Q From Rob Barnes, Warwickshire, UK: I am currently reading Double Whammy by Carl Hiaasen, and he uses the phrase for appearance’ sake. He seems to be trying to write as he speaks by missing the final s off appearance’s, but I am not happy with a word which ends with an apostrophe. I can’t think of any others, except with a plural possessive or another possessive where the possessor ends with an s. What would you do?
A This is a tricky one. I’m not surprised you’re puzzled.
Expressions like this are indeed possessives. The formal rule in such cases, as always, is to mark the possessive with an apostrophe plus s (or s plus apostrophe if plural, or just an apostrophe alone if the word already ends with an s). So the phrase strictly ought to be for appearance’s sake (or for appearances’ sake). That’s the way a lot of people say it and write it — I do, for example, and so do you, it would seem.
However, possessives before sake are a special case for two reasons. One is the initial letter s on sake, which influences the possessive ending of the preceding word. The other is that there are a lot of fixed phrases using the word that have settled on a certain form out of habit. Some of them, like for God’s sake or for Pete’s sake cause no difficulty — the usual possessive ending is used. The problems arise when longer words appear, especially in idioms (for example, conscience or convenience), and doubly so when such words already end in s, as with goodness.
In phrases like this, it has become common to modify the strict rule. It is most usual to leave off the s, because of the collision between it and the initial letter of sake, especially if the s of the possessive is usually not sounded in speech — so you may see for conscience’ sake, for example. It’s not correct according to the rules, but it is considered to be a conventional usage. On this basis, Carl Hiaasen was correct to write for appearance’ sake, even though it looks a little weird.
The apostrophe is frequently left off as well: for convenience sake, for goodness sake. Here, though, I have to enter a cautionary note. The evidence suggests that the rules are slightly different in British and American English. In British English, we are ready to leave off both s and the apostrophe in these idiomatic phrases. This is regarded as not quite the thing in American English, where the presence of at least an apostrophe is usually required. Another way to handle the problem is to finesse it altogether by inverting your phrase, so saying it as for the sake of appearance, where the of is the marker for the possessive.