A former contestant on the reality show The Apprentice started a business named Bakers Toolkit, and her Twitter followers went bonkers about the missing apostrophe. Neal Whitman points out that they were missing something too.
Apostrophes on Singular Nouns
What do the rules of English grammar and punctuation say about Bakers Toolkit? It depends on the meaning that Zissman intended. Are we talking about a hypothetical, generic baker, an Everybaker who could use this toolkit? In that case, baker’s is the possessive form of the singular noun baker, so it should be spelled Baker's.
Apostrophes on Plural Nouns
Alternatively, are we talking about all bakers, or at least bakers in general, who could use this toolkit? In that case, we want the possessive form of the plural noun bakers, which is spelled Bakers'.
The “Looks and Works Better Without an Apostrophe” Argument
Zissman, however, took the third option, of having no apostrophe at all, and her followers went bonkers. The main reason she did it is probably because omitting the apostrophe makes for more convenient Web addresses and hashtags on social media. Laying aside the issue of whether this is breaking any rules of grammar or punctuation, we can note that Zissman is far from alone in doing this. A blog post by Pat DePuy on the website for the digital marketing agency Mainstreethost explains more about why many companies ditch their apostrophes when they create an online presence:
When searched on Google or Bing, terms with apostrophes sometimes generate different results than ones without them. The extent of [these] differences can depend on the word and size of the brand name being searched. For one, there tends to be far more competition on the keywords without apostrophes, so it’s in these brands’ best interests to rank under those search terms. This way they’re not missing out on potentially big traffic to their site when contemporary users leave out possessive apostrophes in their searches.
Even before the age of the Internet, many companies dropped the apostrophes from their names, or never used them to begin with, such as Michaels, Starbucks, and Little Caesars, to use DePuy’s examples. Why did they do this? Usually, they have neither explained nor apologized, but DePuy did find one explanation. The company named Wegmans got rid of their apostrophe in 1931, and because it’s still family-owned, would like people to think of the name as simply a plural proper noun. But we know what’s really going on. It should be a possessive, because the name isn’t referring just to a group of people named Wegman; it refers to the company that belongs to them. They just liked the simpler look of the name without it.
The federal agency that records place names in the US doesn’t like apostrophes, either, and has only allowed an apostrophe in official place names five times in more than 100 years. As Barry Newman wrote in an article in the Wall Street Journal:
The Domestic Names Committee of the U.S. Board on Geographic Names doesn’t like apostrophes. Visitors to Harpers Ferry or Pikes Peak might not realize it, but anyone aspiring to name a ridge or a swamp after a local hero will soon find out. …
An apostrophe, the argument goes, implies private ownership of a public place.
Policies like these don’t always go down smoothly, though. A more recent decision in Cambridge, England, to stop putting apostrophes in street signs, was reversed after public outcry.
Attributive Nouns Versus Possessives with Apostrophes
With all this arguing over what a violation of English punctuation rules it is to omit a possessive apostrophe, a possibility that tends to be overlooked is that we might not even be dealing with a possessive at all. In the example of Bakers Toolkit, maybe Bakers is simply the non-possessive plural form of the common noun baker. In other words, maybe bakers is an attributive noun—that is, a noun used to modify another noun. It’s true that in most English compound nouns, the attributive noun is singular, which is why we have toothbrushes instead of teethbrushes, and fingerprints instead of fingersprints. Still, in episode 288, we talked about compound nouns that do have a plural attributive noun, such as systems analyst, rewards cards, and admissions department.
In fact, the Associated Press even prefers to spell phrases such as writers strike and farmers market without apostrophes, so Bakers Toolkit would fit right in with AP style. On the other hand, the Chicago Manual of Style still favors using them except in cases where there’s clearly no possessive meaning. There are two problems with that rule. First, how do you determine when there’s no possessive meaning? Second, as we discussed in episode 315, possessive forms do more than show possession. For example, the phrase my doctor doesn’t mean that I have legal possession of a doctor!
The confusion between possessive singulars, possessive plurals, and non-possessive plurals didn’t always exist. In Old English, plural possessives ended in the suffix –a or –ena. It was only in the Middle English period that the suffix –s started taking over. In that period, the possessive singular ending –es and the non-possessive plural ending –as began to sound alike, and spread to words that used to form their possessives in other ways, and then to plurals, until we ended in the situation we’re in now, with -s making things plural, possessive, or both at once!
These days, in spoken English, we don’t seem to mind the fact that bakers could be a possessive singular, a non-possessive plural, or a possessive plural. In fact, if you’re listening to this podcast, you don’t even know how I spelled bakers in that last sentence, and I’ll bet it didn’t bother you at all! On the other hand, in written English, people expect apostrophes to make that distinction, so if you’re thinking about starting a business called Grammarians’ Playhouse, you’ll spend less time defending your choice if you use an apostrophe after that plural –s. Don’t turn to Twitter for serious advice on making the name—unless it’s just a sly publicity stunt, to get lots of people talking about your new business. On that point, Luisa Zissman is probably smarter than any of her online critics.
This podcast was written by Neal Whitman, who has a PhD in linguistics, blogs at LiteralMinded.wordpress.com, and is a regular contributor to the online resource Visual Thesaurus.