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Possessives vs. Attributive Nouns
Which rendering is correct in each of the following groups?
- Veterans’ Day, Veteran’s Day, Veterans Day
- Fathers’ Day, Father’s Day, Fathers 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
To ask which rendering is “correct” in these groups is actually to pose a trick question: if these were not 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 (Fathers’, Veterans’, Majors’, Bankers’ and Executives’).
- The second choice in each group is a singular noun in the possessive case (Father’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 make the best choices in 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.
Unfortunately, one rule does not govern in all instances when it comes to 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 fathers or mothers. 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.
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 have to 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 Web sites, 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 counterintuitive (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. We can find this information on an organization’s Web site or in its 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.
Thus, when we are confused about whether a noun in a title or proper name is attributive or possessive, we can follow these steps:
- See if the title or name appears in a reputable style manual or dictionary (as do “Father’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 is rendering it.
- If the title or name in question 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?).
Copyright 2004 Get It Write. Revised 2008, 2018.