I7: Possessive nouns ending in "s": evil or just annoying?

I feel a bit silly bringing this up as I feel I really should know the answer, but apparently I had never before tried to use a noun ending in ‘s’ in Inform 7 that must occassionally be referred to in a possessive sense and now that I want to do so I’m at a loss for ideas. For example consider the following code:

[code]Include Plurality by Emily Short.

The testarea is a room.

A head is a kind of thing. One head is part of every person.
Some eyes are a kind of thing. One eyes are part of every head.

A woman called Doctor Janus is in the testarea.[/code]
When trying to interact with the Janus’ head or eyes in the above example, I immediately noticed that something needed to be done because:

a) Commands must be in the format “[command] janus’s head” to interact with her parts; for example “x janus’s head”;

b) Output text from Inform prints the possessive form of janus’ name in the format “janus’s”; for example the command “get janus’s eyes” results in the output text “Those seem to be a part of Doctor Janus’s head.”;

My immediate reaction on noticing this problem was to add the following command to address (a):

After reading a command: let T be indexed text; let T be the player's command; replace the regular expression "janus'" in T with "janus's"; change the text of the player's command to T.
but that did absolutely nothing (compiled fine but no effect in-game); nor did:

After reading a command: let T be indexed text; let T be the player's command; replace the regular expression "janus\'" in T with "janus\'s"; change the text of the player's command to T.
To address (b) I tried adding the following:

Doctor Janus is plural-named.

thinking this would hook into the “To say possessive for whatever when whatever acts plural” portion of the Plurality extension, but it didn’t work; neither did adding a more explicit statement:

To say possessive of Doctor Janus: say "Doctor Janus[apostrophe]"

to the source code.

In any case, none of this fiddling around would have addressed the general issue of how to properly use possessive nouns that end in ‘s’ (either in commands or in output text) since the fiddling was specific to ‘doctor janus.’ Does anyone have any suggestions on how to deal with this problem? At the moment I’m thinking I’ll just give the good doctor some other name that doesn’t end in ‘s’ and make a mental note to never again use any name that ends in ‘s’ that will need to be referred to in a possessive context, but that’s a cop-out rather than a solution; I’d prefer to think that possessive nouns ending in ‘s’ are just annoying rather than truly evil :frowning: .

Thanks in advance for any suggestions.

The reason this doesn’t work is that the apostrophe actually matches a quotation mark instead!

Well, when Inform creates the head it automatically gives it the printed name “Doctor Janus’s head”. So if you like you could just manually change the printed name of her head. Here’s a more general fix:

[code]The testarea is a room.

A head is a kind of thing. One head is part of every person.
Some eyes are a kind of thing. One eyes are part of every head.

A woman called Doctor Janus is in the testarea.

After reading a command:
let T be indexed text;
let T be the player’s command;
replace the regular expression “\w+s[apostrophe]\b” in T with “\0s”;
change the text of the player’s command to T.

Rule for printing the name of something which is part of something:
let T be indexed text;
let T be “[printed name of the item described]”;
replace the regular expression “(\w+s[apostrophe])s\b” in T with “\1”;
say “[T]”;[/code]

Thank you, SJ_43. That

bit is elegantly concise and works perfectly.

Don’t let Strunk and White see this thread!

Indeed. The correct possessive form of Janus is Janus’s. If you prefer Janus’, it’s because you’re confusing it with a plural possessive, which is indeed formed (assuming the plural is regular) by adding a bare apostrophe.

Thus, “The dogs’ barking was noisy” refers to several dogs, as does “The asses’ braying was noisy.” But “The ass’ braying was noisy” is incorrect. It should be “The ass’s braying was noisy.” This is how you would speak the sentence. Nobody says, “The ass’ braying” out loud when forming a possessive.

Curiously, English pronunciation leaves us no way to tell whether the speaker said “the asses’,” “the asses,” or “the ass’s.” But they’re different forms, nonetheless.

Someone might say or write, “The ass braying was noisy,” but that’s not correct either. The present participle requires a possessive as its subject – a rule that is, I’m sorry to say, gradually sliding into obsolescence.


I believe that both are correct in the case of a proper name, actually.

There are many web pages out there that support this rule:

Though I don’t have the energy to find one that everyone would consider official.

Ruh-roh, perhaps I should explain my thoughts on this issue as it appears I may have inadvertently engendered a minor controversy. :astonished:

On a message board such as this, frequented by very literary-minded folks, I realize the following could be considered trollish. That’s certainly not my intention, but for the benefit of posterity I’d like to state the following for the public record:

Back when I was in college, I was commanded to buy a book with a very long title, written by some lady that I was told was to be considered an “authority” of “writing style.” For some reason I still have this book (which, amusingly, is thoroughly written in an utterly unpleasant style) around, so I blew the dust from it and found that it says the following:

Frankly that’s all nonsense. With all due respect to anyone’s religious beliefs, Moses and Jesus are not entitled to any special grammatical status that shouldn’t also be given to everyone else; if this duo are to be excused from having an awkward and aesthetically displeasing 's tacked on to the end of their names, then everyone else (including fictional characters, e.g. “Doctor Janus”) should also be excused. I also think that while it’s valid for someone scientifically discussing a language to speak of contemporary standards of a language under observation, I don’t feel any compulsion at all to recognize some alleged rules of any language when such are presented as The Law. As long as the communicat-ee understands the communicat-or, then the complete purpose of language has been fulfilled and there’s nothing of value to be gained by claiming a communication is illegitimate because it did not follow an imaginary rule that some deceased professor invented to sell a few books and make a few bucks. Said another way, the only valid rules of language are those which allow one person to comprehend another person; stipulating any rules beyond that is either pedantry, or motivated by profit, or more simply motivated by an individual’s respect for tradition (quite obviously, then, I am saying I do not share this latter attitude of reverence for such tradition). Therefore I am resolved to steadfastly refuse to add an 's after any possessive singular noun that ends in s, and will instead only add an apostrophe. Others are free to join me, or not; as long as each can comprehend what the other has written, I won’t be concerned by the format in which any message is communicated.

For these same reasons–namely that it pleases me and I recognize no higher grammar authority than my own ability to comprehend what another has written–I will forever write the the word dilemna in the dignified form “dilemna” rather than the vacuous and puerile form “dilemma” that some claim is “correct.” I will continue to firmly believe that all so-called dictionaries that claim “dilemma” as the correct spelling for a word describing a difficult choice, as well as all people who claim it has always been spelled thusly, are suffering the odd effects of a mild disturbance in the fabric of reality that has somehow subtly distorted this space-time continuum.

[size=50]Why, yes, I am an anarchist. Why do you ask?[/size]

P.S. Jim and Victor: I have tremendous respect for you both; as I have firmly held the opinions I stated above for very many years now and this seemed as good an opportunity as any to further unleash them onto the world, please don’t think I was assailing either of you personally.

Here’s the thing: There are no Immutable Laws about how English should be written or punctuated.

U kn rait laik dhiss iff; U wahnt … tu.

This sentence is completely comprehensible, and thus is plainly in accord with Endosphere’s dictum, “As long as the communicat-ee understands the communicat-or, then the complete purpose of language has been fulfilled…”

But here’s the other thing: If you write like that, your peers will quickly (and rightly) conclude that you’re utterly uneducated, mentally defective, or deliberately attempting to be offensive. (The three conditions are not mutually exclusive.) And if your writing sends that message, why would anyone bother to read it? Life is short. Everyone has too much to do. We all have to make snap decisions about how to spend our time, based on the available evidence. When we read what someone has written, the available evidence includes, very prominently, the writer’s knowledge or ignorance of standard English orthography and usage.

That’s why we steer quickly away from websites whose copy is rife with typos, misspellings, and grammatical errors. I don’t know about you, but if someone is a sloppy writer, my assumption is, that person is probably a sloppy thinker too. And I don’t care to waste time imbibing the opinions of sloppy thinkers.

So I would have to say, no, it’s simply not the case that communicating clearly is the ONLY purpose of the thousand and one informal rules that give structure to written English. There is an important social purpose beyond that, which you ignore or belittle at your peril.

It’s also the case that usage changes from decade to decade. A hundred years ago, “to-day” was the standard spelling. Today the hyphen has been lost. And even within the current decade there are significant areas of disagreement around the margins about what constitutes good or substandard usage. British spelling differs significantly from American. But there IS a value system, to which a lot of people subscribe, by which certain usages are understood as substandard. “Ain’t” has been around for hundreds of years, and it’s STILL substandard. That’s not to say you can’t or shouldn’t use it. But careful writers understand that by using “ain’t,” they’re establishing a colloquial tone.

Tonal variations are significant in part because they create a layer of meta-information above or behind the content. If you don’t believe this, sit down and read the first paragraph of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. The tonal information establishes Huck’s character in a way that none of the actual information does. It’s a different dimension of communication. If you don’t believe me, I invite you to try rewriting the opening paragraph of Huck Finn in schoolbook-correct English. You’ll ruin it. Something important will have been destroyed.

In conclusion: Yes, this stuff does matter.


Really? :open_mouth: Maybe it’s because I’m not a native English speaker, but I find it very hard to understand indeed! Yes, with a bit of time and effort, I can understand it… but there’s a big difference between reading a text and deciphering it like a rebus. I think it’s just rude to require people to decipher what you write: it wastes their time, and that time could have been better – and more pleasantly! – used to think about what you wrote. It also blurs your meaning: in general, when you write like that, we can understand more or less what you mean, but the nuances are lost.

Sure, that doesn’t mean that there are no excessively pedantic or dated rules, or that you shouldn’t make efforts to understand people who do the best they can but just don’t know the language very well. But that’s not enough to justify linguistic anarchy. :wink:

I agree that that sentence doesn’t lend itself to fluent reading. However, you’ll note that Endosphere’s dictum says nothing about the speed or ease with which the text can be read. This is a second basic problem with his point of view, I think. It’s similar to but not congruent with the first.

I would add that it’s important to give non-native English speakers wide latitude in this area. When I read an owner’s manual written in English (or translated into English) by a German speaker, I don’t make any assumptions about the writer’s technical competence with the subject matter based on his or her grammatical or usage errors! Doing that would be silly.

And likewise, we all make silly typos when posting messages in forums and newsgroups. This is not a cause for concern. Copy that’s intended for dissemination, I would argue – copy that’s written ahead of time and intended to be read at a later date – is in a different category. More care is required. But even in forums and newsgroups, someone who is obviously ignorant of spelling and punctuation will rate a less thoughtful response than someone who writes well.


Thanks to all for the interesting comments.

@Jim Aikin
I certainly agree with your points that careless writing is to be avoided, as such almost always interferes with the process of effective communication. Furthermore I certainly agree that a writer (or speaker) who fails to meet the expectations of his intended audience should hardly be surprised if he encounters criticism or indifference in place of plaudits. Precision in the use of language and care in the presentation of such is particularly important in written communication, where the intended audience cannot observe the many subtle visual and audible cues that greatly enrich more intimate forms of discourse.

Nonetheless I don’t believe any of those observations properly address my point, which was that I find no compelling basis for paying homage to what I consider the trivial obsessions of alleged authorities, be they alleged authorities of “writing style” or any other field of endeavor. While it would of course be possible for us to broaden the discussion quite a bit further (perhaps in some directly relevant ways) if I were write a few paragraphs in support of my resolute belief that the only two philosophers of the last century who had anything at all interesting to say were Michel Foucault and Marshall McLuhan, I think the conversation has already gotten a bit off course. When an individual’s opinions are entrusted with authority by a large number of people–in this case, the opinions of Mr. Strunk and Ms. Turabian–and said individuals make ridiculous assertions–in this case tantamount to “Well, we can see that something doesn’t look quite right about this adding an 's to possessive nouns ending in s idea, and what we see is honestly disturbing enough that we’re not going to insult ancient religious and cultural icons by requiring the rule we’re stipulating be applied to them; it would be an outrage, people may not go along with it, and most importantly they might question our authority!!!”–then my initial instinct is to question the soundness of acknowledging such reputed authorities, as well as to thereafter ignore what they have said when I disagree with such. While you are quite correct in that there are consequences to my decision, I am fully willing to accept such. Even though I am American I will continue to spell the word for a certain indistinct color as grey, no matter what misfortune ensues, because I think the word looks better spelled that way. In the final analysis then perhaps our differing views on this matter are simply a result of differing temperments.

I’m reminded of an incident that occurred many years ago when, as a young man, I spent some time working in a factory. One day I didn’t have anything else to do, so like a good little worker-bee I picked up a broom and started sweeping a large bare area of empty floor in an attempt to justify my wages. A Very Important Personage at said factory happened to walk by, who vigorously proceeded to try to impress upon me that I just was not sweeping the floor correctly. I wasn’t holding the broom right, I was going north-to-south when anyone with any sense knows that one must go east-to-west, etc. I attempted to demonstrate to the nice gentleman that just as much dirt was collected by the broom when going this way or that way, but he wouldn’t hear of it. “This is how we’ve always swept the floor, because it’s the best way,” he argued, with quite obviously increasing irritation. In the end I patronizingly agreed with him, and he went off to bother someone else. There were obviously some differences, far beyond proper sweeping techniques, in our ways of looking at the world that weren’t likely to be resolved.

I found it interesting that you brought up the aesthetic aspects of Mark Twain’s opening of Huckleberry Finn, as I draw the exact opposite conclusion from the juxtaposition of that reference and the preceding argument you were making. One aspect of my views on this whole matter is that the sort of bureaucratic mindset that would produce an uncharmingly written treatise presuming to offer stylistic advice to writers (as evidenced by the sources I quoted referring to when to use an 's) is a) the same sort mindset that would likely look down upon the often irreverent ideas of Samuel Clemens, and b) the same sort of mindset that would likely write scathing (but poorly-written) reviews of Mark Twain’s books as stylistically unacceptable. Please note that I’m not implying that you have such a mindset, but am merely wondering why you argue in favor of those who have such, and that it’s interesting that we can reach such opposite conclusions from consideration of the same ideas.

By the way, although I have a positive opinion of Samuel Clemens I’m honestly not very familiar with most of his writings, and I found the reference quoted above by looking at Wikipedia for about five minutes. Any subtle allusions referencing Clemens’ work will likely be lost on me.

With “puerile”, you presumably mean “created when Mankind was still young, as in classical antiquity”? :slight_smile: Just think of those coarse, undignified Greeks writing “λήμμα” when they should have been writing “λήμνα”!

(Who had thought that a mere reference to Strunk and White would create such a discussion?)

If you care to share your argument that only Foucault and McLuhan (of all people!) are interesting 20th century philosophers, please do. (Though I must warn you: convincing me that Rorty, Sellars, Kuhn, Davidson, Wittgenstein, Heidegger, Derrida, Adorno, Girard, and so on haven’t written anything worth reading is not going to be easy. Also, it seems strange that you would defend pluralism in such an inconsequential realm as spelling, while defending monism when talking about which ideas are interesting.)

I’ll see your :slight_smile: and raise you a :laughing: . I do sincerely think that “dilemna” looks much nicer, as well as less trivial, than “dilemma” (regardless of the etymology of the word), although on this very narrow point I’ll concede I’m unlikely to produce any arguments that would command general assent.

I don’t see any point at which I’ve done any such thing as you imply, but in the interest of fostering a more general discussion I’ll revise my previous statement by removing the needlessly inflammatory phrase “at all interesting” and replace said phase with the words “novel and profoundly relevant for the human condition.” On one hand I think WVO Quine and Ludwig Wittgenstein, for example, had several novel things to say. While the several novel things said by these fellows may be quite interesting, they have no particularly profound relevance for the human condition. On the other hand Jean-Paul Sartre, for example, had several things to say that are profoundly relevant for the human condition but were hardly novel; in my view all modern existentialism is merely a refinement of ideas originally articulated by Buddha over 2500 years ago. As for the others you mentioned I’m not familiar enough with Rene Girard and Donald Davidson to have any opinion of them at all, although after a shockingly cursory investigation I’d say that Davidson sounds like a fairly sensible fellow. I’ve never found the others you mentioned very compelling and novel, although I’m willing to listen to a statement of what you may find interesting about them.

To give my statement about Foucault and McLuhan a wider context, I would argue that Immanuel Kant and Friedrich Nietzsche also presented novel ideas that were profoundly relevant for the human condition, and that in the two centuries or more since the time of Kant (if one excludes Nietzsche) not many arguments at all have been presented that are philosophically interesting. While Foucault developed some interesting ideas of Nietzsche in novel ways, he also presented some genuinely new ideas that are profoundly relevant to the human condition (namely his investigations into the practice of power). More controversially, I think that in the matters of interest he shared with his contemporaries Foucault formulated his ideas with a level of sophistication and cogency that is lacking in others (including some of the folks you mentioned), for example in his essay “What is an Author?” or in his book The Archaeology of Knowledge. In what is certainly a much more controversial statement I’d say that McLuhan’s theories represent a further development of some profound ideas first formulated by Kant, but that McLuhan’s theories are legitimately novel in that they are distinct enough from anything Kant ever likely considered to stand apart on their own. For example, I’m imagining a study of Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason in which one stops after turning each page and writes in the margin “The medium is the message.”

Nonetheless I am certainly not demanding anyone’s assent to these propositions on pain of dire consequence, as in the case of a school-kid who might be punished with bad grades or worse for refusing to add an 's after writing a possessive noun ending in s because he preferred to add only an apostrophe.