Tuesday, September 7, 2010

The United States Supreme Court Justices' Great Apostrophe War

Sep. 7, 2010

Washington D.C.

With too much time on their hands due to the diminishing number of cases being accepted for review by the Roberts Court, the Justices have returned to one of their longest running disputes, the correct use of the possessive apostrophe following nouns that end in "s."

Three dissenting justices—it used to be four—are breaking with their brethren on the apostrophe issue.

Frank Wagner, the soon-to-be retired reporter of decisions for the Supreme Court, revealed the split in a two-part interview with the National Law Journal. The job of his office includes checking opinions for typos, misspellings, grammatical errors and deviations from Supreme Court rules.

But there’s no use in changing apostrophes of dissenting justices who disagree with the court's prevailing rule on possessives that requires an apostrophe only after the final “s” in “Congress.” Wagner tells the NLJ that over the years, four justices informed his office that they preferred “Congress’s” and he sees no reason to impose conformity. One of the dissenters has since left the court, leaving only three holdouts. Wagner declined to name the members of either the double apostrophe faction or the single apostrophe group.

Wagner uses the example to illustrate differences over plural possessives, although the word “Congress” would likely come under the Associated Press’ rule governing singular proper names ending in “s.” (Its rule also calls for a single apostrophe.) AP’s headache-inducing entry on apostrophes is more than 6,200 words long.

In the first part of the interview, the NLJ notes a prior split over whether the more formal word for pot should be spelled “marijuana” or “marihuana.” Wagner’s predecessor asked the justices to vote, and the “j” spelling won out, NLJ Supreme Court writer Tony Mauro wrote in the Green Bag.

The accompanying photo of the justices, taken 10 years ago, is not a reflection of the apostrophe split, but of another great split of recent vintage, one that almost brought the nation to its knees with the resulting rogue wars, fat cat tax cuts, lax regulation of financial institutions leading to a financial meltdown, dedicated neglect of the environment, a huge increase in unemployment, large increases in inequality and poverty, turbulent upheaval in the housing sector, and diminished reputation and standing of the U.S.in the global community.

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