Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Grammar Questions

An interesting dilemma presented itself during our critique group that I felt might merit a few lines here. The novel I've been revising and my friend John's latest work both have characters whose plural surnames end in "s". When making these plural proper names into the possessive, which way is right? Turners's vs Turners' or Harpers's vs Harpers'. The answer is: It depends.

Our confusion over the plural possessive form stems from a lack of continuity in the style books, which contain slight variations . While the style books usually agree about most everything, this is one of those times when it doesn't. (I'm convinced this is for the sole purpose of being vexing.)

My trusty Harbrace College Handbook circa 1988 leans toward Turners' and Harpers'. Chicago Manual of Style prefers s's, as in the Turners's. MLA agrees with my Harbrace (because it is MLA). Fowler's Modern English Usage says both are correct in different situations. In the case of a singular possessive ending in 's', you add the apostrophe s. In the case of a plural possessive ending in 's', you just add the apostrophe. So, using the name Mavis Turner, it would be Mavis's and the Turners'.

Clear as mud, right?

Being a writer in the age of the internet (when I was in school we had to carry our style guide uphill both ways, barefoot, in the snow . . . ) I frequently Google the grammar question or check with the Grammar Girl. Either one can usually tell me what I need to know in a pinch.

But for anyone serious about their craft, I would invest in a good style book. I use the CMS (because it is widely accepted in the writing community) and Strunk and White's The Elements of Style.  Oh, and my good old Harbrace. It has rarely steered me wrong.  The main rule: Pick one guide and be consistent.

What are your favorite style books? Or what do you use to get out of a grammar pickle?

Until next time.


Interesting note: Apparently Blogger's spelling and grammar check uses MLA. It didn't care for my use of Turners's  and Harpers's.

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