February 28, 2007


I just heard a story on NPR’s “All Things Considered” about a resolution that has been introduced in the Arkansas legislature asserting that the singular possessive of “Arkansas” should be rendered as “Arkansas’s,” not “Arkansas’.” Apparently, the AP stylebook advises the use of “Arkansas’,” and the state’s largest newspaper, the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, is strongly in favor of that usage.

Whereas I’m sure that many will think the resolution introduced by Representative Steve Harrelson (D) is frivolous, I don’t. Not only is Representative Harrelson correct, but his resolution might encourage people think more deeply about the logic of grammatical rules concerning possessives. This may not fulfill a major purpose of the Arkansas legislature, but grammar rules need all the publicity they can get!

The AP apparently subscribes to the simpleminded rule that words ending in “s” form the singular possessive with the addition of a simple apostrophe. Most people would, in fact, write “in Jesus’ name” and would pronounce “Jesus’” in exactly the same way as they pronounce “Jesus.” However, some people would always—and other people would sometimes—add an extra sibilant syllable at the end of “Jesus,” which would, if spelling is to reflect pronunciation, cause the phrase to be rendered “in Jesus’s name.” Actually, I suspect that the AP rule is wrong at least as often as it is right. Would anyone really write “the boss’ daughter” and pronounce “boss’” as they pronounce “boss”? One could, I suppose, write the phrase this way and still say boss-es, but this suggests that the apostrophe itself can represent a syllable.

This, of course, is the problem with “Arkansas’.” In this case, however, there is not even a single sibilant at the end of the word to suggest any sort of plural or possessive. People pronounce the name of the state ahr-kuhn-saw, and they naturally pronounce the singular possessive ahr-kuhn-sawz. Surely, the extra sibilant cannot come from the apostrophe, which, after all, is a symbol that generally indicates that something has been left out, not that something invisible has been sneaked in! That sibilant must correspond to an actual “s.” Therefore, the only reasonable spelling is “Arkansas’s.”

I hope the resolution passes.

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