It’s a Saturday night. Things are more quiet than usual in St Regulus Hall. It’s the weekend between Raisin and Halloween. However, chaos suddenly descends. It’s the kind of chaos you don’t see coming. It’s the kind of chaos that puts both Raisin Halloween escapades to shame. It’s the kind of chaos that shall be known in future years as “The Great Regs Apostrophe Question.”
On this particular night in St Regulus Hall, or Regs, the committee creates a Facebook event called, “Regs’s Got Talent.” This is one of the most controversial decisions the hall committee has ever made: an “s” followed by an apostrophe followed by another “s.”
Accusations are hurled. The name of the event is anonymously changed from “Regs…” to “Regs’…” and back again to “Regs’s…” Angry Facebook comments are written. Past events are consulted. Arguments ensue. The committee is used to dealing with broken windows and faeces in microwaves. This is simply too much.
Suddenly twenty posters are printed saying “Regs’ Got Talent.” The Facebook event remains “Regs’s Got Talent.” The atmosphere darkens in an otherwise welcoming and communal hall. Whispers of the word “apostrophe” are overheard at mealtimes.
This great apostrophe question is one that has plagued Regs for years. What is the possessive form of “Regs”? How does one contract the phrase “Regs has got”? Should “Regs” actually appear as “Reg’s” to account for elided letters in “Regulus”? For university students who spend their lives pedantically formatting footnotes, these questions are a rather big deal.
The first thing to note is that the “’s” to signal the genitive and the “’s” to contract “has” are, at their core, the same. The “’s” denoting possession was actually borne from the “has” contraction. But what does this mean for nouns ending in “s”? Well, The Chicago Manual of Style recommends that even when nouns end in “s,” an “’s” should still be added. This would make the correct name of the event “Regs’s Got Talent.” However, Chicago also notes that in their old system, the additional “s” is omitted for nouns ending in “s.” This would favour “Regs’ Got Talent.” The rule was changed because “Regs’s” is more indicative of the correct pronunciation.
However, other styles like Associated Press and Modern Language Association denounce the additional “s” altogether. At the end of the day, the purpose of grammar is to make something comprehensible and attractive; “Regs’s” is arguably detrimental to both those aims.
Ultimately, the answer to this great apostrophe question is, as for many questions in life, that there is no real answer. The debate came to a head in 2006 when it appeared in front of the U.S. Supreme Court. A 7/2 split ruled in favour of omitting the extra “s.” The central dissent revolved around whether people whose names end in “s” deserve the opportunity to make their names possessive in the same way as everybody else. However, the court believed that a possessive “s” at the end of one’s name was unfortunately not a basic human right. They decided that the omission builds character for any Louis, Thomas or Tess out there.
Nevertheless, despite the 2006 decision, many grammarians as well as Chicago still support the additional “s.” Thus, the Saturday night Facebook arguments of the Regs hall committee initially seemed like nothing more than self-involved pedantry. However, they are actually symbolic of the most contested grammatical schism in the entire English-speaking community.
It’s an issue that affects millions of people and organisations across the world whose names end in “s.” It’s an issue that affects university hall talent shows. More importantly, it’s an issue that affects us at our core, as we live and study in a place called “St Andrews.”
Interestingly, the name “St Andrews” itself is borne from an ignored apostrophe. After all, our patron was called “St Andrew,” and the name of the town should represent a possessive form of that name: St Andrew’s. Perhaps the necessity of creating a possessive from something which is already a possessive was simply too much. We must first learn to properly make the genitive from nouns ending in “s” before we tackle these rather complex and nuanced issues.
Still, it doesn’t seem as if any resolution is in sight for the apostrophe question. Even grammar, a social construct that thrives upon concrete rules, must yield to the wider universal trend that there is no absolute truth.