The Apostrophe: How Even English-Speakers Can't Agree on Grammar...or the Death Penalty
By Heath Shive
In 2006, the United States Supreme Court ruled on the case of Kansas v. Marsh.
The court ruled on the legal question of whether it was constitutional to execute in cases where the aggravating factors and mitigating factors were equipoise (or balanced out).
Aggravating circumstances are factors that merit a stiffer penalty. For example, spousal abuse is against the law, but if the spousal abuse is witnessed by children, then the penalty is a stiffer sentence.
Mitigating factors are factors that diminish severity. Shooting an unarmed person is against the law, but if the person was beating you mercilessly, then the severity of the sentence could be diminished.
So if mitigating factors are equal to aggravating factors, could a death penalty still be imposed?
Important legal stuff!
But let's look at the Supreme Court's grammar instead.
To the grammar!
The Supreme Court's Opinion...on the Apostrophe
Attorney Jonathan Starble reviewed Kansas v. Marsh from a grammatical point of view.
When reading the various opinions of the Justices, Starble noted that some Justices used the apostrophe in different ways.
When Justice Thomas wrote about the case, Thomas repeatedly wrote of the law as Kansas' statute. Since Kansas was a singular noun that ended with the letter s, there was not a second s following the apostrophe.
However, Justice Souter started his dissenting opinion with: "Kansas's capital sentencing statute provides..."
So Souter used the letter s after the apostrophe.
Furthermore, the (late) Justice Scalia wrote a separate opinion where he also wrote of Kansas's statute. Scalia also added 's when he wrote the words Ramos's and witness's.
However, Scalia did not add an extra s in the words Stevens', Adams', and Tibbs'.
Starble noted that the other Justices followed the style of Thomas (grammatically, at least) and wrote Kansas'.
The Official Grammatical Rule
There is none (it seems)!
For example, Starble noted that in A Dictionary of Modern American Usage, the letter s should follow the apostrophe in all singular nouns except for Biblical or classical names (for example, Jesus' or Socrates').
But according to the Purdue University Online Writing Lab, the 's should be added to singular possessive nouns, even when they end in s - for example, in James's.
For that matter, the Purdue OWL also adds the 's after plural nouns (like children's or geese's), but not when the plural noun ends with s - as in the cats' toys or the countries' laws.
On behalf of students of the English language everywhere: AGGGGGGGHHHHHHH!
So as best as I can discover, the rule is this: add 's to every possessive noun, except to plural nouns that end in s already.
Every Justice on the Supreme Court is very educated. Each of them is a legend in the field of law.
Yet even great Justices can't agree on grammatical rules.
Starble noted that the Justices were implicitly in favor 's in a 7-2 split. Incidentally, the Justices voted in favor of the death penalty in a 5-4 vote in Kansas v. Marsh.
If I were King of the English-speaking World, I would change this rule.
Wait, no! If I were King of the English-speaking World, I would first be a hedonistic tyrant who squashed all opposition.
But afterwards, my royal edict would change the grammatical rule to: add 's to all possessive nouns, singular or plural. Then at last, there would be uniformity - not only for native English-speakers, but for all the damned who are learning the English language all over the world.
And don't get me started on who versus whom.
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Hello! My name is Heath Shive, content manager at ScholarFox. I'll be the author of most of the blog posts. I'm a former geologist and currently a freelance writer. The world is complex and seemingly crazy. Good! Because when you love to learn, you'll never be bored.