Friday, June 22, 2007

How Tough Can it Be?

You will say I am sensitive to this burning issue only because my last name ends in an S. And, probably, you will be right. But having spent my entire adult life working with words, much of that time as an editor, all of it as a writer, I have to ask myself:

Why does it seem so freakin’ tough for people to correctly form the plural and/or possessive form of names ending in S??

It is so simple. You have one Smith; if you have more than one, you have two Smiths. If something belongs to Smith, you say it is Smith’s. If it belongs to the family, you say it is the Smiths’. It is all so straightforward, no?

Why, then, do people simply fall apart if the proper noun happens to end in an S?

Here’s an example, from yesterday’s edition of the local rag. The reporter on this story is easily the most on-the-ball writer they have down there, and I apologize for that being faint praise. But apparently she suffers the same malady that afflicts so many, and suffers also from having no good editor to help her out.

Experienced couple to lead Salvation Army
By Jill Callison

Published: June 21, 2007

A couple with long ties to the Salvation Army have been chosen to lead the local church.

Majors Michael and Judith Mills have been ordained ministers for more than 30 years, but their ties to the Salvation Army go back longer than that.

"We're really products of what the Salvation Army can do to help individuals," Major Michael Mills said.

"My father was a recovering alcoholic. The Salvation Army helped him change his life, and we started going to church as a family. My wife was in a foster home out in South Dakota, and she started going to the Salvation Army there."

Judith Mills was raised in Rapid City and Aberdeen.

The Mills will replace Majors Paul and Mary Duskin, who have been assigned to the Eastern Michigan and Divisional Headquarters in Detroit.

Okay—catch that? The family name is apparently Mills, with an S, not Mill. And yet in that last paragraph, when they are being referred to in the plural, they are called “the Mills.”

No, no no. The Millses. One Mills; two Millses.

I’m sorry if that “sounds wrong.” No one said this was going to be pretty.

But it is straightforward. It’s every bit as straightforward as our Smith example. One Reynolds, two Reynoldses. Reynolds’s house; the Reynoldses’ house.

Several years ago I was a panelist at a writer’s convention. A woman in the audience asked a question about this very subject—how to properly for the possessive and/or plural form of names ending in S. One of my co-panelists—a well-regarded writer whose name you would recognize were I to provide it (a name that does not end in S, by the way, which is telling), and a woman who was and perhaps still is teaching English at a U.S. college, which also is telling—in all seriousness advised the questioner to avoid using names that end in S, since she herself couldn’t figure out how to keep it straight.


I had a similar unsettling incident a few weeks ago, teaching a writing class at a local college. In that instance, I was commenting to my class on the gender-sensitive case, which they pretty much all seemed to have trouble with. I shared my (correct) opinion that, although it’s awkward, the proper form is to write Everyone must bring his or her book (rather than Everyone must bring their book, which is how my students were crafting such sentences), upon which one of the better students (in a group of really good students, it must be said) informed me that she had once raised the issue with another instructor in the English department (a member of the permanent staff, who had advanced degrees and letters after his or her name and everything), whose sage advice was to just go ahead and use their.

Ow, again.

I am reminded of my third-grade teacher, Sister Hildegund, a lovely old woman…but, alas, a very old woman, and one who should have been retired some years earlier (she literally would fall asleep at her desk during class, the poor thing). At a parent conference, she informed my folks that she didn’t understand “the new math” (as it was known in the 1960s)…and so simply did not teach it.

Ow, ow, ow.

The benefit of learning how to do something the proper way, as opposed to throwing up one’s hands in defeat and announcing that he or she “doesn’t get it,” is that once you do get it…you’ve got it, for good! Nothing is gained—no one progresses—by taking the attitude that, well, since everyone is doing it wrong we’ll just do it wrong, and sooner or later it will be right. (Obviously, that’s where we’re going with who and whom, and I have felt for some years that by the middle of this century, at the latest, all but the most hidebound of grammarians will be insisting upon the distinction. That’s fine—the language is, after all, a living and always-evolving thing—but until that time, there is a difference, and it does matter.)

And don’t even get me started on those signs people have on or in front of their houses—or, sometimes, on their RVs—telling one and all that they are The Anderson’s…or The Jone’s…