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Hey, apostrophize this!

By now you have seen it. State Rep. Steve Harrelson of Arkansas has filed a measure to declare that the possessive form of Arkansas is Arkansas’s.

This is not the first legislative effort to regularize the state’s name. As the Associated Press dispatch about the Harrelson measure explains, a legislative resolution in 1881 “formalized its [the state’s] current spelling and pronunciation, making the final ‘s’ silent.”

The traditional — some would insist orthodox — means of forming the possessive is to add ’s to the singular form. It is the form that The Chicago Manual of Style prescribes, though the text notes that because “feelings on these matters sometimes run high, users of this manual may wish to modify or add to the exceptions.” 

Associated Press style, which is the basis for the house styles of a multitude of publications, follows a modern practice of using the apostrophe only with words ending in s. And well, English is a big language, with room for multiple practices. It was no so very long ago that Jonathan Swift and Jane Austen were writing your’s, her’s and our’s.

And while it is public-spirited of the legislators to take time away from their important work — Arkansas has officially established, for example, a state bird, flower, song, tree, gem, insect, fruit and vegetable (the South Arkansas Vine Ripe Pink Tomato, which is technically a fruit but commonly called a vegetable), instrument, beverage, mammal, rock, mineral and American folk dance — efforts to regulate language are probably misguided.   

The French Academy’s efforts to repel foreign terms, particularly Americanisms, are famously futile, and the efforts by various governments to make English their official language have come in for ridicule, including a post on this blog:

When I worked at The Cincinnati Enquirer the municipal authorities of the city of Hamilton, Ohio, decreed that the official name of their city was Hamilton! Apart from a mildly amused account of their action, The Enquirer declined to use the exclamation point, and I suspect many Hamilton!ians did as well. Whatever the Arkansas Legislature might eventually do, I suspect that Arkansans and others will continue to form the possessive according to their individual preferences.

Posted by John McIntyre at 1:59 PM | | Comments (4)


Heee haww.

I suggest " Arkans'ass " would be most appropriate as both plural and singular.

BTW are you suggesting that the Vine Ripe Tomato is the Official Fruit *and* Vegetable both together ensemble? Or is there a fruit that you simply did not name? Or ...

sign me: Baffled Eastern Shore Turnip Truck Tumbler.

Even though I'm right on this one *grin*, the criticism directed my way is deserved. I filed this as a simple resolution in hopes that it would sail through on the front end of our voting calendar (during the same period of the day when we recognize local tennis stars and commend couples for managing to stay married for an extended period), but it has somehow caught the attention of reporters, scholars, and historians.

While I think it's okay to quickly debate our historical roots as a people, I didn't anticipate that this would reflect as poorly on my colleagues as it has.

Funny you asked. My vote is for the apostrophe S. Two reasons: a) it can't be confused and b) helps to preserve a useful punctuation mark that will evolve off the face of English with fewer and fewer uses. Granted, that may happen anyway. Besides, you now hear announcers who have orally completely missed the possessive sense, because of that lone apostrophe without its subsequent S.

Steve Harrelson ought to be commended for seeking out and contributing to John's blog.

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About John McIntyre
John McIntyre, mild-mannered editor for a great metropolitan newspaper, has fussed over writers’ work, to sporadic expressions of gratitude, for thirty years. He is The Sun’s night content production manager and former head of its copy desk. He also teaches editing at Loyola University Maryland. A former president of the American Copy Editors Society, a native of Kentucky, a graduate of Michigan State and Syracuse, and a moderate prescriptivist, he writes about language, journalism, and arbitrarily chosen topics. If you are inspired by a spirit of contradiction, comment on the posts or write to him at
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