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In some versions of the Bible, 1 Cor. 10:25 contains the phrase conscience' sake with no s following the possessive apostrophe of conscience, which does not end with s, as in:

New American Standard Bible (©1995)

Eat anything that is sold in the meat market without asking questions for conscience' sake;

I have three questions:

  • Does this unique event have a name?
  • When (or with what other words) does it happen? Is it because both conscience ends and sake begins with an s sound?
  • Is there a distinct pluralized form, i.e. a phrase meaning only "for the sake of several/many consciences"? (A Google search suggested conscience's' sake.)
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I reckon conscience is uncountable here and should be singular. But if it is pluralised, it's entirely regular and would be consciences', with s-apostrophe. –  Andrew Leach May 1 '13 at 9:40
    
Simple mechanical morphology for the possessive in the case of words ending in an 'ess' sound is adding only an apostrophe, no 's' after: Sisters' etc. Apparently, it was construed that the word conscience ending in the 'ess' sound needs no additional 's' after the apostrophe. Today we write it as conscience's, though, as other similar words ending in the 'ess' sound but not with the letter 's'. ... –  Kris May 1 '13 at 9:56
    
The original idea might have been that Sisters' would be pronounced as ˈsɪstə(r)s and Sisters's as ˈsɪstə(r)s-es/ ˈsɪstə(r)s-is -- today we seldom pronounce the schwa in these instances. The intention of dropping the 's' in the present case could be to avoid a pronunciation of ˈkɑːnʃəns-e(i)s and force ˈkɑːnʃəns for conscience'. –  Kris May 1 '13 at 10:03
    
conscience's' sake seems incorrect to me. For the plural case, it would be consciences' sake. Your citation refers to the singular. –  Kris May 1 '13 at 10:06
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1 Answer

up vote 1 down vote accepted

I mention the phenomenon — or old habit, perhaps — of saying for conscience’ sake in this answer. You’ll also see the expression for righteousness’ sake in older religious works. A more common one is for goodness’ sake.

There’s no extra syllable in any of these, as the orthography indicates. In all these, the formulaic for X’ sake (where X ends in phonetic /s/), no extra syllable is pronounced to indicate the possessive. It’s just like how a plural already ending in -s takes no extra syllable to create the possessive.

this farmer’s field
these farmers’ fields

People also used to end their prayers by saying in Jesus’ name, Amen without an extra syllable, too, but for the most part, they no longer do so. Most (but not all) now say in Jesus’s name, Amen instead.

In answer to your question about a plural, conscience is generally construed to be a non-count noun, in which case it takes no plural inflection. If one did, however, its plural would have to be consciences, and the possessive of that is the same as the possessive of any other plural already ending in -s: just add an apostrophe without adding an extra syllable, so in their own consciences’ domains.

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Great post! Do you know of a term for "possessive with no s near the end"? Also, this may merit a new question but: Can X noun replace X' noun? In particular, can the less unusual-looking cactus spines replace both/either cactus' spines (by that I mean one cactus plant) or cacti's spines? Or matrix determinant replace matrix' determinant? –  dingo_dan May 1 '13 at 21:12
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