In interesting but irrelevent fact about myself. When I was in grade school I wrote a song called “The Arkansaw Rivers of Spring” even though I’d never been to Arkansas.

Anyhow, the state of Arkansas has designated an official spelling of the possessive. It is now Arkansas’s rather than Arkansas’. This has left Arkansan HDC unhappy:

In my experience, most grammar teachers use the possessive rules as described in the Associated Press Handbook, which would have the correct possessive spelling for Arkansas as Arkansas’. Just because there is a silent ‘s’ at the end of Arkansas, does not entitle you to add another for enunciation’s sake. It looks funny in written text, and causes people to stumble over the word. Naturally, your brain will look at the spelling and try to pronounce it as “Ar-kan-sass-es” which is far from the correct pronunciation of “Ar-kan-saws”.

Even discounting the pronounciation issue, it’s not as clear-cut as HDC suggests. When I was in grade school I was indeed taught that singular nouns (and proper names) ending in “s” are accompanied only by an apostrophe, but that changed sometime in high school or college when I was told to put the “s” on after all. The latter always made more sense to me, so that’s what I do. But HDC’s adamance got me curious, so I consulted some university websites to see what they have say. Surprisingly, I got five answers and one punt from six universities on what I thought was a pretty binary question:

Meredith College says that there is “generally” no “s” added in a singular nouns that end in “s”. But strangely, they say that the same applies to words that end in “x” and “z” and I don’t think I’ve ever seen a word end in either x’ or z’. Example given: Dr. Seuss’.

Purdue, on the other hand, says that there is always an “s” following the apostrophe after a singular word ending in “s”. Examples given: James’s.

The University of Oregon sites a rule that I have never heard: a singular noun ending in “s” is followed by an apostrophe-s except when the object referred to begins with “s”. Examples: Boss’s car, boss’ sister.

Emory, on the other hand, says that it depends on pronounciation, which is consistent with Arkansas’s position. Kind of. It says that it’s apostrophe-s unless adding the “s” makes it sound strange, in which case it can go either way. Example given: Pardes’, Pardes’s.

The University of Calgary does not care.

Anyway, I can agree with HDC that it doesn’t seem like a particular good use of the legislature’s time. But if he or she is worried that Arkansas codified it incorrectly and is thus making itself look stupid, he or she shouldn’t sweat it.

Addendum: Even the Stylebooks can’t agree! As HDC points out the AP Stylebook veers towards simply adding an apostrophe, but the Chicago Manual of Style veers towards apostrophe-s (except in words of two or more syllables ending in an ‘eez’ sound, which is where Emory was coming from.


-{found by way of Dustbury}-


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3 Responses to Arkansas'(s)

  1. Peter says:

    Not that many people are going to pay attention to the official spelling. The official name of Hawaii is Hawai’i, and hardly anyone seems to notice.

    I still don’t know why Arkansas the state and Arkansas the river are pronounced differently.

  2. trumwill says:

    I was only aware of the Hawai’i spelling recently. Interestingly, even the state’s website is inconsistent about the spelling, though it leans towards the Hawai’i spelling.

    I suspect that it only really matters in state documents. I read an interesting factoid that Arkansas is the only state to have a law specifying the correct pronunciation of the state, presumably because it’s so unphonetic.

    Not sure about the rivers, but I’d guess it’s similar to the way that we mispronounce words we see written before we hear them. My ex-roommate told me, for instance, that he pronounced facetious fa-set-e-us for the longest time. I’ve got the same thing with the word continuity, though I swear that my pronunciation is superior to the rest of the English language’s.

  3. CGHill says:

    Then there’s Arkansas City, Kansas, where “Arkansas” is carefully pronounced to rhyme with “Kansas” – when the name isn’t simply elided to “Ark City,” anyway.

    And you’re right about that misreading of words you haven’t heard. In high-school chemistry, I saw something about “unionized water,” and thoughts of Samuel L. Gompers danced through my head; it didn’t occur to me until later that this particular H-two-O was simply lacking in ions.

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