Once you’ve seen “embarrass,” and “supersede” and “its” in print a million times, there’s a chance that the next time you write one of these words, you’ll get it right without thinking about it — a better chance than for people who don’t read as much, anyway. That’s why an SAT test prep company I worked for years ago had us tell students in our vocabulary course: read, read, read.
But every once in a while, I come across a spelling or punctuation issue so odd that no amount of innate word smarts can save you. This came to my attention recently when a very word-savvy friend, author Carolyn Howard-Johnson, asked me how to write “conscience’ sake.”
“Seems like something you’d remember if you’d ever looked it up,” she wrote.
Indeed I had looked it up. And though I didn’t remember what I’d learned, I knew where to turn for answers. That’s half the battle. The “Chicago Manual of Style” addresses the matter in its section on possessives. The “Associated Press Stylebook” talks about it in its discussion of apostrophes. Two of the usage guides I use talk about it in the S listings under the word “sake” and one of them includes the matter under a special sublisting in its possessives section.