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According to my grammar book, but at variance to the answer to this question, the correct singular possessive if a word ends in ‑s is:

James’s car

The grammar book allows exceptions for historical nouns, so the examples in the answer to the above-linked question would pass muster.

However, I’m sure that I learnt at school (which, admittedly, was a while ago) that for a singular (proper) noun ending in ‑s, the apostrophe went after the s and there was no additional s.

I don’t wish to start a flame war on which is correct, though my question doesn't really make sense if my grammar book is wrong! What I’m curious about is when the change occurred. :

So my question is when did James’s become the correct form and James’ the incorrect one?

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6 Answers 6

up vote 52 down vote accepted

Since, 1810, forms like James’s (which I will call type A) have generally been more commonly used than forms like James’ (type B), according to my research using the Corpus of Historical American English (COHA).

I compared a number of names ending in -s looking for possessive forms with and without a final s. Here is a graph comparing incidences of type A and type B forms:

graph showing forms with and without apostrophe since 1810. The y-axis shows the difference in incidence between types A and B. If it is above 0, that means that type A was more common in that period; if below 0, that means type B was more common. The raw data used to generate the chart is in this Google Spreadsheet.

Here’s the same data, shown cumulatively:same data, shown cumulatively

For the 14 names tested, type A has been more common throughout the period beginning in 1810, except for the decades starting in 1850, 1940, and 1950.

Overall, it is quite clear that type A forms (e.g. James’s) predominate, and have done so for nearly two hundred years. Nevertheless, type B forms are also quite common, and during the 1930s to the 1960s, a number of names had more incidences using type B. But since 1970, most names have had a majority of usage in type A. As for the original question’s example of James, throughout almost the entire period, excluding 1820, incidences of James’s has strongly outnumbered incidences of James’.

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9  
Amazing research and data representation. –  Vaibhav Garg Sep 14 '10 at 11:44
3  
COHA sounds like a place where one could seriously lose a few days! Now if only there was a COHB as well. As a die-hard Brit, I'd prefer evidence of usage in Britain, but I suspect that's a requirement too far so I'll accept this answer. –  Loop Space Sep 17 '10 at 8:00
2  
Sorry to always be a naysayer, but I'm suspicious of the data being used here. Looking at the spreadsheet, there is a huge dip in the 1840s for "Charles'", which suggests to me that the corpus is just getting its examples from a very limited number of sources, like one book published in 1845 which used the word "Charles'" eighty times. That would make the results and graphs meaningless. Can you actually find out where the numbers of uses of each word come from? –  delete Sep 17 '10 at 9:16
6  
@Shinto, yes the data is noisy. That’s why I looked at 14 different names. Take it with a grain of salt. In aggregate, though, there is enough of a trend to say something. –  nohat Sep 17 '10 at 16:11
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Personally, I have always written Ross' because it seems like Ross's has too many esses in it. I wonder what the COHA has to offer for names that already end in ss? –  RBerteig Jan 24 '11 at 8:38

I can’t speak to when, but I can say that Strunk and White’s Elements of Style specifically says to use the James’s form.

Since that is taken as gospel by — who knows, hundreds, thousands, millions? — of writers, I’m sure it has an effect on modern trends.

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3  
The Elements of Style (Strunk and White) puts this rule first precisely because it's the most controversial one — the goal of the book is to get you writing the way Strunk liked things. :-) –  ShreevatsaR Dec 29 '10 at 3:03

When I was taught grammar in school in the 90s and early 2000s in the northeastern United States, I was taught James's, to differentiate it from the plural possessive. (That's James's book; that's the Bryants' car.)

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Must have changed around that time, then. In the 70s and 80s, "James's" would have been incorrect. "James'" was considered correct back then. I was also taught in the northeastern US (Connecticut). –  ssakl Sep 13 '10 at 19:39
1  
There is no merit in this argument, in my opinion. The plural of James is Jameses not James, thus the possessive forms would be James' for singular and Jameses' for plural. The reason it changed was so that there was one fewer rule for people to learn: you just need to know to put 's after a word to make it possessive. –  J D OConal Sep 14 '10 at 1:03
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Whether or not there's merit to the argument (I happen to think there is, both for consistency and for the written form mirroring the spoken form), my answer is an accurate, factual data-point to the question asked: not which is correct, but when changes in usage and teaching occurred. So I'm not sure why it was considered worthy of a down-vote. –  In the Booley House Sep 14 '10 at 13:36
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@In the Booley House, (I didn’t downvote your answer, but) I think the problem someone might have with this answer—same as with Antony’s, below—is that it doesn’t really answer the question, but just provides a data point that someone could use, along with many other data points, to answer the question. –  nohat Sep 14 '10 at 17:41
4  
That's fair, nohat, and your answer is certainly better than mine. Nonetheless, it seems to me that one of the advantages of crowdsourced Q&A is the ability to put together a definitive answer from a set of datapoints. –  In the Booley House Sep 14 '10 at 19:21

My recollection from school (UK, 1980s) is that the apostrophe-only version is used for Biblical names, and the apostrophe-plus-s is used for everything else. According to this rule, you would write "Jesus' friends and Seamus's friends" because the name Jesus appears in the Bible but the name Seamus does not.

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9  
That's a cruel rule. How could I possibly know what names appear in the Bible? –  RegDwigнt Sep 13 '10 at 22:24
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Can you go back there and ask for your tuition back? They are paid to teach you things that make you smarter, not the opposite. –  Mike Mooney Sep 14 '10 at 0:46
    
This argument is plainly false in my opinion. It is just a trend in English usage that Jesus' was used instead of Jesus's. Some common Biblical names may have been slower to change because of their frequent use in more archaic examples of English, but Jesus's is now used quite frequently, maybe even as frequently as Jesus'. James, of course, was a Biblical name. These days, people often pronounce it 'Jesuses' rather than 'Jesus' as well. –  J D OConal Sep 14 '10 at 1:06
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Good answers. It shows that you shouldn't believe everything your teacher tells you. –  Antony Quinn Sep 14 '10 at 9:37
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Same as the above: whether or not the argument is false, Antony's answer is an accurate, factual data-point to the question asked: not which is correct, but when changes in usage and teaching occurred. So I'm not sure why it was considered worthy of a down-vote. –  In the Booley House Sep 14 '10 at 13:36

Here is the justification:

For all SINGULAR nouns (other than some Bible names), add the apostrophe S, regardless of the ending letter.

For PLURAL nouns that end in S, add only the aposrophe.

Really, it's quite simple.

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2  
That's not justification, that's an assertion. Moreover, it's not an answer to my question as the question was about changes in grammar, not about what was the "correct" behaviour. –  Loop Space Nov 2 '11 at 9:37
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Your heart is in the right place, but technically what you have written is untrue: the singular nouns series and species take a simple apostrophe, as of course do Socrates and Achilles, which are certainly not ‘Biblical’ names. There is a greater law at work here that you are missing. –  tchrist Jan 9 '12 at 16:54

Somewhere along the way, I recall a tip (likely designed to simplify matters rather than clarify them) that stated that single consonant names ending in S such as James would be adjusted to James's to indicated the possessive, whereas a polysyllabic name such as Oedipus would simply get the apostrophe as in Oedipus'. Perhaps this is more of an aesthetic tip, but I like it.

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2  
So if he had a cat, it would be Oedipus's pussycat? –  mplungjan Feb 21 '11 at 15:05

protected by tchrist Sep 26 '12 at 23:06

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