Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Tormented by an Apostrophe

A few weeks after I began this blog, I succumbed to peer pressure and did a terrible thing. And I've felt guilty ever since.

This dreadful deed? Dropping the apostrophe in "farmers market" (there, I shudder just looking at it). It may be correct AP style. It may be increasingly accepted. But in my heart I know it's wrong.

I'm a grammar and usage junkie from way back. My mother paid me to check for errors in the galley proofs of one of her books while I was still in elementary school [well, on further reflection, more like 7th grade]. I got (blush) a perfect 800 score on what used to be called the English Composition Achievement Test. My father was a journeyman printer-proofreader, who learned to proofread movable type upside down and backward. Editing skills have been a big part of my career, though my proofreader's eye does tire and miss things sometimes. So this stuff means something to me; I'll readily engage in a 20-minute debate on the finer points of the English language. I am flexible in a number of areas and am not a strict traditionalist by any means. But "farmers market" sticks in my throat.

There was a big debate not long ago about the naming of Scholars Walk at the University of Minnesota. The no-apostrophe faction won, the prevailing argument being that the walk did not belong to the scholars, it was merely named in honor of them. That argument doesn't persuade me when it's about scholars and it doesn't persuade me when it's about farmers, though it persuades others. See, for example, a journalist's discussion of the issue. Here's another:
Today, the tendency is to drop the apostrophe where once it would have been required. We see this especially in company and organization names. A relatively new distinction has arisen: if the organization is for the benefit of, but not actually owned by a particular group, don’t use an apostrophe. Thus, we have Department of Veterans Affairs, Citizens Insurance, Consumers Energy, and Farmers Market, none of them owned by the group in question. But we’d have a veteran’s benefit check, citizens’ groups, and the farmer’s daughter.
Okay, so there is definitely support for this view. Peer pressure, as I said. And I gave in. But I don't like it, and it's been nagging at me. In my mind, a plural noun is not properly used as an adjective unless it is made possessive. Possessiveness, in grammar, doesn't indicate only ownership; it can also indicate some general relation, a "pertaining to." When you don't want to use a possessive form, you use the singular. We don't say "I'm going to buy a dogs collar," we say "I'm going to buy a dog collar" (or, more elegantly, "I'm going to buy a collar for my dog"!). We don't have employees benefits, we have employee benefits. Or we could, somewhat less elegantly, have employees' benefits, particularly if we're talking about particular employees.

So why do we have Kids Meals? Veterans Day? Farmers markets? Singles bars? That phraseology loses something significant in elegance and precision. I think we could have farm markets, or farmer markets (which sounds odd, but I think that's just because it hasn't happened to become our usual idom), or farmers' markets.

There are some traditionalists who agree with me, like the Lexington Farmers' Market and the Australian Farmers' Markets. And in the article linked above on the Scholars Walk controversy, I see that my favorite newspaper grammarian, Stephen Wilbers, sides with me on this one -- in part because it sounds nonsensical not to use a possessive form when the plural noun is irregular: "women sizes" ("women" being plural already, there is no such word as "womens" without the apostrophe, just as there is no such word as "childrens" without the apostrophe, as Blogger's spell-check is at this moment advising me by way of some red underlining). We don't have children meals at fast-food restaurants. I see no good reason to put up with farmers markets. I think the latter simply sounds more natural to us because the "s" sound at the end of the word suggests the possibility of a possessive, or relational, construction. But without the apostrophe, it simply doesn't work.

So now I have a dilemma: do I go back and edit all my posts that have referred to the "farmers market," and their accompanying tags? Do I resolve not to look backward, but to simply go and sin no more? Or do I live with my wishy-washiness and write it off as one more quandary of the humans condition?


Rob Hardy said...


Oh, little maggot of possession,
down the street I count the mailboxes
where you have eaten into the family names:
The Smith’s, The Johnson’s.
I want to exterminate you with red spray paint
before you possess the entire language
with your brood of indiscriminate it’s.

Unknown said...

Have you read Eats, Shoots and Leaves? She mischaracterizes some of the American practices, but I love her zeal for guerrilla tactics -- giant, stick-on apostrophes for where they're missing, and so on.

Mary S. said...

I feel your pain. I did not know AP had acquiesced on this one, but I have an older stylebook. In 2006, Northern Gardener did a feature on farmers' markets as a great place to buy plants, and we kept the apostrophe. Hang in there, Grammar Girl.


Anonymous said...

I'm with you, Penny! We had this discussion at length when designing Leah and Matt's wedding invitations and RSVP cards... would the guest select a "children's meal" or a "childrens meal"? Or perhaps, "child's meal"? Does the meal belong to the child, or all the children collectively, or is it an adjective? I am happy to say that we eventually went with "children's meal" (sorry, Matt). Why must a possessive apostrophe mean "belongs to" -- can't it also mean "intented for" or "in relation to"? Like Charlie's birthday party or Betty's mother.

And I wouldn't bother going back. If this was a print column, you wouldn't even have the option! ;-) Let it go, use your time for other things, and apostrophe away in the future...

Anonymous said...

From: http://www.mnstate.edu/hanson/mc210/MC210_apostrophes.htm.

When it comes to using apostrophes to make plurals, the general rule is: NEVER!

1. NEVER use apostrophes to make a word plural!
The Hansons, not the Hanson’s ... the students, not the student’s ...
the Minnesota Twins, never the Minnesota Twin’s (unless you’re talking about one
player’s ownership of something or other).

2. NEVER use apostrophes to show pronoun ownership!
It is ours, never our’s. It is yours, never your’s. It is theirs, never their’s.

3. Apostrophes shouldn’t be used in the names of organizations that are descriptive rather than possessive.
School Boards Association (not Board’s or Boards’) ... State Bankers Association
(not Banker’s or Bankers’) ... National Secretaries Day (not Secretary’s or
Secretaries’) Minnesota Twins win-loss record (not Twin’s or Twins’)

4. Miscellaneous abominations:
Team Electronic’s ... the Schmidt’s home ... the girl’s basketball team

Unknown said...

Anonymous - I'm absolutely with you on all of these, with the caveat that if one is thinking a plural is descriptive rather than possessive, try plugging in "children" or "women" in the same place. If you wouldn't use one of those, rather than "children's" or "women's," you shouldn't use a regular plural instead of a plural possessive. I think things are purely descriptive a lot less than people assume, and this simple test helps demonstrate that. Would we have National Women Day? Or would we have to say National Women's Day(there being no such word as "womens")? If the latter, Secretaries['s] should be no different grammatically, though I understand there are naming conventions that can differ.