Word Court


David Paisley, of Lakewood, Ohio, writes, "This drives me crazy: service used as a verb by supposedly intelligent people in the social-services profession. For instance, 'We service fifty clients a day' or 'Come to our seminar on servicing the mentally disturbed client.' My wife, who is a social worker, and I both feel that the only common usages of service as a verb apply to debt and prostitution. What's wrong with good old serve?"

My heart is with you, but let's give the devil his due: Is it fair to refuse the social services verbal liberties that we take with medical personnel? Physicians doctor patients, after all, and nurses nurse them, and psychiatrists shrink them. What's more, dictionaries don't support the idea that the verb service relates chiefly to debt and prostitution. The Oxford English Dictionary gives five meanings for it, including "to be of service to; to serve; to provide with a service," and it cites Robert Louis Stevenson's 1893 book Catriona: "If I am to service ye the way that you propose, I'll lose my lifelihood." Further, the way some dictionaries (the OED and Merriam-Webster's Collegiate among them) give the sexual meaning of the verb is by referring the reader to serve. By cross-referencing the two words like this, a dictionary is saying that they have the meaning in common. (I'm not convinced that serve really is used much in this sense nowadays—but I can't prove it isn't.)

All the same, surely social-service professionals don't want to be making double entendres. And serve as an English verb meaning "render service" is about 600 years older than the verb service. An eternal tension exists between people's desire to elevate their language and their desire to keep it simple and clear. Just about every modern language expert there is, however, argues in favor of simplicity for anyone but a few literary stylists. When it means "provide service," serve is almost always simpler, more straightforward, and therefore better than service.

Beth Pratt, of El Portal, California, writes, "My boss and I are having a friendly grammatical dispute. He refuses to use any dictionary published later than the 1950s and strictly adheres to The Chicago Manual of Style. He claims that the possessive of a noun ending in a double s still requires the addition of the possessive s; I say proper usage calls for the possessive s to be omitted. For example, he'd write 'my boss's ancient dictionary'; I write 'my boss' ancient dictionary.'My performance review is approaching, and a ruling in my favor might help me score some points."

I can't imagine that what I have to say will much help or hurt your review. This point of style is a swamp. Some reputable reference books come down on your side of the argument—for instance, The New York Public Library Writer's Guide to Style and Usage. But more, and more widely used, reference books—including The MLA Handbook and Garner's Modern American Usage, in addition to The Chicago Manual—side with your boss. In fact, I side with him. Boss' doesn't look to me as if it should be pronounced "boss-ez," and yet that is the way we ordinarily pronounce it.

Alas, pronunciation is not a reliable guide to spelling. We don't all pronounce words the same way, and even one person might pronounce a word differently in different contexts. A listener would hear my boss's dictionary as "my boss-ez," sure—but what about "my boss's stylebook"? Would that sound like "my boss-ez …" or "my boss stylebook"? It might depend on how fast and carefully the speaker speaks. The guidelines in The Associated Press Stylebook are intended to encourage readers to move along smartly, so AP's rule for making possessives out of "singular common nouns ending in s" is "add 's unless the next word begins with s: the hostess's invitation, the hostess' seat."

Among the sources that unequivocally come out in favor of boss's, most make other exceptions to the general rule of using an apostrophe s for a singular possessive. Chicago, for instance, argues for four kinds of exceptions (words and proper names that are "plural in form, singular in meaning," multisyllabic names that end in an "eez" sound, words and names that end in an unpronounced s, and words and names that end in s in for … sake expressions). See what I mean when I call this a swamp?

My advice would be to concede gracefully to your boss on possessives and concentrate on getting him to use a current dictionary (and the latest edition of Chicago, if he is clinging to an earlier one). How can he possibly decide whether and how to write video camera and CAT scanner, bling-bling and phishing, if his resources are half a century out of date?

Do you have a language dispute? Write to Atlantic Word Court, P.O. Box 67375, Chestnut Hill, MA 02467, or send e-mail to msgrammar@theatlantic.com. All letters become the property of Word Court. Ms. Grammar is also on the Web, at www.theatlantic.com/courtrecord.

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Visit Barbara Wallraff’s blog, at barbarawallraff .theatlantic.com, to see more commentary on language and to submit Word Fugitive queries and words that meet David K. Prince’s need. Readers whose queries are published and those who take top honors will receive an autographed copy of Wallraff’s most recent book, Word Fugitives. More

Barbara WallraffBarbara Wallraff, a contributing editor and columnist for The Atlantic, has worked for the magazine for 25 years. She is also a weekly syndicated newspaper columnist for King Features and the author of Word Fugitives (2006), Your Own Words (2004), and the national best-seller Word Court (2000). Her writing about language has appeared in The Washington Post, The Boston Globe, The Wilson Quarterly, The American Scholar, and The New York Times Magazine.

Wallraff has been an invited speaker at the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books, the National Writers Workshop, the Nieman Foundation, Columbia Journalism School, the British Institute Library of Florence, and national or international conventions of the American Copy Editors Society, the Council of Science Editors, the International Education of Students organization, and the Journalism Education Association. She has been interviewed about language on the Nightly News With Tom Brokaw and dozens of radio programs including Fresh Air, The Diane Rehm Show, and All Things Considered. National Public Radio's Morning Edition once commissioned her to copy edit the U.S. Constitution. She is a member of the American Heritage Dictionary Usage Panel. The Genus V edition of the game Trivial Pursuit contains a question about Wallraff and her Word Court column.

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