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The Great Supreme Court Debate: Apostrophe After 'S'?

By William Vogeler, Esq. on February 16, 2017 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

As the composition of the U.S. Supreme Court changes, a serious question remains to be decided: Is there a possessive apostrophe after words ending in "s"?

It hardly seems worth considering except that the Court actually considered the question in a decision a decade ago. In Kansas v. Marsh, 548 U.S. 163 (2006), the justices split on whether the apostrophe should come after words ending in "s" or should another "s" be added after the apostrophe.

Kansas' v. Kansas's

The case was not actually about apostrophes; it was a weighty issue about the death penalty. The Court held that a Kansas death penalty statute was constitutional in giving equal weight to aggravating and mitigating factors.

But in a gallows-humorous-sort-of way, the justices divided 5-4 on the use of an apostrophe after the word "Kansas." The majority called it "Kansas'" statute, and the dissent called it "Kansas's."

This Is Seriouser

Frank Wagner, a former reporter of decisions for the Supreme Court, revealed that the judges were very "possessive" about the their use of the possessive apostrophe. Wagner's office was responsible for checking opinions for typos, misspellings, and grammatical errors.

The issue was so serious, it did no use to change the judges' use of the apostrophe because they would change it back. Four justices informed Wagner they preferred "Congress's" over the Court's then prevailing use of "Congress'."

Few poked fun of the judges's issue, and the debate even became more serious in certain corners.

In the Land of Guinness

Showing that Ireland is famous for more than beer, the students at the University of St. Andrews took up the great "apostrophe" debate at St. Regulus Hall. The scholars cited the Kansas case in support of, well, the debate.

"The central dissent revolved around whether people whose names end in "s" deserve the opportunity to make their names possessive in the same way as everybody else," as reported by The Sinner.

"However, the Court believed that a possessive "s" at the end of one's name was unfortunately not a basic human right. They decided that the omission builds character for any Louis, Thomas or Tess out there."

The question probably will not be decided by any legal court. It is really a question for wordsmiths or a writer's court. Lewis Carroll, for example, set this precedent.

"When I use a word," said Humpty Dumpty, the arbiter of language disputes until his untimely retirement, "it means just what I choose it to mean -- neither more nor less."

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