If your writing looks professional, so do you.
Possessives and Attributive Nouns: When Do We Need an Apostrophe (and Where?)
If the dearth of apostrophes in text messages, emails, and social media posts is any indication, we may be witnessing their demise. But since such changes in usage happen slowly, for now we need to understand the difference between the possessive case and the attributive case.
Consider, for example, the following five groups of three phrases each. Only one phrase in each of the five groups is rendered correctly:
- Veterans’ Day, Veteran’s Day, Veterans Day
- Mothers’ Day, Mother’s Day, Mothers Day
- English Majors’ Society, English Major’s Society, English Majors Society
- Bankers’ School, Banker’s School, Bankers School
- International Executives’ Association, International Executive’s Association, International Executives Association
Sometimes “Correctness” Depends on Context
To ask which rendering is “correct” in each case is to pose a trick question: since these are all proper names, all of these choices could be grammatically correct depending on the context.
Let’s begin by examining how these phrases differ from one another:
- The first choice in each group is a plural noun in the possessive case (Mothers’, Veterans’, Majors’, Bankers’ and Executives’).
- The second choice in each group is a singular noun in the possessive case (Mother’s, Veteran’s, Major’s, Banker’s, and Executive’s).
- The third choice in each group uses a plural noun that is not in the possessive case. We refer to it as an attributive; that is, it functions as a modifier and does not need to be possessive.
To select the best choice in each of the five groups above, we must consider whether the possessive or the attributive is more appropriate and, if the possessive case is appropriate, whether the possessives ought to be singular or plural.
Choosing between Possessive and Attributive Can Be Tough
Unfortunately, one rule does not govern in all instances when deciding when to treat a noun as merely attributive and when to make it possessive. The Chicago Manual of Style admits that “the line between a possessive or genitive form and a noun used attributively—as an adjective—is sometimes fuzzy, especially in the plural.” This style manual suggests that writers omit the apostrophe “in proper names (often corporate names) or where there is clearly no possessive meaning” (p. 284):
- Publishers Weekly
- Diners Club
- Department of Veterans Affairs
In deciding whether to use an apostrophe in such constructions, we cannot always depend on logic to lead us to the best choice. For example, referring to the second Sunday in May as “Mothers’ Day” might seem logical if we think of it as a day to honor all mothers and not simply one mother. But if we look up the phrase in Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, we find the noun “mother” rendered as a singular possessive—“Mother’s Day”—perhaps to acknowledge the fact that each person honors his or her own mother. Similarly, Webster’s gives us “Father’s Day,” not “Fathers’ Day.”
On the other hand, Webster’s tells us that in the United States, November 11 is known as “Veterans Day”—plural but not possessive. We might have assumed that we would render the name of a holiday honoring veterans in the same way we render the name of a holiday honoring mothers or fathers. We could also have logically concluded that since we are honoring all veterans, we would use the plural possessive: “Veterans’ Day.” Instead, we must determine the appropriate form of many widely used names not by following a consistent principle but by verifying the conventional usage. In all such situations, we should rely on a reputable style manual or dictionary.
Possessive vs. Attributive with Organization Names
This issue becomes even more complicated when we must render the titles or names of institutions, associations, societies, and the like (as in groups 3, 4, and 5 above) that are not likely found in any style manual or dictionary. Again, we cannot rely on logic alone to determine whether the possessive case is appropriate. In our third example above, for instance, we could argue that the society belongs to a group of English majors (English Majors’ Society), or we could say, simply, that it is an organization for them (English Majors Society).
In the absence of a ruling by a reputable style manual or dictionary, then, we must determine how the organization itself handles its name in official publications. If an organization does not use the apostrophe in its name, then neither should we—even if we could argue logically that possession is indicated.
We would not, therefore, use an apostrophe in “South Carolina Bankers School,” “Federal Judges Association,” “Texas Classroom Teachers Association,” or “International Executives Association” because, according to their own website, the organizations themselves do not do so.
Likewise, even though the names “Randolph-Macon Woman’s College” and “The Navy Enlisted Man’s Club” may at first seem counter-intuitive (since neither of these institutions belongs to or serves only one woman or one man), we must nevertheless render the names exactly as the institutions do, as indicated on the organization’s website or in official documents.
When creating a new organization, the founders must decide how to handle the title. Most organizations omit the apostrophe and treat the noun as attributive rather than possessive, suggesting that the organization or conference does not belong to the group but instead exists to serve its members.
However, plural nouns that do not end in s—such as children, women, and men—are almost always treated as possessives, no matter what the logic would dictate.
We could argue, for example, that the Bakersville Children’s Home does not belong to the children but rather is for them. But no one would consider writing “Bakersville Children Home.” Likewise, the London Men’s Convention may more logically be for the men of London than belong to them, but “London Men Convention” would sound odd to most ears.
The Bottom Line
Whenever we are confused about whether a noun in a title or proper name should be treated as possessive or attributive, we can follow these steps:
- Determine whether the title or name appears in a reputable style manual or dictionary (as do “Mother’s Day” and “Veterans Day,” for example).
- If the title or name does not appear in the dictionary, check to see how the group or organization itself renders it.
- If the title or name is not well-enough established for a precedent to have been set in regard to its rendering, then make a decision based on logic (is possession clearly indicated?) and sound (would the phrase sound odd if the noun were not in the possessive case?).
Elsewhere on this site we address other issues that arise with the use of apostrophes: knowing whether words need to be possessive or simply plural and knowing how to make words plural and possessive when they end in s and other sibilants.
Copyright 2004 Get It Write. Revised 2008, 2018, 2020