ‘conscience’s sake’).”

Then there’s “Fowler’s Modern English Usage,” which says that even the apostrophe is optional. Thus, “for goodness sake” and “for conscience sake” are both fine, according to this guide.

Is it any wonder that well-read people hesitate at writing “conscience’ sake”? Even reading the rule books doesn’t make this matter very clear.

JUNE CASAGRANDE is 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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