When I was in grade school I learned that to make a word possessive you simply added ’s to the end of it. That was easy. Oh, and there was one exception. If the word already ended in s, you simply added the apostrophe. Okay, I got it.
Then, when my kids were in high school, they corrected me. The rule had changed. The new convention was to add ’s anytime you wanted to show possession, regardless of the word ended in s or not. I struggled for years to retrain myself; it just looked so wrong.
Later, I worked on a book that needed to follow the requirements found in A Manual for Writers of Research Papers, Theses, and Dissertations by Kate L. Turabian, sometimes called Turabian for short. While maintaining the rule to add ’s anytime you wanted to show possession, including words ending in s, Turabian gave two exceptions: Jesus and Moses. This means it was correct to write “Jesus’ disciples.” Not only did this look cleaner, but I liked the idea of giving Jesus special consideration.
Now, I learn that according to The Chicago Manual of Style, 16th Edition, the exception for Jesus and Moses no longer applies. This means that “Jesus’s disciples” is now correct.
Of course, there are still other special cases relating to making a word possessive. It’s enough to make my head spin. But then, grammar always did have that effect on me.
From this, we can learn three things:
Not Everyone Agrees
Not all “experts” agree on the rules of writing. If they all did, there would only be one style guide to follow. Instead, we have many. To further complicate things, many publishers have their own peculiar deviations from the various style guides. For myself, I attempt to follow The Chicago Manual of Style, as it works in most situations, most of the time. I think it may be the closest we have to have a standard writing guide.
Over time writing rules, expectations, and standards change. Some of the things we learned in grade school, high school, and college no longer apply. And the greater the distance we have from our formal education, the increased likelihood some of the rules we once learned are now wrong.
We Need to Change, Too
As the rules change, we need to change how we write. To resist these changes keeps us mired in the past, fixated on the old ways of doing things. Others will view us as out of touch writers, and they will dismiss our writing as antiquated. Ignorance is no excuse.
As writers, we always need to be learning, and we need to be ready to change. The acceptance of our work depends on it.
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Peter Lyle DeHaan is an author, blogger, and publisher with over 30 years of writing and publishing experience. Check out his book The Successful Author for insider tips and insights.
11 replies on “Don’t Be Possessive About Writing Rules”
One change I struggled with briefly was the one space rule at the end of a sentence.
I really struggle with the ‘s added to all words. I don’t like it, but now that I know it is the norm, will do it. I also struggled with the one space rule; now the double space looks excessive! I also am having trouble with the rules on quotation marks. Have they changed or have I not caught on yet?
When I began writing my book, I struggled with the two spaces after period. Now, no problem. Knowing that my publisher goes by the Chicago Manual, I struggled for a while with the -s’s rule. My name, Vaselopulos, as well as Jesus’s name don’t look the same with the double s’s, but I am accepting that change also.
Quotations were another thing for me. Lately I learned that all punctuation goes inside the quoted sentence and outside a quoted word or phrase, unless that phrase is a question or exclamation, in which case the ? or ! go inside the quotation marks and the sentence period goes outside. I think. Do I have it right or not? More than that, both ?! can be used in the same sentence.
I’m also working-in some contractions to make my writing less formal. I understand that now they are not only accepted but used than ever. Yes? No?
Jerry, I agree. I fought making that change for years, but once I decided to switch, it only took me a couple of days to learn.
Kathy, there seems to be a lot of intricacies with quotation marks. I keep The Chicago Manual of Style nearby and highlight applicable examples for quick reference the next time I have the same question.
Contractions are a great way to make our writing more accessible. Sometimes I overdo it, however. writing as I talk – which sometimes includes incorrect contractions or uncommon contractions. Of course, I don’t talk in complete sentences either, but that doesn’t affect my writing.
The main thing is that you are striving to change and for that, I say “Bravo!”
May we always seek to improve.
This is the first I’ve heard about adding ‘s. Who makes all of these decisions? When did they make this change? And when were they going to tell the rest of us? The change from double space to one space has not been hard because it’s clear and consistent. The changes with quotation marks are driving me crazy.
I accepted the request to teach a college freshman English class one year, thinking it would help me fine tune my writing – instead it left me more confused about all of the changes from when I took college English.
Yeah, Patricia, this caught me off guard, too.
You ask a good question about who decides. if it were up me, I’d make things a whole lot simpler!
Thank you, Peter! Always learning with you…from you!
I always wrote full sentences, and often long ones. I resisted the new trend that fragments, and even one-word sentences, are acceptable. I still don’t like a full sentence being broken to ten different word with periods.
Lately, however, I catch myself writing a fragment here and there, even one-word sentences. I kept a few, because as my editor tells me, They fit with my voice and make it a little more reader-friendly.
Same thing with ellipses. Though I know how they are supposed to be used, I use them to slow down something I am saying and bring on a kind of extension. The editor wants me to keep some because they are part of my style. Working on being frugal with them.
Thanks again for your encouragement. My father installed the attitude of seeking growth when he practiced himself the ancient Greek adage “I grow old learning,” which could be interpreted as I mature by seeking new knowledge or I live and learn from life.
Writing is an amazing journey of discovery!