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March 4th, 2009

Possessive acronyms and initialisms / All-America City?

by Barbara Wallraff

Lori Waldroup, of Waterford, Mich., writes: “Please resolve a dispute. In documents, we refer to a company (let’s say it’s Family Litigation Services) by the initials ‘FLS.’ To make it possessive, should only an apostrophe be added (FLS’), or apostrophe ‘s’ (FLS’s)? One party believes that because the last word in the name is ‘Services,’ which ends with ‘s,’ only an apostrophe should be added. The other person believes that because it is now being referenced by initials, the possessive should be ‘FLS’s.’”

Dear Lori: Let’s see ... How would you refer to “Great Expectations” and “David Copperfield”? Would you write “Charles Dickens’ books” or “Charles Dickens’s books?” Whatever style you’d follow there, do the same with “FLS.”

The words that acronyms or initialisms stand for are usually irrelevant to how you should treat them. If that weren’t so, the person arguing in favor of “FLS’” (sorry about what quotation marks do to the readability of discussions of apostrophes!) ought to be in favor of writing the possessive of “United Nations” as “UN’.”

The major difference between “UN” and “FLS” is that “Services” not only ends with “s” but also starts with it. Because of the “S” in the initialism, your first “party” is right, according to Associated Press style: Only an apostrophe is needed to form the possessive. But according to the equally well respected “Chicago Manual of Style,” the other person is right: It should be “FLS’s,” because the “S” does not signify a plural. So either version is fine, with the choice depending on how you treat other singular nouns ending with “s.”

Bobbie Potter, of Aurora, Colo., writes: “My city has made signs that say ‘Aurora: All-America City.’ I don’t think these signs are grammatically correct. I think they should say ‘All-American City.’ Please help!”

Dear Bobbie: If I made the rules about our language, I definitely would decide in your favor. But I just interpret them. Here the crucial rule is that “All-America City” is an official proper name. It designates the winners of a program the National Civic League has sponsored annually since 1949, so the League gets to decide.

Now, you might wonder why the League decided on the name “All-
America,” not “All-American.” I sure did. So I got in touch with the coordinator of the awards program, Kristin L. Seavey. She told me, “‘All-American’ is a proper noun, and ‘All-America’ is an adjective” -- which sounded backward to me. But when I looked into it further, I discovered that “All-America” has been used as an adjective to describe the country’s best college football players since the 1890s. The use has extended to other sports and other realms -- for instance, there’s an “All America Political Action Committee” and a nonprofit horticultural group named “All-America Rose Selections.” Who knew?

If I had to guess why Walter Camp, also known as the Father of American Football, originally came up with the name “All-America” players instead of “All-American” ones, I’d say it was because “All-American” seems to mean that all the players are Americans. It could indeed mean that. “All-America” is awkward, to my eye as well as yours, Bobbie. But it does unambiguously get across that the players were -- and the cities are -- chosen from all across America.

© Copyright 2003 by Barbara Wallraff. Reprints require prior permission. All rights reserved.

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