October 18, 2006

And after R comes S

Jonathan Starble, writing in Legal Times:

As one of its final acts last term, the U.S. Supreme Court issued Kansas v. Marsh, a case involving the constitutionality of a state death-penalty statute. The 5-4 decision exposed the deep divide that exists among the nation’s intellectual elite regarding one of society’s most troubling issues—namely, whether the possessive form of a singular noun ending with the letter s requires an additional s after the apostrophe. [ "Gimme an S", 10/9/2006]

[Hat tip to Margaret Marks at Transblawg]

One of the interesting aspects of Starble's piece is that he documents variation not only among the justices, but also within the writings of one of them, namely Antonin Scalia:

In Marsh, Scalia wrote a separate opinion that concurred with the substance of the majority opinion but nonetheless revealed a clear ideological discord with Thomas. Unlike his colleague, Scalia appears to believe that most singular nouns ending in s still demand an additional s after the apostrophe. Thus, in his Marsh concurrence, Scalia repeatedly referred to the relevant law as Kansas's statute. He similarly added an s to form the words Ramos's and witness's.

Yet in other parts of the opinion, Scalia added only an apostrophe to form the words Stevens', Adams', and Tibbs'. Based on this, it would seem that he believes the extra s should be omitted if the existing s is preceded by a hard consonant sound. So, whereas Thomas makes his s determination based strictly on spelling, Scalia appears to look beyond the spelling and examine pronunciation as well. [...]

...[O]ne would assume that a noun with a vowel as its penultimate letter and its final sound would present the most compelling possible case for adding an s after an apostrophe. Yet in a 2003 opinion, Kentucky Association of Health Plans v. Miller, Scalia repeatedly referred to the possessive of Illinois as Illinois' rather than Illinois's. He has also shown other inconsistencies, such as his repeated use of the word Congress', which is inexplicable in light of his acknowledgment of the word witness's in his Marsh concurrence and his use of the word Congress's in his 2004 majority opinion in Vieth v. Jubelirer.

On this question, I agree with Associate Justice Scalia. At least, I'm rarely certain what the spelling should be in such cases, and so I add s or not, as the spirit moves me. If this is the thin edge of the moral-relativist wedge, so be it -- Antonin and I stand together, behind the right to follow the dictates of conscience in each individual s+possessive circumstance.

In any case, let the record show that I resisted the temptation to draft a title along the lines of "Possessive is nine tenths of the law"...

[On a slightly more serious note, here are some earlier LL posts on the use of metaphors from law, religion, morality and hygiene in discussing linguistic usage:

"The theology of phonology" (1/2/2004)
"A field guide to prescriptivists" (4/13/2004)
"Disgust for accents: pre-adaptation or figure of speech?" (8/12/2004)
"Horace and Quintilian on correct language" (1/9/2005)
"Wrong for so long" (4/13/2005)


[Update -- Joseph Ruby writes:

S sounds like z (Adams) -- no additional s -- Adams'
S sounds like s (Kansas) -- add the s -- Kansas's

This is not original with Scalia. See, e.g., http://www.kentlaw.edu/academics/lrw/grinker/LwtaApostrophes.htm. It may be Supreme Court style for all I know.

PS- the Illinois corollary appears to be that when the s is silent, no additional s is required. The apostrophe indicates that the silent s is now to be sounded.

Hmm. Given the rest of Starble's examples, it seems unlikely that this is SCOTUS style in general. And does Ruby's exegesis imply that Justice Scalia usually (but not always) pronounces Congress with a final [z]? No, I think that the "situational (orthographic) ethics" theory fits the data better.

(Note that if we were being serious about this, which we're not, we'd start by distinguishing usage in pronunciation (is an extra [əz] added to the sound?) from usage in orthography (is an extra s added after the apostrophe?) In the cases under discussion, both kinds of usage seem to be variable, but in somewhat different ways.) ]

Posted by Mark Liberman at October 18, 2006 08:31 AM