Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Obsessively Possessive

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Obsessively Possessive

Article excerpt

It is literally the first rule in the book, if the book you mean is Strunk and White's "Elements of Style": Form the possessive of singular nouns by adding an apostrophe plus "s."

What could be simpler? "The girl's dress is red." "My dog's bark is worse than his bite." "The editor's dictionary is dog-eared."

Oh, but it gets complicated. And very quickly.

The actual example of a noun forming its possessive given by Strunk and White (no, not exactly a stand-up comedy duo, though their usage guide has stood up well over time) involves somebody named "Charles."

William Strunk Jr. and E.B. White (yes, of "Charlotte's Web" fame) were trying to be provocative, I suspect - trying to put a marker down. "The girl's dress" would have been just too easy.

According to Strunk and White, Charles has a friend - who needs to be referred to, they insist, as "Charles's friend."

By choosing "Charles" as their example, Strunk and White signaled that they were parting company with another school of thought, which calls for simply "Charles' friend." With its "buzzed" "s" at the end (what a phonetician would call a "voiced sibilant"), "Charles" all by itself sounds vaguely plural, and for some people, evidently, the extra "s" is just too much.

To complicate things further, consider, for instance, Dashiell Hammett's detectives, Nick and Nora Charles, of "Thin Man" fame. In their plural form, they are the Charleses.

All these examples: Charles, Charles's friend (or Charles' friend), the Charleses, the Charleses' house - the basic noun, the possessive, the plural, and the possessive plural - are pronounced the same, "Charl-zez."

But what's really struck me lately is the way that some writers seem to follow the "Charles rule" out the window; they seem not to know when enough is enough.

They refer to the house that Jim and Sally Smith live in as "the Smiths's house. …

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