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Monday, August 29, 2022

James' or James's? Making Names that end in "S" Possessive

Most of us understand that in the English language, to make a singular noun possessive, we typically add an apostrophe and an "s," but many of us get confused when it comes to making a noun that already ends in "s," possessive. Do we just do an apostrophe? Do we add another "s"? Do we do something else?

Hi all, I'm keeping it short, sweet, and (somewhat?) simple for today's post, especially after finishing up that big series on plot, and I am covering an (oddly specific) topic that should be straightforward, but that can be surprisingly confusing. How do we make a noun that ends in "s" possessive, correctly? Specifically, how do we treat our characters' names that end in "s", to make them possessive?

This was an issue I ran into with my writing when I was a teenager, and even when studying English in college, for some reason the answer wasn't readily available. I remember asking a friend whose name ended in "s" for the answer, and even she seemed unsure. As an editor, I still get asked about this situation every so often, so I thought it was worth posting about.

So what is the deal?

If you happen to be someone who's been confused by this, guess what? The confusion is totally merited. This is because the answer to whether we write James' or James's is "it depends."

It's also confusing in part because you've seen it handled both ways.

The reason it's handled both ways isn't because of some fancy punctuation rule--it's because it depends on the publishing house's style sheet.

Most fiction in the U.S. is expected to follow The Chicago Manual of Style. This is typically seen as the standard for how to handle any kind of punctuation, grammar, printing, or what have you. If you have any questions related to those, it's best to go to The Chicago Manual of Style for the answer. 

The most current edition of Chicago (edition 17) says we should make a name that ends in "s" by adding an apostrophe and an "s."

So if James owns a watch, I should write, "James's watch."

With that said, other style guides (such as the Associated Press Stylebook in some situations) handle it differently, and a publisher may have an in-house style sheet for all their publications. Sometimes the extra "s" gets left off . . . 

- because people think the double "s" looks unappealing

- to save on space and ink, and therefore money

- because some names don't generally have the double "s" pronounced. (For example, "Socrates' ideas" is usually pronounced as "Socrates ideas" and not "Socrates-es ideas.")

Older editions of The Chicago Manual of Style even dropped the "s," probably for those reasons.

So, technically you can actually write it either way, but unless you are following your publisher's style guide, if you are writing fiction in the U.S., it's probably best to follow Chicago and write "James's." 

The most important thing, however, is to keep it consistent throughout the manuscript. Don't use "James' watch" in one line and then a paragraph later write "James's watch."

Because I try to stick to Chicago, personally, I write "James's."

Additional Resources:

How To Make Words That End In “S” Possessive by Thesaurus.com

Possessives of Names Ending in “S”: Charles’ or Charles’s? Harris’ or Harris’s? by EditorsManual.com

Possessive of Proper Names Ending in S by Daily Writing Tips


  1. I like James'. To me, James's is redundant and looks strange.

    1. Yeah, I've heard other people say that. To me "James'" looks like you should pronounce it "James" but it still gets pronounced "James-es." To each his or her own.

  2. The apostrophe shows there is a letter missing ('Colin's' as in Colin, his things).
    My personal rule is to write that James has James's things and Jess has Jess's things but the Jones' things don't have the extra 's', nor the Collins' possessions, because that is the way I would say it. When I can hear the extra 's', I add it.
    If you are calling them, as a family, the Joneses or the Colinses then they still own the Joneses' or Colinses' things - you wouldn't say Joneseses would you?

  3. This is one reason I never use character names that end with "s", "e", "es", or "er". While it limits my choices, it makes things so much simpler all around!

    1. If I didn't seem to like names that end in S, I would follow that personal rule. It does keep things simple.

  4. I read somewhere, a while ago now, that if you say the word out loud and the final 's' sounds like a 'z' then use an apostrophe ... it sort of works, but I too tend to avoid creating characters whose names end with an 's'. :D ... life is much simpler that way. :D


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