Avoid too many Ss for appearance’ sake


I don’t hear many people saying “for goodness’ sake” these days. “For conscience’ sake” and “for appearance’ sake” are pretty much nonexistent in my world, too. In fact, the only “for … sake” expression I hear lately includes a word I wouldn’t use in this space even if I could.

So you might think, as I did, that these terms are on the outs. Therefore, you might figure, there’s no use worrying about whether they’re written with an apostrophe, as in “goodness’ sake,” with an apostrophe plus an S, as in “goodness’s sake,” or with neither, as in “goodness sake.”

But that assumption would be wrong. Between 1950 and 2008, “goodness sake” doubled in popularity in books published in the United States., according to Google Books’ Ngram Viewer. So it’s still worthwhile to know how it and similar expressions are written.

The problem is, there isn’t much agreement among style guides about how to write “for … sake” terms. They can’t even agree how to categorize the issue.

To find recommendations in the Chicago Manual of Style, for example, you have to look under “possessives.” In the Associated Press Stylebook, the discussion is filed under apostrophes. In usage guides such as Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage and Fowler’s Modern English Usage, you have to flip through alphabetized listings to the letter S, for “sake.”

Their advice, once you find it, is equally confusing. Here's the full explanation in my recent column.

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