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Possessive of a title in quotes? Just don’t

English has a lot of conventions—best not to call them rules—that sometimes fall apart when we try to apply them in all possible situations. Sometimes, it’s best to just not go there.

If we want to make a noun possessive, we typically add an apostrophe and an s. Mark’s wise words, for example.

It was pointed out to me by a fellow copy editor that Amy Einsohn, in The Copyeditor’s Handbook, recommends making a phrase or title in quotation marks possessive in the same way. The result is not pretty. Einsohn gives the example:

“Lord Randal”’s rhymes and rhythms. (“Lord Randal” is the title of an old ballad.)

Words Into Type also gives this construction “when a possessive must be formed for a quoted word or phrase,” but it advises rewording. I’ve been hard-pressed to find other guides that recommend treating possessives of titles this way—just a couple of university style guides. Most guides simply ignore the issue.

The Chicago Manual of Style says “Chicago discourages, however, attempting to form the possessive of a term enclosed in quotation marks (a practice that is seen in some periodical publications where most titles are quoted rather than italicized).”

Chicago recommends using italicized titles, as I have done in this column. If italics are used in this way, Chicago recommends leaving the apostrophe-s in roman type, resulting in much squinting among copy editors trying to make things perfect:

Lord Randal’s rhymes and rhythms.

English is only logical to a point. Past that point, we need to give up and write around. The apostrophe-s convention is useful shorthand to show ownership or other relationships, but it’s a simplification. There are other ways to show a relationship:

The rhymes and rhythms of “Lord Randal.”

The AP Stylebook doesn’t address the issue of a possessive title in quotation marks, but the AP’s Ask the Editor column sees repeated questions asking how it should be done. AP’s David Minthorn recommends avoiding the construction, as in this exchange from 2013:

Q. Re: Your answer about the possessive of titles in quote marks. I respect your advice regarding a recast, but there has to be a definitive answer. Is it: “Ode on a Grecian Urn”’s admirers or “Ode on a Grecian Urn’s” admirers. I know that a rephrase to admirers of “Ode on a Grecian Urn” would be preferred, but I’m seeking a definitive answer to this one. I do not want to write: “Ode on a Grecian Urn” admirers because I want to show possession involving the title. So is it, “Ode on a Grecian Urn”’s admirers or “Ode on a Grecian Urn’s” admirers? Please pick one, and I’ll go with that. I thank you very, very much.

A. “Ode on a Grecian Urn” admirers. Now let’s move on.

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