Thursday, March 01, 2007


Arkansas’s cause célèbre

OK, I was going to let this one go. I heard it on NPR on the way home last evening, and I was just going to leave it, I was. But then I remembered the footnote at this entry, and Ray's comment in the comments, and, well, I just had to post this. So, you see, it's Ray's fault if today's entry is lame.

One of Arkansas’s legislators has introduced a resolution defining the possessive form of «Arkansas» as «Arkansas’s», with the final «s»:

Rep. Steve Harrelson, a Democrat in the Arkansas legislature, yesterday introduced a resolution to declare the correct way to write the possessive form of the state's name. That would be, he says, «Arkansas’s».

Harrelson says it all started with historian Parker Westbrook, a family friend.

“It's that sibilant letter, that sibilant «s» that really fires him up,” Harrelson says. “He is adamant that it must have an apostrophe and an «s» on the other side of the apostrophe.”

Not everyone agrees, however, including the largest newspaper in Little Rock, the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. The daily stands by the Associated Press stylebook, which mandates that the state's possessive form is «Arkansas’».

Mr Westbrook is right, of course, though Representative Harrelson and NPR's Melissa Block make light of it. The possessive form of a singular name that ends in «s» is made by adding «’s», despite that the resultant «s’s» appears odd to some. And the US Board on Geographic Names be damned if it doesn't agree.


While we're on the subject of symbolic resolutions dealing with words, I'll also note that the New York City Council has just passed a resolution discouragi1ng the use of the well-known racial slur known less impolitely as “the n-word”:

NEW YORK (AP) — The City Council approved a resolution Wednesday urging New Yorkers not to use the n-word, citing its long history as a racial epithet and its widespread use among entertainers and youths as a term of endearment. Councilman Leroy Comrie, sponsor of the measure, began the effort weeks ago at the start of Black History Month. His proposal gradually gained nationwide notice and support.

“People are using it out of context,” Comrie said. “People are also denigrating themselves by using the word, and disrespecting their history, disrespecting the history of a people and a country, and also putting themselves in a negative light that we need to correct.”

Other communities have passed similar measures, and a historically black college in Alabama recently held a four-day conference to discuss the epithet. In New York, supporters gathered at City Hall, many wearing small pins featuring a single white “N” in a circle severed by a red slash.

I have no illusion that this will stop the use of the word, but any statement against its use strikes me as a good thing.


Ray said...

"... defining the possessive form of «Arkansas» as «Arkansas’s»"

Well, I think it ought to be «Arkansaw» and «Arkansaw's», and then there would be no question as to the correct form. But then again, I'm just an alien, so what do I know?

Maggie said...

I recently had looked up the possessive for words ending in s for my daughter, who was mad at me for pluralizing something with just the apostrophe.

The Prentice-Hall Handbook for Writers says:
"If the singular of the word ends in s, add an apostrophe and s unless the second s makes pronunciation difficult; in such cases, add only the apostrophe," and it gives the difficult pronunciation examples "Moses' leadership" and "Sophocles' dramas." It also says "James's sandwich," but I find that nearly as difficult to pronounce as "Moses's," which makes the pronunciation rule seem a little arbitrary to me. Still, it doesn't seem to be a hard-and-fast rule that you must add the 's.

As far as the n-word, this opinion may be naive. It seems to me that if people are using the word to reduce its strength, to take it over as their own word, then that's a good thing. That's one way to take the power from a bully. Maybe it makes identification of hate speech more difficult -- I'm not sure because I don't know, legally, how they determine that. It seems you would have to take the context into account, and not just the language used.

Barry Leiba said...

Hm, I'd always gotten the message that the exceptions were «Moses'» and «Jesus'», and that they were just done that way out of custom. Certainly, I don't consider «Moses's» to be hard to say, and, in fact, I'd pronounce «Moses'» exactly the same way anyway: MO-zes-uz, as though it had the «'s»

I don't think the n-word can be rehabilitated in the way you describe, which is why I think it's a good thing to encourage our children to drop it, and to stop using it to mean, "buddy". It's still used by white bigots to mean "the sub-human object of my hate", and I don't think its casual use by blacks in the street is "empowering" against that. Also, there are many blacks who detest that usage, and who are working to try to stop it. But that's my view as a white guy. It'd be good to hear opinions of African-American readers.

On the hate crime thing, well, yes, and that was a significant factor in this case, which I wrote about last June. Nicholas Minucci beat Glenn Moore about the head while shouting that word, and his defense against the "hate crime" charge was that he was just using it as an "endearment".

As you say, though, it's the context. Nothing is an "endearment" when it's said at the other end of a baseball bat.

The Ridger, FCD said...

Traditionally, Biblical and Classical (Greek) names were exempted: Moses' bush, Jesus' fish, Socrates' hemlock... In more recent times, some style manuals say no 's for any name ending in s - rather drastic - and others say it depends on how it's pronounced. James' or James's, then, depending on whether you say "jayms" or "jaymses". Given that Arkansas doesn't phonetically end in S, you'd think 's was a no-brainer.

Jim Fenton said...

In Jane Casagrande's excellent book, Grammar Snobs Are Great Big Meanies, there is a whole chapter devoted to this subject, named [ready, Barry?] "Your Boss Is Not Jesus".

From that chapter:

"Possessives start to get ugly when you begin dealing with words that end with "s." Words that end with "x" and "z" confuse many people as well. And from here possessives get even uglier, prompting the authors of style manuals to list dozens of special cases such as "Nouns the Same in Singular and Plural," "Names like 'Euripides,'" "Nouns Plural in Form, Singular in Meaning," and "Quasi Possessives." The bad news, of course, is that the rules are so complex and arbitrary that the average person would rather become fluent in Jesus's native Aramaic than learn them. But the good news, as we see so often in the world of grammar snobs, is that the authorities all contradict each other, leaving you the option of often following your own best judgment.

So maybe the folks in Arkansas do need to take a stand here.

Barry Leiba said...

I know people who would disagree on the boss question, but that's not for this discussion....

«[...] the rules are so complex and arbitrary that the average person would rather become fluent in Jesus's native Aramaic than learn them.»

I love it! That's a phrase to remember.

Steve Harrelson said...

Man, I never expected this kind of attention over this thing. The criticism directed my way, though, is deserved. I filed this as a simple resolution in hopes that it would sail through on the front end of our voting calendar (during the same period of the day when we recognize local tennis stars and commend couples for managing to stay married for an extended period), but it has somehow caught the attention of reporters, scholars, and historians.

Of all the legislation I've filed and pursued, I just have to laugh about this one being scooped up and disseminated in the way it has.


Barry Leiba said...

Steve, thanks for commenting.

I hope you don't really take this as criticism. In fact, I posted this to say that I think it's the right way to do the punctuation, and not to say that I thought it was a waste of time to bother. I know that there's a lot of mundane stuff that goes on in legislatures, and that this is just an example of the part of your job that's less glamourous than you might like. :-)

And I'm sure you've introduced legislation that's of much more import... but that didn't happen to get picked up by NPR.

Steve Harrelson said...

No, I didn't take it that way at all -- as a matter of fact, about half the comments aren't criticism at all (but you ought to see my inbox!).

Keep up the great blog. I've bookmarked it.