An Apostrophes Question

I originally wrote a lengthy post called An Apostrophes Question to try and answer a very specific query – namely, whether phrases like parents’ evening and girls’ school require an apostrophe or not.

However, my guess is that most visitors to this page arrive here because they have a more general question about the use of apostrophes and googled something like Does x need an apostrophe? Perhaps that’s you?

If so, I have written a post to help you out. Just click here. It goes through the basic rules about using apostrophes. I hope it answers your question, if that’s what brought you here.

If you do actually want to read more about phrases like parents’ evening and girls’ school, and whether or not they need an apostrophe, read on.

In June 2022 I reworked (and shortened) the article which was first written in (I think) 2019. I am now a bit clearer in my own understanding of the issue, so I don’t feel the need to make quite so many detours – hence this post isn’t as long as the original.

One caveat that I should have stressed in the original: I do not claim to be a qualified grammar specialist. What I do have, I think, is a very good sense of what works and doesn’t work in written English.

TOWNS PLAN ran a Daily Mirror headline on a page tweeted by Wigan MP Lisa Nandy back in 2019. Which towns are planning what, I wondered, before realising that it was in fact a reference to a plan for towns.

Ambiguous, to say the least – but, hey, that’s newspaper headlines for you. Brevity rules. My favourite – again in the Mirror and dating, I believe, to 1943 – refers to the comings and goings of General Montgomery: MONTY FLIES BACK TO FRONT.

Anyway, I digress. What actually intrigued me about the TOWNS PLAN headline was this: is it good English?

To backtrack a little…

It started with a simple question that has long been nagging away: does the phrase parents evening require an apostrophe? Should it be parents’ evening? I have seen it with and – probably more frequently – without. Having worked my whole life in education, it’s one of those phrases I can’t avoid or sidestep, and so I decided to search out an authoritative answer – better still, an unambiguous, good-for-all-timezones rule.

Instead, I found a bit of a muddle, prompting questions rather than answers and confusion instead of clarity.

For starters, are we dealing with a grammar issue to do with nouns or a punctuation issue to do with apostrophes – or a combination of the two? Welcome to a world of nouns functioning as adjectives, of singular and plural nouns used interchangeably, of apostrophes sometimes used and sometimes not.

Two nouns side by side

Two nouns – side by side. If I understand it correctly, in constructions like these the first noun is called – depending on your source – a noun modifier, a noun premodifier, a noun adjunct or an attributive noun. In simple terms, in the same way that the adjective green modifies the noun door when Shakin’ Stevens sings the lyrics to Green Door, the noun towns is acting like an adjective to modify the noun plan in that Mirror headline cited above.

I should add for clarity purposes – see what I did there? – that I initially googled the phrase ‘adjectival noun’, only to find that it apparently relates to the exact opposite of what I am discussing here — in other words, adjectives acting like nouns rather than the other way round.

Examples of this are:

  • The Irish
  • The rich

Nouns acting as adjectives

I found this helpful in Simon Heffer’s book Simply English:

Indicating possession is also adjectival, as in ‘the school’s playing fields’, though in some such cases a noun can often be used as an adjective without the possessive – ‘the school playing field’, for example. In other contexts, the first of two consecutive nouns can often have the force of an adjective: such as ‘a fruit basket’, ‘a dinner jacket’, ‘a tractor driver’ or ‘running shoes’.

I also found this useful on the website Grammar Style in British English:

In many cases, we naturally avoid both the apostrophe s and the of-possessive and instead use the possessing noun as an adjective or an attribute of another noun. For example, we would say the bathroom window rather than the bathroom’s window or the window of the bathroom. In this context, the word bathroom is an attributive noun describing the window.

They are all around us — literally, in my case, as I sit here and type:

  • computer keyboard
  • picture frame
  • bookcase

Constructions like these are also often called compound nouns.

Some nouns are used exclusively or primarily as plurals, such as arms meaning ‘weapons’ or customs, referring to what you go through at the border between countries. Clearly, these act as nouns-as-adjectives in phrases like arms race and customs union in the same way that singular nouns do – bicycle race and credit union, for example.

Singular and plural nouns are often used interchangeably, without altering the sense or meaning of the phrase or sentence in any obvious way.

Consider these examples, picked at random from the newspaper: the government could introduce a carbon credit scheme or a carbon credits scheme; Britain might be facing a prison emergency or a prisons emergency; there may be queues at the airport departure area or the airport departures area; the power cut can result from system failure or systems failure; and we can surely talk about the food and drink industry – there is in fact an organisation called the Food and Drink Federation – or the food and drinks industry.

Sometimes, however, singular/plural really does matter to the meaning. Adults clothing (whether it should be with or without an apostrophe) is surely not the same thing as adult clothing. A schools minister (again, with or without the apostrophe) is part of the government, but a school minister sounds like someone who says prayers in assembly. On a school website, the phrase student representative John Smith might mean that John is a student, a representative of students, or both.

And it still doesn’t answer the question: which of these phrases – if any – require an apostrophe.

Here’s part of the entry on ‘noun adjuncts’ on Wikipedia:

Noun adjuncts were traditionally mostly singular (eg “trouser press”), but there is a recent trend towards more use of plural ones. Many of these can also be or were originally interpreted and spelled as plural possessives (e.g. “chemicals’ agency”, “writers’ conference”, “Rangers’ hockey game”), but they are now often written without the apostrophe, although decisions on when to do so require editorial judgement.

Editorial judgement? Hmmm.

Possessive noun or noun-as-adjective?

I have written for years about humanities teachers, special needs education, options evenings and sports days. It has never once occurred to me that an apostrophe might be required in any of these constructions. So why, then, do I write about parents’ evening or the local boys’ school? Should it in fact be boys school and parents evening?

I don’t think so, but why not? To put it in another way: when is it a possessive noun (requiring an apostrophe) and when is it a noun-as-adjective (not requiring an apostrophe)?

The website offers the following advice:

The apostrophe is omitted when a plural head noun ending in s functions as an adjective rather than as a possessor; in other words, when the relation between the plural head noun and the second noun could be expressed by the prepositions ‘for’ or ‘by’ rather than the possessive ‘of’: carpenters union, New York Mets first baseman. If the plural form of the head noun does not end in s, however, the apostrophe is used: the people’s republic, a children’s hospital.

Yikes. The rules of English usage are full of quirks, inconsistencies and exceptions, but this separate rule for plurals not ending in ‘s’ strikes me as less than satisfactory. As for the sense of ‘for’ or ‘by’, let’s go back to basics for a moment.

We know that one of the uses of the apostrophe is to denote possession:

  • The phrase the boy’s pencils means ‘the pencils of/belonging to the boy’
  • The phrase the boys’ pencils means ‘the pencils of/belonging to the boys’ (more than one)

But there’s a little more to it than that. To quote Gyles Brandreth from page 73 of his informative, useful and funny book Have You Eaten Grandma?:

It is there to show possession – to indicate that a thing or a person belongs or relates to someone or something [my emphasis]

That’s the point: the apostrophe sometimes indicates something other than possession. Gyles cites some examples:

  • The boys’ school
  • Teachers’ Break Room
  • Ladies’ and Men’s Outfitters
  • Birmingham Children’s Hospital

These all made perfect sense to me, demonstrating that the apostrophe sometimes denotes more than mere possession and/or ownership:

  • The boys’ school is a school exclusively for the education of boys – they don’t own it
  • The teachers’ break room – I assume an American equivalent of our staff room – is for the use of teachers
  • Ladies’ outfitters supply ladies with clothes – it’s a supplier of clothes for ladies
  • The children’s hospital treats children specifically – it’s a hospital for sick children

And that’s my problem: noun-modifier phrases like carbon credits scheme, human rights protester, accounts scandal also carry with them the sense of ‘for’, ‘by’ or ‘relating to’.

So, to repeat the question: when is an apostrophe required and when is it not? How do we distinguish between a possessive noun phrase (requiring an apostrophe) like boys’ school and a noun-as-adjective phrase (apostrophe not required) like prisons emergency?

Sentient or abstract?

One obvious point is that carbon credits, human rights, accounts etc are all inanimate objects or abstract nouns, as opposed to sentient beings (ie people or animals).

The Guardian did include an apostrophe in these phrases it has used recently:

  • pilots’ union
  • taxpayers’ money
  • workers’ compensation agency and workers’ compensation case
  • treasurers’ review
  • frequent flyers’ levy

The noun modifier in all of these examples relates to people. Is that, then, a deciding factor? Possibly — and possibly not. Peter H Wilson’s book Europe’s Tragedy, to take a random example, refers to the four monasteries dispute (no apostrophe and no capitals) and the Brothers’ Quarrel (apostrophe and capitals). A Foreign Country by Charles Cumming (the fiction book I was reading when I began drafting this article) refers to the residents’ bar, the reservations system and a baggage handlers’ strike.

On the other hand – damn it! – The Guardian referred recently to 2014’s football hooligans drama The Guvnors. Surely even football hooligans qualify as sentient beings! The same newspaper referred to the Taxpayers’ Alliance and then, later in the same article, to the Taxpayers Alliance. The organisation itself, by the way, does use an apostrophe in its name.

In fact, organisations are highly inconsistent in this regard. The Girls’ Day School Trust, the National Police Chiefs’ Council and BALPA (in full it’s the British Airline Pilots’ Association) use an apostrophe; the Magistrates Association, the self-styled HomeOwners Alliance and Citizens Advice do not. Actually, that’s not quite true. Click around the Magistrates Association website and you quickly realise that they themselves can’t decide.

The Grammar and Style in British English website – the apostrophe section of which refers to dogs’ home and teachers’ union – describes business organisations, clubs and trade unions as “a law unto themselves” and makes clear its dim view of the absence of an apostrophe in names such as Barclays, Prison Officers Association, Queens Park Rangers and United Nations Headquarters, as well as street names and the like.

I have come across the following in the Guardian – all of them, in my opinion, incorrect:

  • animal rights’ march
  • citizen’s assembly — perhaps that’s just a typo
  • April Fools Day
  • criticism of fossil fuel corporations involvement in the arts – also surely just a typo

Perhaps I should write to the paper’s readers’ editor (their title, not mine).

But now consider this headline:

Private tutors plan is not the best solution

It related to the government’s plan to use private tutors to support children who lost huge amounts of learning time because of the Covid pandemic. The question is: would use of an apostrophe have introduced an ambiguity, suggesting that the authors of the plan were private tutors?

Consider these two sentences:

  1. I am going to court to watch the barristers’ case.
  2. I am going to court to watch the barristers case.

Is there a difference in meaning between those two sentences? I think there is.

If I had been talking about some specific barristers and I then wanted to see them in action in their role as barristers in a trial, I would use sentence one.

If I wanted to watch a trial that happened to revolve around some barristers – perhaps they had stolen a colleague’s wig – I would use sentence two. The noun barristers is clearly being used adjectivally to tell us more about the case in question.

Plural nouns that don’t end in ‘s’

The dilemma seems to instantly disappear with plurals that don’t end in an ‘s’:

Men’s clothing; women’s football; children’s toys

We would never see the words mens, womens or childrens.

As a political aside, legislation is interesting. The 1989 act of parliament relating to children, to take just one example, is the Children Act – not the Children’s Act – as is Ian McEwan’s book and the 2004 legislation relating to children, the latter nevertheless detailing the role of the children’s commissioner, not the children commissioner.

A (very) cursory glance at a list of legislation enacted by parliament seems to confirm the above: the apostrophe is not used in the title of an act to denote that it is relating to something. So, for example, in 2019 we had the Tenant Fees Act, the Kew Gardens (Leases) Act and the Offensive Weapons Act. This seems to apply even if – like the Children Act – the something is a sentient creature. We have legislation on the books such as the Farriers Act, the Football Spectators Act etc.

A way forward?

Does any of this actually matter? A Guardian ‘Long Read’ feature called The Myth of Language Decline discussed the question of language evolution, making the point that it has always happened. Language is fluid. The author quoted remarks made by Douglas Adams about people’s attitudes to change, actually about technology but equally applicable to language:

Anything that is in the world when you’re born is normal and ordinary and is just a natural part of the way the world works.

Anything that’s invented between when you’re 15 and 35 is new and exciting and revolutionary.

Anything invented after you’re 35 is against the natural order of things.

I referred earlier to Europe’s Tragedy by Peter H Wilson. It’s a history of (in the book’s rendering) the Thirty Years War. Many writers (perhaps most, but definitely not all – Simon Schama’s book Citizens refers repeatedly to the Seven Years’ War) omit the apostrophe – ditto the Hundred Years War. Yet it seems to be generally accepted that phrases such as two minutes’ notice are correct: the venerable Fowler’s Modern English Usage apparently commenting that an apostrophe was required if only because it would be essential if we were writing one minute’s notice. That consistency thing again – and the difficulty caused by plural nouns ending in an ‘s’.

Anyway, until I come across further guidance, I will attempt to keep to the following rules of thumb:

  • As a default position, use an apostrophe with nouns relating to sentient beings: so it’s parents’ evening but options evening
  • Always use an apostrophe if the plural noun does not end in an ‘s’
  • Pause and ask myself: is this clearly an example of a noun-as-adjective and not a possessive noun, meaning that an apostrophe isn’t required and would in fact create ambiguity (as in my barristers’ case example above)?


  • In the case of organisations etc, follow how they themselves render their name: Taxpayers’ Alliance but also HomeOwners Alliance
  • Further to the above, although I would write HomeOwners Alliance because that is what their name is, I would describe them as a homeowners’ alliance

And of course:

  • Adhere to the basic principle of using as little punctuation as possible while maintaining clarity and accuracy