Alarums and excursions this week as the editors of the Associated Press Stylebook announced that they are considering changing the entry on possessive forms, countenancing forming the possessive of words ending in s, including names with ’s rather than a bare apostrophe.

What ensued online was a brouhaha, a hullabaloo, a shindy. The foundations were shaken. You’d have thought the pope was being received into Anglicanism or the archbishop of Canterbury was going over to Rome.


On the merits, this is what is involved.

The way we use punctuation is convention, not a matter of grammar, and conventions are subject to change. Jane Austen was completely happy in writing her’s, but we insist on hers. And there exist, side by side, two conventions in forming the possessive of words ending in s, the aforementioned ’s and the apostrophe. The AP Stylebook, widely used in journalism and corporate writing, has favored the bare apostrophe; the Chicago Manual of Style, widely consulted in book publishing, particularly academic publishing, has favored the ‘s.

But the merits got less attention than the emotion. Many of the responses boiled down to these: (a) I invested considerable time and attention in learning your stylebook and now you have the gall to change things, and (b) I dislike having to change the way I am accustomed to do things.

Somewhere in there was an odd naivete, not just a recognition that we’re merely talking about varying conventions, but also an apparent lack of awareness that there are other stylebooks with different conventions.*

Here are the merits about stylebooks.

They exist mainly to establish consistency in practice to avoid distractions to the reader. They offer guidance on spelling, punctuation, capitalization, abbreviation, numbers as words or numerals, and the like. They have displayed a tendency to become encyclopedic: AP runs to more than 600 pages, Chicago to more than a thousand. That’s a lot to absorb.

And they periodically reflect changes in usage. In recent years AP has unceremoniously dropped a load of fusty nonsense over the side: the fictitious over/more than distinction, the split-verb nonsense, the mistaken notion that collide cannot describe a crash between a moving object and a stationary object. Both AP and Chicago have granted a grudging acceptance to they as a singular pronoun.

Those changes are hard to take by people who turn to stylebooks for the Rules rather than mere guidelines requiring judgment. The late Bill Walsh and I marveled at colleagues who extended the AP entry to use a hyphen in a half-mile to make it illegitimate to write half a mile.** And the online Chicago question-and-answer feature regularly has to assure correspondents expecting an entry for every possible eventuality that it’s all right to do something not specifically covered by the stylebook so long as it is clear to the reader and consistently followed.

It’s Friday. The sun rose this morning. The power is on. Students attend their classes. The courts are in operation. Commercial traffic moves on the roads and rails. Our English tongue is sturdy and will remain so whatever action the AP Stylebook takes. Simmer down.

*One gentleman, told that AP was considering something that was already in Chicago, complained that he was being asked to change a standard practice based on what other people are doing. I suggested that what a lot of people are doing is the very definition of standard practice.

**There was another brouhaha earlier this year when AP dropped the hyphen in reelect and first grade teacher. I half expected some of the complainants to insist on going back to to-night and ­to-morrow.