March 10, 2007

Arkansas apostrophism

Despite my deep lack of interest in punctuation -- I'm disinterested, uninterested, and even anti-interested -- I've joined the rest of the English-speaking world in following the Great Arkansas Apostrophe Debate ever since it hit the AP wires at the end of last month (Jon Gambrell, "Arkansas House to Argue Over Apostrophes", AP, 2/27/2007):

Call it Arkansas' apostrophe act -- or, as Rep. Steve Harrelson would have it, "Arkansas's apostrophe act."

Harrelson filed a resolution Tuesday to declare the correct possessive form of the state as "Arkansas's." The resolution carries no legal weight, Harrelson acknowledged, but said a family friend who works as a historian asked him to carry the grammar fight to the floor.

The legislator who filed the resolution has a blog -- an impressive one, I'd vote for him if I lived in his district -- and he discussed the question back on January 23 ("Arkansas's Grammar Lesson"):

For years, Parker Westbrook (click for bio) has been educating Arkansans about the appropriate spelling and usage of the possessive case of Arkansas. Westbrook, who worked with my grandfather Boyd Tackett (D-Arkansas) on his congressional staff back in the 40s, has asked me to introduce a resolution to amend the 1881 Arkansas General Assembly resolution recognizing the state's pronunciation (Ark-an-saw rather than ar-KAN-sas) to include appropriate usage of the word in the possessive case.

I have noticed that prominent politicians and businessmen in the state now use the spelling Arkansas's rather than Arkansas' when using the word in the possessive case. The Arkansas Times is known (and refers to itself) as "Arkansas's Newspaper of Politics and Culture." I once referred a Times column to a national publication, who in turn replied with the old aloof [sic] brackets after Arkansas's.

The style manual published by the New York Times even uses Arkansas's as an example using the apostophe and an "s" when a name ends with a sibilant letter that is silent. Parker Westbrook is "sticking to the word of the law," and he wants to make sure all Arkansans know the correct spelling of our state in the possessive case. Next time a yankee tells you that you're wrong when you use Arkansas's, send 'em to Parker.

After Harrelson's resolution passed the Arkansas house unanimously, the reaction was not only local (Jim Williamson, "S, we're paying attention", Texarkana Gazette, 3/8/2007), but also national, and even the Guardian picked up the AP story (Andrew DeMillo, "Arkansas House Backs Apostrophe Act", 3/6/2007).

Over at the Arkansas Times ("Arkansas's newspaper of politics and culture"), they've also got a blog, where the post on the bill's passage netted some entertaining comments. As you'd expect, the entertaining parts are mostly not about punctuation:

People that know Parker know that he is an effective lobbyist. He knows how to press the flesh. I hear he had to buttonhole every member of the House to get this one passed. Some he had to buttonhole two or three times. Viciously. Right there outside the House chamber. We're talking take-no-prisoners buttonholing. I mean, I've seen some serious lobbyist buttonholers in my time, but Parker Westbrook is truly Arkansas's King of the Buttonholers. He has been engaged in flagrant buttonholery since his days with David Pryor. Having buttonholed the hell out of the House, Parker will be heading to the Senate to buttonhole those guys. Every damn one better assume the position, cuz Parker's coming, and you're gonna get buttonholed. Hard.

The Daily Headlines at the University of Arkansas led with a skeptical headline "Arkansas'? Arkansas's? Who's to Say?" (3/7/2007), and attributed to Patrick Slattery ("associate professor of English who instructs the graduate students who teach English composition to first-year students") an even more skeptical prediction: "Slattery predicted the gradual abandonment of the apostrophe altogether". Slattery had better mind his buttonhole if Lynne Truss ever comes through Fayetteville.

One angle that none of the commentators seem to have checked out yet: what would Antonin Scalia do?

[Jan Freeman offers a quick survey of style-book and language-maven variation on this point ("Possessed by punctuation", The Boston Globe, 3/4/2007):

If you follow AP style, you'll always use just the apostrophe to make a singular noun possessive: Arkansas' voters, the boss' temper, Jesus' words. But other usage guides prefer the apostrophe plus s -- with just enough exceptions to keep us on our toes.

For Strunk & White, it's Arkansas's and the boss's, but Jesus' and Achilles' (thanks to a great-grandfather clause). The New York Times and the Globe also like Arkansas's, but their possessive rule has a sibilant-overload circuit breaker. So you write Arkansas's weather but Kansas' crops (and Jesus' words).

The Chicago Manual of Style says it's Kansas's and boss's, but when a final sibilant is silent, you can switch to apostrophe-only style: Camus' depression, Francois' flirtation, Arkansas' solons.

And older stylebooks -- including the original Chicago, a century ago -- sometimes add the s to one-syllable words only, regardless of sound: the boss's hat, the princess' tiara, Arkansas' grammarians.

There are other "rules" out there as well.]

Posted by Mark Liberman at March 10, 2007 10:43 AM