Saturday, March 3, 2007

legislative support of good grammar

Arkorangeshape A legislator in Arkansas (and graduate of the law school where I teach) has received national attention, some of it positive and some of it negative, for introducing a non-binding resolution to encourage the possessive form of his state's name to be rendered Arkansas's. I wholeheartedly agree, and I have e-mailed him the following message of support:

Dear Rep. Harrelson,

  First, let me say how proud of you we are at the UALR Bowen School of Law, and we wish you success and influence as you serve our state in the General Assembly.
  Second, as a professor of legal writing, I strongly support your resolution to direct the proper possessive form for our state's name. It is indeed Arkansas's.
  Some have criticized you, holding up the AP Style Manual as "authority." Pish. The AP governs newspaper style alone, and as we all know, the newspapers pretty much do what they want in all kinds of contexts.
  I offer you below a much more authoritative source, the Chicago Manual of Style, now in its 15th edition, and as its subtitle proclaims, it is the "essential guide for writers, editors, and publishers."
From the Chicago Manual of Style, section 6.24: "The general rule for the possessive of nouns covers most proper nouns, including most names ending in sibilants . . ." and gives among its many examples the following:
Kansas's
Texas's
Burns's poems
Dickens's novels
Marx's theories
Ross's land
and several others.
Of course, the proper noun Arkansas does not end in a sibilant, but rather has a silent s. The Chicago Manual addresses that in section 6.25: "For names ending in silent s, z, or x . . . the possessive, unlike the plural, can generally be formed in the usual way [i.e., with 's] without suggesting an incorrect pronunciation." It then goes on to give the following examples:
Josquin Des Prez's motets
Margaux's bouquet
Vaucouleurs's theorems
Descartes's works
Either way, Arkansas gets an apostrophe s.
Sections 6.26 and 6.27 discuss the two traditional exceptions to the rule: (1) the names Jesus and Moses; and (2) "[n]ames of more than one syllable with an unaccented ending pronounced eez." Examples of the latter category are Euripedes' plays, Xerxes' army, Demosthenes' orations, Ramses' tomb. Arkansas does not fall into either category of exceptions.
For those who would pooh-pooh the Chicago Manual of Style (no doubt due to some animus against economists, even though I think they have nothing to do with the style manual), I offer another authoritative source, and a legal one at that: Bryan Garner, that legal writing guru who has assumed the editor's mantle for Black's Law Dictionary, who wrote The Elements of Legal Style, and who rewrote the Federal Rules of Appellate Procedure, to name only a few of his accomplishments. I quote the following from Garner's The Redbook: A Manual on Legal Style:
From section 1.77: "If [the word] is singular and ends in -s, add -'s unless the result would be hard to pronounce. If it is plural and ends in s, add -'." He gives the following examples:
Blackstone's Commentaries
a witness's testimony
Moses' laws
the octopuses' tentacles
As I have always told my legal writing students, you can also rely on your ear. When you make the word Arkansas possessive, you hear an -s that you don't otherwise hear. Here's how to prove it: Ask your colleagues (or any other nay-sayers) to read Garner's examples and then these two sentences aloud:
Arkansas is located west of the Mississippi River.
Arkansas's location is west of the Mississippi River.
And then you can say to them, "See? You said 'sawz,' didn't you? It wasn't hard to pronounce, and in fact, what you pronounced was the apostrophe s, just as you did in the Blackstone's Commentaries example."

Therefore, soldier on, brave one! I am behind you all the way! And you can quote me on that.
Best regards,
Coleen Barger

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