Wednesday, September 30, 2009

On the Apostrophe


Garner's The Elements of Legal Style, Rule 2.6 (Oxford, 1991)(emphasis in original) states the following:

2.6 Form Singular Possessives by Adding 's to the Singular Form of the Noun

The rules holds true regardless of how the word ends: thus, witness's, Jones's, Congress's, and testatrix's. There are three exceptions to the rule. First, the word its is possessive, it's being the contraction for it is. Second, your and hers, which are absolute possessives, take no apostrophe. Third, biblical and classical names that end with a -zes, or -eez sound take only the apostrophe. Thus,

Jesus' Moses' Aristophanes' Socrates'

If the possessive form seems awkward to you, rephrase: the laws of Moses instead of Moses' laws, the action of Congress or the congressional action instead of Congress's action.

Given the treatment of Customs as a singular entity, I take it from Garner (my go-to grammar guy) that the CAFC was correct as a matter of formal grammar. Customs's will be my preferred usage henceforth and I am a little embarrassed that I had floated toward treating Customs as a plural noun, which would justify my use of the naked apostrophe. But, that still leaves open the question of Customs's own institutional preference and whether there is any reason for it.


I am shocked at the amount of controversy this has generated. I have actually written on some contentious issues, but have never generated this many comments. I am very worried about you all.

That said, I found a different answer via Grammar Girl's Quick and Dirty Tips. Unlike Garner, GG (AKA Mignon Fogarty) says there is no hard and fast rule on this and that style guides differ in their advice. She also points this article deconstructing a Supreme Court opinion reviewing a Kansas statute in which there were multiple opinions and differing views on the use of the 's. According to the author, Jonathan M. Starble:

The surprisingly popular practice of omitting the final "s" in all s-ending words is both technically improper and completely illogical. Indeed, the use of an additional "s" accurately reflects proper pronunciation. Whereas an 's produces a clear sound, a mere apostrophe produces no sound at all. Accordingly, if one were to pronounce the sentence, "Kansas' statute is constitutional," it would sound exactly the same as the sentence, "Kansas statute is constitutional." That wouldn't make any sense. Furthermore, it is hard to imagine that law clerks for Justice Thomas go around saying to people, "Hello, I'm Justice Thomas clerk." (Of course, the same analysis applies to people like Jesus and Moses, but they are apparently entitled to some type of "grandfather" exception.)

Given the diversity of opinion, I am feeling empowered to return to my prior practice of dropping the trailing s. I will, though, continue to use a lower case letter c when using customs as an adjective rather than as a proper noun. Thus "customs classification" refers to the practice of classifying merchandise under the tariff schedule. On the other hand, "Customs' classification" refers to the classification Customs assigned to the merchandise.

Anyone want to argue about that?


Anonymous said...

Larry -

Garner is nuts! The usage may be appropriate "over the pond" (I note that Oxford publishes Garner), but here in the good old USA it looks plain sloppy.

Some examples:

George Jones' guitar


Dolly Parton's guitar

George's family is collectively known as the Joneses, and Dolly's
family as the Partons.

The difference is between possessives and plurals, "George Jones's guitar" just looks wrong, pretentious and ostentatious.

The whole Customs thing is another story.

I am a retired Customs officer, just as a retired cop is a retired police officer.

Things, such as opinions, belonging to Customs can be referred to in two ways:

If you are referring to an official opinion of the agency by the opinion's name, it is "Customs Opinion # 1234" - this in line with the long line of Treasury (not Treasury's) Decisions; in other usage, the proper language would be something like "It is Customs' opinion that..." NOT "it is Customs's opinion that..."

Speaking of Treasury Decisions - a bit of Customs trivia:

What was the subject of Treasury Decision #1?

Don't know?

It was vessel repair - a Customs problem in the 1860s, when TD 1 was rendered, and still a problem today.

Yeah, I'm the same retired Customs guy that's responded to some of your posts.

Anonymous said...

Dear Anonymous #1:

That a grammer rule might originate from "over the pond," or that its use might make a particular phrase "look sloppy" is hardly a justification for ignoring it. Your response, "it is because it is," does little to constructively contribute to the discussion on this blog. In fact, I think such reasoning is "pretentious and ostentatious."


The Guy Who Suggested Garner's Explanation in the Previous Post

Filosofo Galego said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Anonymous said...

PS: The example provided above concerning George Jones and his guitar misses the point. "George Jones" is a singular noun. It refers to George, whose full name is George Jones. He is one person and, therefore, is a singular noun. While it is true his family is known as the Joneses, George, not them, is the subject of the above sentece.

As that is the case, the correct form is "George Jones's guitar."

I also would like to pause to make a final note. To be sure, Oxford publishes some of Garner's work. If there is some concern regarding a British grammer take-over, then take a careful look at the placement of punctuation marks and the use of quotations in those works. I am sure you will find that punctuation marks, save semicolons, colons and sometimes question and exclamation marks (depending on whether they are part of the quoted passage), appear inside quotation marks, a rule adopted in the U.S., but not in the U.K.


The Guy Who Suggested Garner's Explanation in the Previous Post

Anonymous said...

Dear Anonymous #2:

US and British usage differ in more ways than placement of punctuation marks and spelling.

The treatment of collective nouns is a prime example. In the US we would say "The Xerox Corporation IS going to conduct a symposium." While the British would say "The Xerox Corporation ARE going to conduct a symposium."

Anonymous #1

Anonymous said...

I agree with the first Anonymous. If we start doing like the Brits, we'll be clots taking the wrong slip road onto the motorway, crashing our bonnets up to our windscreens. Hopefully it will be just a prang and not a write-off.

Anonymous said...

Dear Anonymous #1,

Thank you for rightly pointing out that I did not cover all of the differences in grammer usage in my previous post. However, the point of that entry was to dispel fears of a supposed British invasion, not to give a comprehensive lecture on the nuances in each nation's use of certain grammer rules. I apologize for the confusion.

Anonymous #2

Larry said...

Oh how I wish you people would use names, even if fake ones.

Anonymous said...

How is it your loyal readers submit 8 comments (now 9) on the use of an apostrophe, and one on your learned dissertation on Kahrs?

Matt said...

Hey, I attached my name to comment 9. Let's try that again

Essex (UK) Man said...

The apostrophe has been around for 450 years and neither Brits nor Americans have ever come close to agreement on how to use it. Instead of wasting another 450 years, it might be a good idea to find a workaround?

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I think Mr. Garner is trying to explain the grammar structure in a simple way so that it is clear to whoever read it! I think it should include more examples so it is even more specific

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