When I was in grade school I learned that to make a word possessive you simply added ’s to the end of it. That was easy. Oh, and there was one exception. If the word already ended in s, you simply added the apostrophe. Okay, I got it.
Then, when my kids were in high school, they corrected me. The rule had changed. The new convention was to add ’s anytime you wanted to show possession, regardless of the word ended in s or not. I struggled for years to retrain myself; it just looked so wrong.
Later, I worked on a book that needed to follow the requirements found in A Manual for Writers of Research Papers, Theses, and Dissertations by Kate L. Turabian, sometimes called Turabian for short. While maintaining the rule to add ’s anytime you wanted to show possession, including words ending in s, Turabian gave two exceptions: Jesus and Moses. This means it was correct to write “Jesus’ disciples.” Not only did this look cleaner, but I liked the idea of giving Jesus special consideration.
Now, I learn that according to The Chicago Manual of Style, 16th Edition, the exception for Jesus and Moses no longer applies. This means that “Jesus’s disciples” is now correct.
Of course, there are still other special cases relating to making a word possessive. It’s enough to make my head spin. But then, grammar always did have that effect on me.
From this, we can learn three things:
Not Everyone Agrees
Not all “experts” agree on the rules of writing. If they all did, there would only be one style guide to follow. Instead, we have many. To further complicate things, many publishers have their own peculiar deviations from the various style guides. For myself, I attempt to follow The Chicago Manual of Style, as it works in most situations, most of the time. I think it may be the closest we have to have a standard writing guide.
Over time writing rules, expectations, and standards change. Some of the things we learned in grade school, high school, and college no longer apply. And the greater the distance we have from our formal education, the increased likelihood some of the rules we once learned are now wrong.
We Need to Change, Too
As the rules change, we need to change how we write. To resist these changes keeps us mired in the past, fixated on the old ways of doing things. Others will view us as out of touch writers, and they will dismiss our writing as antiquated. Ignorance is no excuse.
As writers, we always need to be learning, and we need to be ready to change. The acceptance of our work depends on it.
What changes do you struggle with? What steps do you take to be aware of changes? Please share your thoughts in the comment section below.
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Peter Lyle DeHaan, PhD, is an author, blogger, and publisher with over 30 years of writing and publishing experience. Check out his book The Successful Author for insider tips and insights.