Last Christmas, my younger sister, Kim, came to visit us. And we got into a big argument. I will admit: I enjoy annoying my sister. She’s like me in the sense of having strong opinions about minor things. But she has never quite figured out how to exploit my weakness. Or maybe it is just because she is a better person than I am. Regardless, our argument was about how to make names that end in the letter “s” possessive.
We agree about the case of a normal noun. For example, “The lilacs’ color was muted due to a lack of water.” It is wrong to put an extra “s” at the end of that “lilacs’.” But Kim doesn’t like sentences like this, “Claudius’ stutter was what allowed him to live long enough to become emperor.” Kim thinks it should be, “Claudius’s stutter was what allowed him to live long enough to become emperor.” Our argument went on for days.
Kim thinks of this as a matter of phonetics. In that sentence, one would say, “Claudiuses stutter…” not “Claudius stutter…” Now on this point, she is mostly correct. But not entirely. The truth is that the second pronunciation is becoming more common. So I think that the language is moving in my direction — toward simplification. But she is right that the vast majority of people add the “es” when they say it. Therefore, she argues, in writing, we should add the “apostrophe s.”
(In point of fact, Kim did not argue this. I had to infer that this was her argument. She seems to take it as a given that I am just being difficult and that her case is self-evident. My first wife — also a very bright woman — did the same thing to me. I hate this. I may be bright, but that doesn’t mean that any given thing will be self-evident to me. I can be brilliantly perspective about one thing and totally clueless about the next.)
My argument is very simple: speaking is speaking; writing is writing; let’s make things as simple as possible. I don’t care if we all decide to put “apostrophe s” at the end of all possessives that end with “s.” I just don’t want to think about. I like clear and simple rules. And the state of grammar is now this:
Thus, I can live my life with two rules. Or I can live my life with one rule. I choose one.
But let me show you the madness that takes place in Kim’s grammar world. Consider the sentence, “The grass’ color was muted due to a lack of water.” In this case, almost everyone would say, “The grasses color…” So should we write this as, “The grass’s color…”? If we go with Kim’s rule, we really should. But then, we have to analyze every possessive noun that ends in “s” to determine how it sounds. And that is a terrible burden.
Let me admit that Kim’s system is a good and reasonable one. It actually makes more sense than mine. But it is too much work. And if we really want a language that makes sense, we had better start speaking Esperanto. Or rather: ni prefere komencu paroli Esperanton!