Mysteries of Terminal S Revealed

Done to Perfection (the sign and the sandwich)

It strikes fear into the hearts of English-speaking people because it is shrouded in secrecy.  “I know there are some sort of rules about it, but I don’t know what they are,” thinks the person writing a thank-you note, or making signs for a garage sale. 

Yes, they’re right — there is a correct way to use the letter “s” at the end of a word.  Experts don’t want the secrets to fall into the wrong hands, but I believe the people have a right to know the truth.  That’s why I intend to openly declare the facts about the final “s” and its frequent companion, the apostrophe.

Some words end with an “s”, or even a double “s”, just because they do.  Words in this category include lens, thermos, glass, octopus.  Most people don’t have trouble with those words until it comes time to form their plurals.  When there is more than one (plural), you usually add “es”, as in lenses or glasses.  Octopus is sometimes pluralized as octopi, but octopuses is acceptable.

For most words, form the plural by simply adding “s”.  Bathtub, boy, shore, painting:  if there is more than one of those, all you need is an “s”.  It’s just bathtubs and paintings — no apostrophe is required.

While we’re at it, let’s shatter a couple of myths about the apostrophe by saying what it is not.  It isn’t a warning announcement, as in “Look out, here comes an ‘s’!”  My wife and I sometimes receive mail addressed to “The Reeder’s”.  We have driven past fruit stands that advertise “AVOCADO’S”.  As noted above, “s” is plenty, and it speaks for itself.

The apostrophe is not a decoration.  Some people throw them randomly into words, usually in the vicinity of an “s”.  This may be because the letter and the punctuation mark are believed to accessorize each other, like a handbag and shoes.  That is presumably why a certain clothing company calls itself Lands’ End.  They had the general idea about needing an apostrophe, but they put it on the wrong side of the “s”.

Basically, the apostrophe serves two functions.  It indicates missing letters in a contraction; for example, it stands for the missing “n” and “o” when “can not” is shortened to “can’t”.  The other function of the apostrophe is to indicate a possessive.

That’s when it sometimes gets tricky, but all possessive means is, whose ________ is it?  The apostrophe helps us understand that it is Arthur’s sword, or my daughter’s parka, or the People’s Republic.

Among the anxiety-inducing uncertainties, though, is this one:  What if the possessor is a noun that already ends in “s”?  Do you still add apostrophe-“s”?  Or isn’t there something about just using an apostrophe, with no additional “s”?  Well, yes — there is some difference of opinion among experts on this issue, in fact.  Fowler’s Modern English Usage has a good common-sense rule:  For modern names ending in “s”, use apostrophe-“s”.  So we’d give our friend a copy of David Sedaris’s Barrel Fever, and it would then become Les’s book (assuming our friend’s name is Les.)

On the other hand, for ancient names ending in “s”, add the apostrophe alone.  When we’re writing that term paper, then, we’d speak of Moses’ law or Achilles’ heel.

The terminal “s” has other rules and it seems like every rule has exceptions.  I don’t have room for all of them in this post, but if you want to explore this topic further, feel free to send me your comment’s.  Oh, sorry — I meant “comments”, of course.

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5 responses to “Mysteries of Terminal S Revealed

  1. My maiden name is Stephens. When several of us were together in our home we were the Stephenses. When our friends the Whites came over to dinner they came to the Stephenses’s house. Unless, of course, my family is an ancient family and they came to the Stephenses’.

  2. Your father and I once discussed the situation you described. Because he has been a writer and editor for over 70 years, I have tremendous respect for his opinion in these matters. He suggested an approach that is at odds with the Fowler rule, but makes good sense to me: Spell it the way you say it.

    In the example of Stephenses’, you only say the “s” sound twice, so you don’t need to add that final “s” after the apostrophe. Using that same guideline, I guess we would talk about Dickens’ novels, but Keats’s poems.

  3. I believe the apostrophe is the most ill-used of all punctuations, particularly on signs–omitted where required (mens room), inserted where unwelcome (the MacDonald’s) and absurdly misplaced (ladie’s wear). Honestly, that last one was on a sign in a Pomona store window, I didn’t go in.

  4. My pet peeve is the misuse of it’s and its. I know it can be confusing, but it’s important to be sure our language and its rules are used correctly.

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