Episode 92: January 18, 2008
by Mignon Fogarty
Grammar Girl here.
Today's topic is apostrophes.
A couple of weeks ago Legal Lad did a show about homeowners associations. What you didn't hear was that behind the scenes, Steve, one of our copy editors, debated whether to put an apostrophe in the word homeowners.
This topic also comes up in the news when there's a writer's strike or teachers strike. Does the strike belong to the writers or teachers, or are the words writers and teachers adjectives that tell people what kind of strike is happening? If the words are possessive, we need an apostrophe, but if they're adjectives, we don't need an apostrophe.
It's a lot easier to see the difference when you're dealing with singular words. For example, if you're talking about green bean casserole, green is an adjective that tells people what kind of beans you use. But if Mr. Green has an award-winning bean at the state fair, you'd talk about Green's bean, with an apostrophe.
Apostrophes and Plural Words
When the phrase includes a plural, as with writers strike, it can be a tougher call. I believe it's pretty clear that the writers don't own the strike, and that the word writers is there to tell us more about what kind of strike it is. So I'd leave out the apostrophe. On the other hand, I'd include the apostrophe in homeowners' association, at least when the homeowners actually own or control the association that manages their property.
An important point is that you should make sure you put the apostrophe after the final s. If you call it a homeowner's association (homeowner-apostrophe-s), you're talking about an association owned by one homeowner.
Here's an even trickier one: farmers market. The market is used by the farmers, populated by the farmers, but generally not owned by the farmers. So it seems reasonable to conclude that you don't use an apostrophe because the word farmers is there to identify the type of market. It's an adjective.
I should note that there are credible people who firmly believe an apostrophe is required on farmers market, writers strike and similar phrases. It's a contentious topic, and you may have to defend your choice to someone no matter which choice you make.
The key question to ask yourself when deciding whether you need an apostrophe is if you are talking about possession or ownership. If you are, you need an apostrophe. If you aren't, you don't need an apostrophe.
Depending on the context, the same words may need to be punctuated differently. Here's an example:
Did you mail the homeowner's insurance policy?
We now offer homeowners insurance.
In the first sentence, we're talking about one insurance policy that belongs to one homeowner. It's possessive, so homeowner's needs an apostrophe.
In the second sentence, we're talking about the type of insurance the firm is now offering. Homeowners is a descriptive word—an adjective—so it doesn't need an apostrophe.
Also, some sources say to treat proper names and general phrases differently. Using that rule, you could argue for American Medical Writers Association, but also writers' group.
Lutz, G. and Stevenson, D. Grammar Desk Reference. Cincinnati: Writer's Digest Books, 2005, p. 255.