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Good, fair, serious, critical

No matter how many time you remind reporters, they keep filing stories saying that some injured person’s condition is “stable.” As Craig Lancaster points out at Watch Yer Language, stable tells the reader nothing. It means that the patient’s condition is the same, and the reader doesn’t know same as what.

The baffling thing about this whole enterprise is how difficult it is to get simple things right. I don’t mean points about which reasonable, literate people disagree, such as whether it’s time to let careen replace career. I mean things that are just wrong.

This week we published an article with a reference to All Saint’s Day. November 1 is the Festival of All Saints. All of them. Plural. So one writes All Saints’ Day. Why didn’t all coupled with a singular possessive look wrong to the writer, the editor, the copy editor?

Why should possessives in general be such a thorny problem? The major point on which there is room for variance is what to do with a singular noun ending in s. You can write James’s or James’, as your aesthetic preference leads you, so long as you are consistent. Everything else is straightforward, ’s for singulars, s’ for plurals.

Ah, but the plurals add to the confusion. You’ve decided whether to write Jones’s or Jones’, but what do you do with a family names Jones. The plural is Joneses, and the possessive plural is Joneses’ (which you can pronounce JONE-zez or JONE-zez-zez, as your tongue leads you).

If you find some passage in Jane Austen or elsewhere that refers to a Smith family as the Smith’s, please don’t trouble to write in. Arguing from the historical record of the language is instructive but not necessarily conclusive. After all, in the 17th century, it was mistakenly held that ’s was a contraction of his, so you find people like Sir Thomas Browne writing constructions like Moses his man.

We have a set of conventions in standard written English. If writers observed them, editors would be able to address matters of structure and clarity instead of correcting silly mistakes.



Posted by John McIntyre at 11:46 AM | | Comments (7)


One of my editors once told me that even dead people are in stable condition. That's what I use to explain what a vague term it is.

And, of course, the most stable condition is dead.

You can blame the use of “stable” on the medical professionals.

In the world of the hospital, it is tossed around as shorthand for a number of things. Most often, it’s a way of saying, “I don’t expect this patient’s body to attempt to die tonight.” This is in juxtaposition to the “unstable” patient, (a term, interestingly enough, that is rarely if ever used), in whose room you will spend the majority of your time trying to keep the heart beating and the lungs working and the brain intact.

But it does get inappropriately tossed out in news conferences as well, and from there into reporters notebooks and the subsequent stories. And out of context, it doesn’t hold much meaning at all.


It's a little misleading to say "s' for plurals," because it doesn't work for plurals that don't end in "s" (children, for instance). Furthermore, the problem here isn't limited to plurals. I recently read a book that made the name "Rogers" possessive by putting an apostrophe before the "s." (It also used "principle" for "principal" throughout, even in quotes dating from times when writers usually knew the difference. Copy editing isn't what it used to be.)

Why do the Saints need an apostrophe at all? Do the saints possess the day or do we just remember them on that day?

Consider Halloween's Day, Decoration's Day, Independence's Day...

My desk calendar apostrophizes Presidents' Day, but not Martin Luther King, Jr. Day; does not MLK carpe the diem?

Abigail, as a former ICU nurse I think your remarks are spot on. We only used the word stable if we thought the patient was ready to be transferred to the floor (out of the ICU). A patient who was unstable was said to be "crumping" or "circling the drain".

How do you handle a plural noun that doesn't end in "s"?

Which is correct:

Hirsute Outdoor Gentlemen's Society?


Hirsute Outdoor Gentlemens' Society?

The first looks correct to me.

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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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