Luke Taylor

Grammar Grater®

with Luke Taylor

Episode 14: Acts of the Apostrophe, Part 2

Last week, we began a discussion about apostrophes. If you recall, we heard from a couple called the Andersons who wanted a sign for their front door but couldn't decide if they needed an apostrophe or not.

Ultimately, it depends on what the Andersons hope to express. If they simply want a sign to say, in short, "We're the Andersons," all they really need to do is add s to their name to pluralize it: The Andersons. No apostrophe is necessary.

On the other hand, if they wanted the sign to express, in short, "This is the Andersons' house," they would add s to pluralize their name and put an apostrophe after that.

If the sign was erroneously made saying "Anderson's" — it connotes that just one person called Anderson lives there and that the house belongs to him or her. By contrast, the s-apostrophe indicates a whole bunch of Andersons live there and that the house belongs to them.

So it comes down to this: to indicate possession, add apostrophe-s. To indicate possession by a plural group — specifically, words ending in s, like carpenters, plumbers, the Andersons — just the apostrophe is added. Plural words that don't end in s—words like men, women and children—add apostrophe-s to indicate common ownership.

A tricky situation materializes when a person's name ends in s, like Chris. It turns out this is a long-standing puzzle. We talked with Chris Fischbach, senior editor of Coffee House Press in Minneapolis, and he said that in written form, using s-apostrophe — instead of s-apostrophe-s — was traditionally a way of saving ink and space in print journalism.

As for current advice on the rules, Lynne Truss, in her book "Eats, Shoots and Leaves," says that for words ending in s, always add apostrophe-s. The Gregg Reference Manual fleshes this out more to explain this rule is guided by how you would pronounce the word. For example,
Those are Chris's books.
The same goes for place names:
We walked along Paris's boulevards.
Dallas's airport comprises five terminal buildings.
This rule doesn't just apply to proper nouns. For example:
The police obtained the witness's description of the suspect.
Lynne Truss notes that there are exceptions to the apostrophe-s rule. Those exceptions include names from the ancient world: philosophers, inventors and biblical names. These names just add an apostrophe to indicate ownership. For example:
Achilles' heel
Socrates' wisdom
Archimedes' screw
Moses' tablets
Jesus' disciples
And the "Gregg Reference Manual" says this same rule extends to words that end in an /iz/ sound, making them tricky to pronounce. These words just take the apostrophe after the s. For example:
Lloyd Bridges' acting career spanned seven decades.
A number of dedicated people are committed to maintaining New Orleans' music scene.
Lastly, words that end in z take apostrophe-s.
These are Roz's tickets.
I bought this new hammer at Mr. Sanchez's hardware store.
It's all a bit tricky, but a lot depends on letting your ear be your guide.

Sources: Eats, Shoots & Leaves by Lynne Truss; The Gregg Reference Manual by William A. Sabin.

Songs from this Episode: "Act of the Apostle Part 2" by Belle and Sebastian.

MPR News

Listen Now

Other Radio Streams from MPR

Classical MPR
Radio Heartland