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What is the correct possessive for nouns ending in s?
When did it become correct to add an 's' to a singular possessive already ending in 's'?

I just bought The Elements of Style, an awesome little book. However, in the first section, the authors promote the use of 's, no matter what the last letter of a word is, to show possessiveness.

Some examples they use:

  • Charles's friend
  • Burns's poems

Are these grammatically correct?

  • 5
    How about writing a second S only if you pronounce a second S?
    – GEdgar
    Commented Mar 25, 2012 at 23:38
  • 1
    On a more general note, read 50 years of stupid grammar advice and dump the book.
    – RegDwigнt
    Commented Mar 26, 2012 at 14:14
  • Although their advice in this is fine so far as it goes, Strunk&White do a poor job of explaining the underlying phonological rule here, and how it’s ineluctably connected to the spelling. See my answer for what’s really going on.
    – tchrist
    Commented Mar 26, 2012 at 14:15
  • 1
    @RegDwightѬſ道 That’s far too harsh. Explain to people what is really going on, and why.
    – tchrist
    Commented Mar 26, 2012 at 14:20
  • @Mitch: The linked answers do not answer this question.
    – tchrist
    Commented Mar 26, 2012 at 14:22

5 Answers 5


It's down to personal preference -- but the modern convention, in my opinion, is to omit the final s. I'd always advocate omitting the final s because it's simply unnecessary: the apostrophe, by itself, clearly denotes possession. Whether or not American English adopts this is another matter...

But with British usage, it can often be quite erratic and anachronistic. A typical example is when I get on the London underground every day (the Piccadilly line going eastwards). One stop is called Baron's Court and its immediate neighbour is Earls Court.

You also get this with particular brands who choose to omit the apostrophe for clarity (like Twinings, and Waterstone's has announced it's dropping its apostrophe soon). So, in modern usage, the general trend is to omit the apostrophe. Another convention I've worked a lot with (MHRA's -- which I only use in academic essays) chooses to use the additional s for singular possession, and omit it for plural possession; so, for example: the boss’s daughter and the bosses’ daughters.

To answer Henry's point, there is no debate over 'St' and 'St.'. Because St James' Park refers to Saint James, the use of St is a contraction. You put a full-stop after an abbreviation (like Prof.), but you never put a full-stop after a contraction because the final letter of the abbreviated form is the same as the final letter of the full form (which is why you see Mr, St, Mrs, etc.)

  • 2
    "it's dropping it's apostrophe" has an error
    – Henry
    Commented Mar 25, 2012 at 22:31
  • According to the Royal Parks it is St James's Park but for London Underground it is St. James's Park
    – Henry
    Commented Mar 25, 2012 at 22:35
  • 3
    @Henry If I said I was being deliberately ironic you wouldn't believe me, would you? :P
    – hohner
    Commented Mar 25, 2012 at 23:02
  • I would certainly accept deliberate to make a point. My comment was really aimed at later readers.
    – Henry
    Commented Mar 25, 2012 at 23:29
  • I've heard some say that you add apostrophe-s to a word with only one 's', but only apostrophe to a word with two s's. In other words, Charles's and Moses'.
    – zpletan
    Commented Mar 26, 2012 at 1:00

The rule is very simple, and it has no exceptions: that you add an s if you say the s, which is almost always.

That said, because we don’t say the extra s when speaking certain limited phrases like these following examples, they therefore necessarily take no added s in spelling:

  • that species’ name
  • this series’ final episode
  • your Achilles’ heel
  • Diogenes’ lamp
  • for goodness’ sake
  • for righteousness’ sake

(Explanation: If the word ends in unstressed /iːz/, it is invariant in the face of any /ɨz/ inflection, whether for plural or possessive forms. There are very few of these, very nearly all of which are proper nouns from Greek or sometimes Latin. The other case above is the formulaic “for ___ sake”, which has a fossilized omission in speech.)

Most speakers, however, do always say the /ɨz/ form for the possessive in all these, so they all do add a final s in writing, to show that we sake it in speech:

  • that genus’s sole representative species
  • Alice’s mom
  • in Jesus’s name, Amen. [Note: Some people don’t actually say the added /ɨz/ for this one, in which case those people alone omit the extra s here.]
  • the corpse’s decay
  • the corpus’s curator
  • the virus’s spread
  • James’s dad
  • the capital s’s shape
  • Gabriel García Márquez’s greatest work
  • the process’s run state
  • the kiss’s wetness
  • the lass’s appearance
  • my boss’s idea
  • the Blitz’s impact
  • jazz’s exotic harmonies
  • the topaz’s native color
  • Aunt Agnes’s new husband

It’s important to remember that the apostrophe represents no sound whatsoever, so if you say an extra sound, you have to use an extra letter. There is no exception to this rule; it’s not as though in certain words the apostrophe suddenly stands for the /ɨz/ sound. That’s the mistake people make. If you need the sound, then you need the letter, which is s.

  • The rule for pronunciation is a little more complicated that that ... lots of people don't add an extra 's' to last names (especially multi-syllabic ones) that already sound like they're plurals, so you get Adams', Roberts' or Richards'. Commented Mar 26, 2012 at 14:26
  • 3
    @PeterShor How is it more complicated? I said if you say it, you write it. You have given no contradiction.
    – tchrist
    Commented Mar 26, 2012 at 14:30
  • I was talking about the rules you gave for pronunciation, not for spelling. Commented Mar 26, 2012 at 14:31
  • 2
    @PeterShor I didn’t intend to give rules for pronunciation, only for spelling. The key point is that the spelling reflects the pronunciation, because speech is dominant. I did mention that some people say in Jesus’ name instead of saying in Jesus’s name.
    – tchrist
    Commented Mar 26, 2012 at 14:37
  • You just labelled the exception I provide elsewhere 'an error some commit'. It's called accepted usage when enough people do it. Commented May 14 at 10:54

Those examples are fine in my opinion, though preferences vary. A classic example in England is

And then there is the debate over St and St..

  • I apologize if this sounds rude or harsh, but are rules like these up to personal preference, or are they more ingrained in English grammar rules?
    – nopcorn
    Commented Mar 25, 2012 at 22:01
  • 2
    They are personal preference in this particular case. If you pronounce the extra s then you should write it, but some English speakers pronounce it and others don't.
    – Henry
    Commented Mar 25, 2012 at 22:37
  • 3
    The possessive in English is always about how it's pronounced. It's grammar, and therefore is about the real (i.e, spoken) language. Spelling and especially punctuation is variable, but pronunciation is the true, the blushful Hippocrene. Commented Mar 26, 2012 at 0:31
  • These examples are all proper nouns which by their nature don't necessarily conform to grammatical rules. And whether there was ever more than one St James in a Newcastle park I really don't know :)
    – MikeJ-UK
    Commented Mar 26, 2012 at 11:43
  • 2
    @JohnLawler I cannot agree more strongly: you are exactly right. This critical point is lost in the other answers posted here and in all the answers in the supposedly dup questions, too. It’s therefore very frustrating that this crucial point of yours gets lost.
    – tchrist
    Commented Mar 26, 2012 at 14:26

As an American English teacher I teach students not to use s's.

Strunk and White provide interesting and useful hints, but be careful as it's almost 100 years old and doesn't keep up with a lot of modern usage.

  • 3
    Then you are setting a poor example, IMHO.
    – tchrist
    Commented Mar 26, 2012 at 14:19

Your question requires a two-part answer. You want to know if it is still the case that “Charles’s” is grammatically correct, as prescribed by Strunk and White over fifty years ago.

  1. It is the case that “Charles’s” is still grammatically correct, because writing reflects speech and most native speakers still pronounce the s twice.

  2. That is not to say that “Charles’ ” is ungrammatical: it simply reflects a choice to pronounce the s once. And it was not ungrammatical fifty years ago, either. The Elements Of Style has never been a useful book. It is merely a popular one:

    The Elements of Style does not deserve the enormous esteem in which it is held by American college graduates. Its advice ranges from limp platitudes to inconsistent nonsense. Its enormous influence has not improved American students’ grasp of English grammar; it has significantly degraded it. … Strunk had very little analytical understanding of syntax, White even less. Certainly White was a fine writer, but he was not qualified as a grammarian. (Geoffrey K. Pullum. “50 Years of Stupid Grammar Advice”, The Chronicle Review, April 17, 2009. Retrieved July 12, 2013.)

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