Tag Archives: strunk

A letter to Laura . . .

This posting was prompted by a comment made by a viewer on one of my previous postings (see at’s-reeling/).

The original posting was prompted by an apostrophe placed in the surname Obama. It was meant to form a contraction, “Obama is,” an other-than-normal contraction and somewhat misleading. Obama’s is the possessive form of a singular noun, and the apostrophe thus implies that the president possesses a reeling, whatever that might be. “Obama’s reeling” was the heading of a letter to the editor of San Antonio’s Express-News, the only daily newspaper (and fading fast) in the seventh most populous city in the United States. The subject of the letter was Massachusetts’ recent  election to fill the Senate seat held by the late Senator Edward Kennedy. The race was between a Democrat and a Republican. Would anyone want to hazard a guess as to which candidate won?

You’re right!

I felt that this venue was more appropriate than replying directly to the viewer’s comment on that posting—any reply I made would have been buried and would have rarely, if ever, been exposed to the brilliant light of a separate posting.

As an incidental but closely related thought, I recently encountered this phrase on a blog: “I’d have,” meaning “I would have . . .” I consider “I’d” to be an improper contraction, and ambiguous even if it were proper—it could also mean “I did have” or “I should have,” etc. Would anyone want to hazard a guess as to whose website it was on?

You’re right!

And now on to Laura’s comment and my letter to her:

From: (

William Strunk, Jr. (1869–1946).  The Elements of Style.  1918


1. Form the possessive singular of nouns with ’s.

Follow this rule whatever the final consonant. Thus write,

Charles’s friend

Burns’s poems

the witch’s malice

This is the usage of the United States Government Printing Office and of the Oxford University Press.

Note: (The italics and bolding in Strunk’s rule above are mine).

This is Laura’s comment on my posting:

“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.” (

Letter to Laura . . .

Hi, Laura,

Thanks for visiting, and thanks for the comment. Please note that I approved it exactly as you posted it—I’m sure you are aware that I could have edited the comment to fit my taste, and had I chosen to do so I could have deleted it in its entirety. You, however, cannot edit your comment after it is posted, nor can you edit my reply—that leaves me free to change, rebut or delete any comment that is less than complimentary. I chose to let your comment stand as submitted in order to expand my response via this posting.

As used in that sentence, the phrase fain to know means if one desires to know, or is inclined to know or is willing to know (desirous, inclined and willing are three of fain’s many definitions). Had I used the word feign, it would have meant pretend to know. I know that fain is archaic and sparsely (if ever) used in today’s writings, but I do not feel that I misused it in my posting. As for my choice of a word “which doesn’t seem to fit neatly” in the sentence, I am satisfied with its fit and its neatness—nay, I’m more than satisfied—I am proud of both attributes.

On your trek through a flourishing crop of words in the process of nitpicking, you managed to harvest only one nit, and that one nit apparently prompted you to rate the posting with a negative thumbs down. I say apparently because I can’t be sure that the thumbs down is yours. However, this I know with certainty—yours is the only comment on the posting, and of the five votes existing at this time four are mine, so I must surmise that the thumbs down vote is yours.

A grammatical note—I realize that the graphic for the voting process shows only one thumb up and one thumb down. I use the plurals (thumbs up and thumbs down) because I cannot remember ever hearing someone giving someone a singular thumb up or thumb down—sounds a bit naughty.

Yes, I vote on my own postings, and I always give myself a thumbs up vote—to do otherwise would be self-defeating, so to speak. Please let me know whether the lone negative vote is yours, and if it is not I will willingly—just willingly, not humbly—tender a public apology.

I give nothing less than excellent ratings to any posting, whether items posted by me or by other bloggers (I suspect you would agree with me that consistency is a desirable trait). I strive mightily to adhere to the adage that says, “If you can’t say anything positive, don’t say anything.”

As an aside, I believe the practice of one voting on one’s own posting is widespread, a belief that is supported by a comprehensive poll of several (three) bloggers. Such actions are simply the result of writers tooting their own horn, a perfectly normal and common practice that is neither prohibited nor restricted by rule or law.

As regards your statement that The Chicago Manual of Style agrees with Strunk:

I do not agree with your statement, nor do I trust or agree with anyone or anything related to Chicago, whether that person or thing be animal, vegetable, mineral, publication or president. I visited the Chicago Manual of Style online, but went no farther than the second page (the result of a search phrase) because I was unwilling to subscribe and pay for the “privilege” of going farther. However, the results of my search (admittedly brief) appear to contradict your contention that the Chicago Manual of Style agrees with William Strunk’s The Element of Style, circa 1918. In fact, the Chicago Manual of Style appears to leave a fair amount of choice for ways to show the possessive forms of words ending in ess—Strunk offers no alternatives and states that we should “Follow this rule whatever the final consonant.”

Check it out at I used the search phrase possessive of words ending in s and it returned eight entries dealing with that subject.

Here are the first two entries:

7.21:   Words and names ending in unpronounced “s”

To avoid an awkward appearance, an apostrophe without an s may be used for the possessive of singular words and names ending in an unpronounced s.

The following is a personal note, intended to clarify the term unpronounced: The ess is pronounced, but it takes the sound of ze, the twenty-sixth (and final) letter in the English alphabet.

7.23: An alternative practice

options outlined above may prefer the system, formerly more common, of simply omitting the possessive s on all words ending in s

Those entries do not show agreement with Strunk—they show that there are alternatives that may be used to “avoid an awkward appearance,” and they give the option of “simply omitting the possessive s on all words ending in s” in stark contrast to Strunk’s imperative to “Follow this rule whatever the final consonant.” Two of the examples given are Charles’s friend and Burns’s poems, both wrong and neither in complete agreement with the Chicago Manual of Style.

Laura, I spent some time on your site at I enjoyed my visit, and had you provided a counter for votes similar to the one I use on my blog, I would have rated your work excellent. You are quite thorough and successful in your quest to find errors in the writings of others, and you effectively use humor in pointing out the errors albeit, in my opinion, humor tinged with a certain measure of contempt for the inept writer.

That’s my story and I’m sticking to it.


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Letter to the editor, San Antonio Express-news: Obama’s reeling . . .

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.

Obama’s reeling?

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:

From: (

William Strunk, Jr. (1869–1946).  The Elements of Style.  1918


1. Form the possessive singular of nouns with ‘s.

Follow this rule whatever the final consonant. Thus write,

Charles’s friend

Burns’s poems

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 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

That’s my story and I’m sticking to it.


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