Clarence Thomas, David Souter, English Grammar and Usage, John Paul Stevens, John Roberts, Reader Polls, SCOTUS, Supreme Court

Grammer Pole of the Weak: Getting Possessive with SCOTUS

Welcome to the latest edition of Above the Law’s Grammer Pole of the Weak, a column where we turn questions of English grammar and usage over to our readers for discussion and debate.

Last week, we found out that 52% of our readers thought it was acceptable to end a sentence with a preposition, but with the caveat that it should be avoided if possible. That’s pretty wishy-washy, folks.

This week, we’re going to focus on an issue with a supreme split in authority, and you’re going to have to choose one side or the other. You’re going to pick Clarence Thomas’ side (you’ll soon see why we wrote it that way), or you’re going to pick David Souter’s side, but that’s it. Ooh, that’s a little possessive….

Yup, this week we’re going to have a chat about the possessive form of singular nouns that end with the letter “s.” Both Justices Thomas and Souter have weighed in on the issue, but in a rather unusual place: a Supreme Court opinion.

In Kansas v. Marsh, Thomas wrote for the majority, and Souter wrote a dissent. The Legal Times has more on the grammatical and stylistic discord that occurred in those pages:

Justice Clarence Thomas, writing for the Court (and joined by Chief Justice John Roberts Jr. and Justices Samuel Alito Jr., Anthony Kennedy, and Antonin Scalia), concluded that the Kansas statute was not unconstitutional. In reaching this conclusion, Thomas repeatedly referred to the relevant law as Kansas’ statute.

In response, Justice David Souter wrote a dissent that was joined by Justices Stephen Breyer, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, and John Paul Stevens. . . .

Whereas Thomas apparently believes that whenever a singular noun ends in s, an additional s should never be placed after the apostrophe, Souter has made equally clear his conviction that an s should always be added after the apostrophe when forming a singular possessive, regardless of whether the nonpossessive form already ends in s. With this acrimonious undercurrent simmering in the background, Souter boldly began his Marsh dissent as follows: “Kansas’s capital sentencing statute provides . . .”

This is a pretty interesting debate, if only because it’s not just a matter of proper grammar. It seems to be a style choice. At least that’s what Grammar Girl says. But it also pits the other two justices whose names end with the letter “s” against each other. Justice John Paul Stevens agreed with Souter, but Chief Justice John Roberts agreed with Thomas.

But which justice comes out on top in terms of both grammar and style? For that, we look to Ross Guberman, the Legal Writing Pro:

[H]ere’s where some well-known authorities stand:

1. The Souter approach: Add ’s, unless biblical or classical.

Strunk & White, The Elements of Style
The Chicago Manual of Style
Bryan Garner, A Dictionary of Modern Legal Usage
Fowler’s Modern English Usage
U.S. Government Printing Office, Style Manual

2. The Thomas approach: Add only an apostrophe.

Associated Press Stylebook

3. The Libertarian approach: Either way is fine.

Wilson Follett, Modern American Usage

We’ve said it before, and we’ll say it again, but we don’t tend to agree with usage found in the AP Stylebook. Come on, they don’t use the serial comma. Sorry, Justice Thomas, but following that, how are we supposed to agree with them on anything else?

So, if like Justice Thomas, your name ends with the letter “s,” you definitely have a horse in this race. Should we be writing the possessive form of singular nouns that end with the letter “s” by adding only an apostrophe, as Justice Thomas suggests, or should we be doing so by adding an apostrophe and an additional “s,” as Justice Souter proposes?

What do you think, readers? Let us know in our poll:

How should the possessive form of singular nouns that end with the letter "s" be written?

  • Justice Souter's (and Stevens's) usage is correct. (60%, 828 Votes)
  • Justice Thomas' (and Roberts') usage is correct. (40%, 557 Votes)

Total Voters: 1,384

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Gimme an S [Legal Times]
Feeling Possessive? [Legal Writing Pro]
How do You Make Singular Words Ending in S Possessive? [Grammar Girl]

Earlier: Prior Grammer Poles of the Weak

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