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My daughter’s name is Tess. She’s cute and all, but the fact that we named her “Tess” poses punctuation challenges. When making her name possessive, should it be “Tess’ birthday party” or “Tess’s birthday party?”

If you think there’s an easy answer, you’re wrong. We could skirt the issue entirely by calling her by her full name: Tessa. But I only call her that when she’s in trouble. Given that she’s 2 years old and her hobbies are pouring water on the bathroom floor and drawing on the couch, I call her “Tessa” quite often. I have found the “a” at the end provides nice, forceful emphasis when yelling, “Tess-AH!!”

But I digress.

Where were we? Oh, right. Apostrophes. When I googled “apostrophe after s,” the top search result was Grammarbook.com, which provides this guidance:

Many common nouns end in the letter “s” (lens, cactus, bus, etc.) So do a lot of proper nouns (Mr. Jones, Texas, Christmas). There are conflicting policies and theories about how to show possession when writing such nouns. There is no right answer, the best advice is to choose a formula and stay consistent.

Fair enough. Just pick one method and stick with it. But which one to choose? I dug deeper to see what the prominent style guides suggest. The AP Stylebook suggests adding only an apostrophe when making most singular nouns that end in “s” possessive. So we would write “Tess’ birthday party.” The Chicago Manual of Style, however, suggests adding an apostrophe and an “s,” as in “Tess’s birthday party.”

I have no idea why the AP editors chose one way and the Chicago Manual editors chose the other, but I’m guessing it was a matter of aesthetics. Maybe the AP editors thought the extra “s” looked extraneous and the Chicago Manual editors thought the apostrophe looked lonely. Again, this is an issue of style, not grammar, because both ways are correct. You’re only required to be consistent. Since the Americans couldn’t agree, I looked to the British.

The Economist Style Guide sides with the Chicago Manual of Style: add an apostrophe “s” after singular words or names that end in “s,” as in “the boss’s office,” “the caucus’s position,” “St. James’s Palace” and “Mr. Jones’s house.”

But when using plural nouns that end in “s” you just add an apostrophe, as in “the bosses’ offices,” “the caucuses’ positions” and “the Joneses’ house.” You also omit the additional “s” for the possessive of plural names that take a singular verb, such as Reuters’, Barclays’ and Siemens’, as well as in phrases like “the United States’ economic policy” and “the Philippines’ next president.”

Oh boy. I guess I could remember those exceptions, but does it have to be so complicated? It reminds me of high school French class when we’d spend 45 minutes learning a new grammar rule and then the last 10 minutes of class reviewing two pages of exceptions.

Why are there always exceptions? I would groan to our teacher, whose name was Mr. Polkinghorn. Funny name for a French teacher, right? Funny name in general, right? But I digress. Again. Probably because apostrophes aren’t behaving themselves and being simple and straightforward, which is how I like most things, particularly language.

So which method to adopt? I have no idea. Frankly, I prefer “Tess’ party” to “Tess’s party” because it looks less cluttered to me. And we all know how I feel about clutter. So that would mean adopting AP style. But of course, there’s a catch. AP style says don’t add an additional “s” after the apostrophe in proper nouns like “Tess” but do add an apostrophe and an “s” to common nouns ending in “s” unless the next word begins with “s.”

Say what? That would mean that Tess’ party would remain “Tess’ party” because it’s a singular proper noun, but for singular common nouns like “boss” or “witness” the correct usage would be “the boss’s office” and “the witness’s testimony” with an additional “s.” Unless, like I said, the next word ends in “s,” in which case you would just write “the boss’ sister” and “the witness’ story.”

I think my head just exploded. AP provides no explanation for this exception. Mr. Polkinghorn never did either. “Just memorize it,” he would say.

At this point I’m leaning toward adopting the Chicago Manual/Economist style because it seems simpler: add an apostrophe “s” if it’s a singular noun no matter what (sorry Tess!) but add only an apostrophe for plural nouns that end in “s.”

There. Done. But I don’t know, what do you think?

Before you start mulling that over, stay with me for a moment because I’m about to give you a definitive answer on one aspect of using apostrophes. How refreshing. Here’s the rule: Do not, I repeat, do not use apostrophes to make words plural, including acronyms, abbreviations and numbers, such as decades and centuries. Just add an “s.”

Correct: CEOs, IPOs, CVs, 20s, 747s, 1800s, 2010s
Incorrect: CEO’s, IPO’s, CV’s, 20’s, 747’s 1800’s, 2010’s

The reason using apostrophes is grammatically incorrect in this context is simple (thank God). Apostrophes have two basic jobs: to show possession (the cat’s meow) and to denote missing letters (“can’t” as a contraction for “cannot”).

In the context above, you are talking about more than one CEO or IPO, so like other singular nouns, such as “cat,” you simply add “s” to make it plural: The CEOs gathered for the annual conference. The number of IPOs doubled this year.

You would only write “CEO’s” if you were referring to something belonging to one CEO, as in “the CEO’s strategy.” In this case, adding an apostrophe “s” would be correct. If you were referring to strategies belonging to multiple CEOs, you would write, “the CEOs’ strategies.” I know, isn’t this fun?

Decades and centuries are the same. You are making them plural, not denoting ownership or replacing missing letters. So no apostrophe is needed: “The 1990s were a time of great expansion,” not “the 1990’s were a time of great expansion.”

Now that you know this well-kept secret, you will see apostrophes used and abused everywhere. There’s a reason there’s an Apostrophe Protection Society.

Of course, there is one tiny exception to the rule about not using apostrophes in the plural form of acronyms and abbreviations. (Here comes Mr. Polkinghorn again.) You do use an apostrophe to pluralize single-letter abbreviations, as in “She got all A’s on her report card” or “mind your p’s and q’s.”

This one actually makes sense because not including an apostrophe could make the word unclear to readers: Does she mean “As” or A’s”?  “ps” or “p’s”?  But for any other abbreviation of two or more letters: no apostrophe.

That brings me to my last apostrophes tip. It’s about plural possessives, which are important to get right because they are so often written incorrectly. When writing plural possessives, always make the word plural first; then make it possessive using the apostrophe rules above.

Singular: company Plural: companies Plural possessive: companies’ stock
Singular: woman Plural: women Plural possessive: women’s rights
Singular: Mr. Jones Plural: the Joneses Plural possessive: the Joneses’ house
Singular: Obama Plural: the Obamas Plural possessive: the Obamas’ daughters
Singular: boss Plural: the bosses Plural possessive: the bosses’ offices

Following this rule will help you avoid mistakes such as “womens’ rights,” “the Jones’ house” and “the Obama’s daughters.”

Remember: Be the change you want to see in the world. And let me know if you’d like to be invited to Tess’ (Tess’s?) birthday party.

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