Thursday, March 06, 2014

A Pain in the S

For the life of me, I cannot figure out why this is such a problem for so many people…including the nice folks at Publishers Clearing House, who this morning sent me this e-mail (but, to date, none of the money that they insist someone in my ZIP Code and/or with my initials is guaranteed to win):

You would not believe (or perhaps you would; how on earth should I know?) how often the plural of my last name – indeed, any word ending in s – is mangled. Sometimes it’s rendered as PCH did (just slam another s on it!), sometimes the plural formation is ignored entirely (and my wife and I receive invitations addressed to The Reynolds), and sometimes – most of the time – the good ol’ apostrophe-s is brought in (forming a possessive, not a plural).

And yet it’s so easy:
One Reynolds.
Two Reynoldses.
One Jones.
Two Joneses.
One Hopkins.
Two Hopkinses.

(When my children were little, we had a picture book called Too Many Hopkins. About a family of rabbits named Hopkins. I cringed every time I looked at the title. Alarmingly, it was published by a Major New York Publishing House. Indeed, a Major New York Publishing House that published a couple of my own books.)

I am equally perplexed by the difficulty people have in forming possessives of nouns ending in s. Again, it’s all so simple.
The ball belongs to Jones.
It’s Jones’s ball.

I am willing to accept Jones’ in the above example, partly because we’ve (many of us) bee brought up on newspapers that use that style, primarily to save space, and partly because some style and usage guides do propose bizarre gyrations for forming the possessive of monosyllabic proper nouns; I worked with an editor, back in the day, who insisted that the possessive of a one-syllable name gets only the apostrophe – Jones’ – but a multi-syllable name gets apostrophe-s – Reynolds’s. That never made any sense to me, and the style manual that our office used recommended apostrophe-s in all case…except biblical and Hellenic names. Thus, Moses’ staff, Zeus’ head, Jesus’ disciples, and so on.

So some confusion is understandable.

But I will never understand the bizarre impulse to stick an apostrophe in front of every end-of-word s. The Reynold’s House is just plain wrong. If the family living there is named Reynolds, it would be The Reynoldses’ House (plural possessive). If the family living there is named Reynold (which I’ve only ever seen as a given name, not a surname, but who knows), it would be The Reynolds’ House (Reynolds being the plural, Reynolds’ being the plural possessive). Under no circumstances would it be The Reynold’s House.

(If it was the house of my real-life friend whose first name is Reynold, it would be Reynold’s House.)

Yes, it requires a moment’s thought. But it’s not at all tricky – certainly not tricky enough to justify the idiotic response given by a fellow member of a panel I was on at a writers conference some years ago: In response to a stupid question about forming plurals and possessives of names ending in s, the fellow panelist stupidly answered that she always avoided giving characters names that end in s, so as to, you know, not have to think too much.

And, yes, I know – there’s no such thing as a stupid question. Just stupid people.

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