The U.S. Supreme Court feuds over the possessive form of singular nouns!

During his confirmation hearings before the Senate Judiciary Committee, Chief Justice John Roberts vowed to create a more cohesive United States Supreme Court.  A noble goal.  But despite his best efforts, the Court remains bitterly divided over a crucial national issue:  whether to add an apostrophe-s when creating the possessive form of a singular noun ending in “s.”  Many people struggle with this issue; including, it seems, those writing for the nation’s highest court.

The full scope of the Court’s feud was displayed in Kansas v. Marsh.  There, three justices took three different approaches to the issue.

Justice Thomas added only an apostrophe without any additional “s” whenever creating the possessive form of Kansas.  Thus, he wrote “Kansas’ sentencing statute provides . . . .”  (Presumably, he would also write, “Justice Thomas’ opinion.”)

But Justice Souter, in dissent, adhered to the practice of always adding apostrophe-s when creating the possessive form of a singular noun ending in “s.”  So he wrote “Kansas’s sentencing statute provides . . . .”

And Justice Scalia—not usually a pragmatist—adopted a flexible approach, adding an apostrophe-s to some words but not to others.  A close examination of Scalia’s opinion suggests that the justice focused on pronunciation, adding an apostrophe-s in instances where the “s” was preceded by a hard consonant sound.

Rarely does the Court so openly reveal its deepest internal conflicts.  But, who is right?

Well, here is what the guidebook published by the Society for the Preservation of the English Language and Literature says about apostrophes:

Use both the apostrophe and the s to form the possessive of a singular noun, even if the noun ends in s, x, or z.  Examples: Jones’s house, the dog’s bone, the boss’s daughter, Fritz’s car, the fox’s den. Exceptions are allowed for ancient proper names (Example: Aristophanes’ work) and words ending in two or more sibilants (Example: for goodness’ sake). Not all publications follow this style, but it is recommended by most authorities.

As you can see, SPELL follows Justice Souter’s practice of adding an apostrophe-s in nearly all instances.  As does the Scribe.  And as noted by the SPELL guidebook, most authorities on the subject recognize only two types of singular nouns where it is acceptable to omit the apostrophe-s:  biblical or ancient names such as Jesus, Moses, or Sophocles, and nouns formed from plurals, such as General Motors.  In all other instances, the possessive should be created by adding an apostrophe-s.

That is all for now.

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