A letter from a reader of the San Antonio Express-News prompted this posting. The letter was printed in the paper’s Metro Section (Your Turn) January 22, 2010, In the interest of full disclosure, I must state that my Letter to the editor, was not sent to the paper’s editor for consideration. I did not submit it because of a series of rejections of my submissions over a period of many years. Many were printed, but now I prefer to air my thoughts on my blog. Word Press has never rejected one of my letters, and the letters are available to infinitely more viewers than is the San Antonio Express-News.
Letter to the editor, San Antonio Express-News
January 22, 2010
A reader’s submission printed today in Your Turn was titled Obama’s reeling. The apostrophe was apparently used by the copy editor to form a contraction meaning that Obama is reeling. In the literal sense it means that he is off balance, staggering and lurching violently (figuratively, of course) in reaction to the result of the Senate race in Massachusetts, a race in which the Republican candidate was elected to the Senate.
Such construction and presentation of the contraction Obama’s is incorrect and could be very misleading, providing fodder for various political commentators, particularly late night comedians.
One places an apostrophe and an ess after the name of a person, place or thing to show that the person, place or thing possesses something. Obama’s reeling is not a contraction, at least not a proper contraction as used in conjunction with the verb reeling. I suppose that Obama could possess a reel, as in fishing reel, but a reeling? Not likely! Reeling is a verb—had the article been titled Obama’s reeling in votes for Democrats, the contraction would have been proper and understandable. And if there is a fish or an aquatic animal that is known as a reeling, and if the president were fishing offshore at Martha’s Vineyard while on vacation, and if he had actually hooked a reeling the heading could have read, Obama’s reeling in a reeling. That would be a proper contraction, completely understandable and unlikely to mislead a viewer’s perception or conception of the president’s physical condition.
And as an afterthought, our president may possibly be reeling in a purely psychological sense, keenly aware of the fact that the balance of power in his administration is changing and has become off balance.
Had the letter referred to something possessed by our president, the apostrophe and the ess would have been proper. A few examples would be: Obama’s decision, Obama’s wife, Obama’s effort to nationalize health care, Obama’s reliance on teleprompters, etc., etc. In those examples the words decision, wife, effort and reliance all are things Obama possesses (well, I suppose wife may be a stretch, except perhaps in the biblical sense).
And now on to the use of apostrophes and esses:
William Strunk, Jr. (1869–1946). The Elements of Style. 1918
II. ELEMENTARY RULES OF USAGE
1. Form the possessive singular of nouns with ‘s.
Follow this rule whatever the final consonant. Thus write,
the witch’s malice
This is the usage of the United States Government Printing Office and of the Oxford University Press.
I strongly disagree with William Strunk, Jr. when he states, Follow this rule whatever the final consonant. To show that a noun—any noun, whether a person, place or thing—possesses something one does not add an apostrophe and another ess when that noun ends with an ess. That may have been correct in William Strunk’s day (1869-1946) as presented in Elements of Style by Bartley.com). The three examples given by Strunk to show possession are Charles’s friend, Burn’s poems and the witch’s malice. The first two end with an ess, the third does not. The first two are incorrect—the third is correct. Charles’s and Burns’s are incorrect, regardless of the fact that This is the usage of the United States Government Printing Office and of the Oxford University Press. The various US publications on writing style are littered with errors and some should be consigned to the litter boxes from whence they came.
Just because the federal government prints it does not make it true. And unless my memory fails me, the Oxford University Press is a British organization, and our treatment of the English language differs considerably from that of the British people. Remember when President George W. Bush, on his first trip to England as president, was asked what he considered his biggest challenge on the visit? The president said something to the effect that he might have a problem with the language.
Oh, and if one is fain (archaic, but a good word—look it up) to know the plural possessive form of witch, one only needs to add an ess to make it plural and an apostrophe to show possession thusly: the witches’ malice. Please do not spell it and pronounce it as the witches’ess.
Go ahead—try it—unless the three syllables are carefully and properly enunciated, the witches’ess tends to come across as the witches ass—we would not want that, would we? Our listener would probably respond with a “Say whut?”
I can legitimately speak with the voice of experience—nay, with authority—in this matter of proper punctuation. I labored (laboriously) at various tasks during more than 22 years in the United States Air Force and during an additional 26 years in the ranks of our federal Civil Service. Throughout those 48 years I was called on (compelled, actually) to compose a wide variety of writings, including performance reports for myself and for others, and recommendations for various awards and medals for myself and for others (my efforts brought me several personal awards). I had access to most government style publications, and in fact brought some home (inadvertently, of course) when I retired from federal Civil Service. I still reference (and quote) the publications, but when they conflict with what I know is correct, government loses—I win. And at the risk of repeating myself, I will repeat myself—just because the federal government prints it does not make it true.
And here I must digress from my subject:
The thought just occurred that if one could literally repeat oneself, and if every person on earth repeated one’s self simultaneously, the world’s population would immediately double, rising from the present population (as of January 24, 2010) of 6,798,300,000 to 13,597,600,000 (From Wikipedia: The Earth’s population is estimated by the United States Census Bureau to be 6,798,300,000). That was as of January 24, 2010. I strongly urge than none of us attempt to literally repeat ourselves and especially not repeatedly—if we should succeed in our efforts we would soon run out of standing room on earth.
And now back to my subject:
Pee Ess: This posting is a continuation of my efforts to restrict the length of my postings in order to placate viewers that may be anxious to return to other more productive activities. I’m trying, but I cannot imagine any activity that could be more productive and personally rewarding than my blog.
Footnote: The terms pee and ess are proper words, abbreviations for the words Post and Script, and may be legitimately used in place of the letters P and S, the sixteenth and nineteenth letters of the English alphabet. If you like, you may verify their definition, their use and their numerical position in the alphabet online at Wikipedia.com.
That’s my story and I’m sticking to it.
January 26, 2010 at 12:30 am
The Chicago Manual of Style agrees with Strunk and White re: forming the possessive of a proper noun ending in S by adding an apostrophe and S. Also, I’m wondering if you meant “feign” and not “fain,” which doesn’t seem to fit neatly in your sentence. — Laura (http://terriblywrite.wordpress.com)
January 27, 2010 at 12:34 pm
No, I meant fain and not feign. This reply to your comment is somewhat truncated, but I plan to expand it and use it later as a separate posting to my blog, and I welcome your response to the expansion. Drawn by your comment, I visited your site and will include some details of the visit in the future posting.
Thanks for visiting, and thanks for the comment.