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Possessed by punctuation

LEGISLATORS IN ARKANSAS, we learned last week, are pondering a crackdown on permissive punctuation, at least where their state is concerned. State Representative Steve Harrelson has introduced a resolution that would declare the possessive Arkansas' out of order, and make the three-s Arkansas's the officially approved spelling.

That added final s is necessary, said the local historian behind the plan, to give the state's name "a possessive sound." It's amazing, he told the AP reporter, "how many people don't understand the possessive case."

As reasons go, these don't make a lot of sense. I'll bet everyone pronounces an s in a phrase like Arkansas' weather, whichever way the possessive is spelled. And the problem, if there is one, isn't misunderstanding. You can understand the possessive just fine, and still not be sure how to spell it, because there's more than one correct way.

If you follow AP style, you'll always use just the apostrophe to make a singular noun possessive: Arkansas' voters, the boss' temper, Jesus' words. But other usage guides prefer the apostrophe plus s -- with just enough exceptions to keep us on our toes.

For Strunk & White, it's Arkansas's and the boss's, but Jesus' and Achilles' (thanks to a great-grandfather clause). The New York Times and the Globe also like Arkansas's, but their possessive rule has a sibilant-overload circuit breaker. So you write Arkansas's weather but Kansas' crops (and Jesus' words).

The Chicago Manual of Style says it's Kansas's and boss's, but when a final sibilant is silent, you can switch to apostrophe-only style: Camus' depression, Francois' flirtation, Arkansas' solons.

And older stylebooks -- including the original Chicago, a century ago -- sometimes add the s to one-syllable words only, regardless of sound: the boss's hat, the princess' tiara, Arkansas' grammarians.

This anarchy has infected even the Supreme Court, a story in Legal Times reported last fall. The case of Kansas v. Marsh, wrote Jonathan Starble, revealed a "deep divide" on the court; the justices split 5-4 on the verdict, but 7-2 on the possessive of Kansas, with Antonin Scalia and David Souter agreeing to spell it "Kansas's statute."

But Scalia, despite his reputation as a usage stickler, has no clear principles on possessives, said Starble. He has written "Ramos's" and "witness's," New York Times-style, but also Illinois' and Congress', as AP would do it. No wonder some Arkansans think there ought to be a law.

Why are punctuation rules -- and not just on possessives -- so unruly? "You wouldn't think a system which, after all, contains only a couple of dozen marks would be such a problem," linguist David Crystal observes in his latest book, "The Fight for English: How Language Pundits Ate, Shot, and Left."

The trouble is, he explains, that "we are trying to make punctuation do two jobs at once. Two incompatible jobs. We are using it to reflect the sound of the voice; and we are using it to organize grammar."

That is, punctuation is not simply a tool for marking grammatical relationships, as some language neatniks seem to believe. It also represents -- in varying degrees -- the rhythms and stresses of spoken language, even in prose we'll probably "hear" only inside our heads.

In fact, Crystal reminds us, that was the original job of punctuation; it emerged from signs meant to aid oral reading of manuscripts that had not yet been tamed with modern commas, periods, capital letters, and word spaces. Even in the modern era, he notes, tastes fluctuate: "In the seventeenth century, the fashion was to capitalize all nouns; in the eighteenth century, the trend was to leave the capitals out."

Commas can be sprinkled more or less densely, depending on an era's (or a publication's) taste. Periods and commas can go outside quotation marks, in British style, as Lynne Truss illustrated in "Eats, Shoots & Leaves": Sophia asked Lord Fellamar if he was "out of his senses". Their way is more logical, they say; our way is neater. But neither is right or wrong, any more than driving on the left is right or wrong.

As for those possessive nouns, the fashion today is to represent the s-sound (however imperfectly) in the spelling. The stripped-down AP style, "though easy to apply," says the Chicago Manual, "disregards pronunciation and thus seems unnatural to many."

But surely it seems "unnatural" partly because we're accustomed to James's and Tess's and waitress's littering our textual landscapes. I like that style myself; I'd vote for Arkansas's if I had a vote. But conventions can be unlearned, too. If the English-speaking world converted to AP style tomorrow, I suspect it would soon look normal -- even to Arkansas' pickiest punctuators.

E-mail Jan Freeman at freeman@globe.com. For the Word blog, go to boston.com/ideas/brainiac/word.

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