GrammarPhile Blog

Possessives - Proper Nouns

Posted by Phil Jamieson   Apr 24, 2012 6:30:00 AM

Last week, we gave you some general rules on possessives. This week, let's focus on possessives of proper nouns.

General Rule: The possessive of singular nouns is formed by the addition of an apostrophe and an s, and the possessive of plural nouns (except for a few irregular plurals) by the addition of an apostrophe only. The general rule for the possessive of nouns covers most proper nouns, including most names ending in sibilants (a definite "es" or "ez" sound):

  • Kansas's
  • Texas's
  • Dickens's novels
  • Ross's land
For names ending in silent s, z, or the possessive, unlike the plural, can generally be formed in the usual way without suggesting an incorrect pronunciation:
  • Descartes's works
  • Vaucouleurs's theorems
Traditional exceptions to the general rule for forming the possessive are the names Jesus and Moses:
  • In Jesus' name
  • Moses' leadership
Names of more than one syllable with an unaccented ending pronounced eez form another category of exceptions. Many Greek and hellenized names fit this pattern. For reasons of euphony the possessive s is seldom added to such names:
  • Ramses' tomb
  • Xerxes' army
  • Euripides' plays
Like common nouns, closely linked proper names may be treated as a unit in forming the possessive:
  • Minneapolis and Saint Paul's transportation system
  • but Chicago's and New York's transportation systems
When a proper name is in italic type, its possessive ending is preferably set in roman:
  • The National Review's fortieth year of publication
How to form the possessive of polysyllabic personal names ending with the sound of s or z probably occasions more dissension among writers and editors than any other orthographic matter open to disagreement. Some espouse the rule that the possessive of all such names should be formed by the addition of an apostrophe only. Such a rule would outlaw spellings like "Dylan Thomas's poetry," "Roy Harris's compositions," and Maria Callas's performance" in favor of "Thomas'," "Harris'," and "Callas'," which would not commend themselves to many. Other writers and editors simply abandon the attempt to define in precise phonic or orthographic terms the class of polysyllabic names to which only the apostrophe should be attached and follow a pragmatic rule. In essence this is, "If it ends with a z sound, treat it like a plural; if it ends with an s sound, treat it like a singular." Thus they would write "Dickens', Hopkins', Williams'," but also "Harris's, Thomas's, Callas's" and the like. The University of Chicago Press prefers the procedures outlined above. It is willing, however, to accept other ways of handling these situations if they are consistently followed throughout a manuscript.

You will find that some proper nouns, especially when there are other s and z sounds involved, turn into clumsy beasts when you add another s: "That's old Mrs. Chambers's estate." In that case, you're better off with "Mrs. Chambers' estate."

There is another way around this problem of clunky possessives: recast the sentence using the of phrase to show possession. For instance, we would probably say the "constitution of Illinois" as opposed to "Illinois' (or Illinois's) constitution."

Source: The Chicago Manual of Style, 14th edition

Topics: possessives of proper nouns, possessive form, possessives

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