An Apostrophes Question

TOWNS PLAN ran a Mirror headline last week on a page tweeted by Wigan MP Lisa Nandy. 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 that’s newspaper headlines for you. Brevity rules. My favourite — again in the Mirror and dating, I believe, to 1943 — refers to the movements 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 the categorical, authoritative answer — better still, a rule.

Instead, I found 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.

Plural noun modifiers

The admissions facilitator at a genetics testing firm, a part-time comics author and public affairs professional, recently sat with the elections commissioner on the energy emergencies executive committee. A former member of the British Growers Association interested in arms sales, he left the airport departures area to seek careers guidance. After consulting the retail prices index, he changed the airline’s fares policy in order to prevent a prisons emergency.


Utter drivel, obviously — a nonsense paragraph intended solely to illustrate the ubiquity of plural noun modifiers (the underlined bits) in contemporary English usage. All these phrases — and many, many more — have appeared in my newspaper of choice (The Guardian) recently.

Is this language evolution in action, a Guardian fetish perhaps — or have plural noun modifiers always been a standard part of English grammar? Am I just suffering from a form of availability bias? In other words, plural noun modifiers are on my mind at the moment, and so my brain is consciously noting each and every example I see, leading me to the erroneous conclusion that there are now far more of them in use than there used to be.

Attributive nouns

Two words, two nouns – one in front of the other: admissions and facilitator, departures and area. 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 (the one I will use). In simple terms, in the same way that the adjective green modifies door when Shakin’ Stevens sings Green Door, the noun admissions is acting like an adjective to modify the word facilitator.

I should add for clarity purposes (or perhaps that should be ‘for purposes of clarity’) that I initially googled the phrase ‘adjectival noun’, only to find that it apparently relates to the opposite of what I am discussing here — in other words, an adjective acting like a noun rather than the other way round. Examples are:

The Irish
The rich

We use attributive nouns all the time, usually without any problem. As the website Grammar Style in British English says:

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
  • pencil case
  • compact disc player
  • picture frame
  • bookcase (a compound noun made up of book and case)
  • jigsaw piece

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 attributive nouns in phrases like arms race and customs union in the same way that singular nouns do — bicycle race and credit union, for example.

That’s fine, but then I read this in 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.

Rules 0 Judgement 1. For someone who yearns for clarity, that’s not an encouraging sign.

Singular or plural modifier — or both?

Does my copy of the Oxford Guide To English Usage [1993 edition] clarify matters? Alas, no — though I note that its section on the different ways that plurals are formed is headed plural formation rather than plurals’ formation or plurals formation. I wonder whether that is because, strictly speaking, I should have written the previous sentence ‘… the different ways that the plural is formed’ — hence, plural formation.

A 28 August Guardian article on schools was headlined Tories’ controversial school plans. Forgetting the apostrophe issue for a moment, why did they not write schools plans — the Tories’ plans for schools? The article then mentioned plans for a crackdown on pupils’ behaviour. Why not a crackdown on pupil behaviour? It spoke of the government’s academies and free schools policy but then quoted from a leaked government document that spoke of the free school programme.

A singular noun modifier often does the job of a plural noun modifier without changing the meaning of the sentence: the government could introduce a carbon credit scheme or a carbon credits scheme; Britain might be facing a prison emergency or a prisons emergency; Hong Kong protesters can fill 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.

Alas, this doesn’t always work. 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 I am still no clearer about which of these phrases — if any — require an apostrophe.

Possessive noun or attributive noun?

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 an attributive noun (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.

Hmm. Yes, 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 boy’s pencils means ‘the pencils of/belonging to the boy’
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 underlining]

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 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 for ladies
  • The children’s hospital treats children specifically — it’s a hospital for them

Here’s the rub. All of these plural noun-modifier phrases — 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 an attributive noun phrase (apostrophe not required) like prisons emergency?

The BBC to the rescue?

Whenever I am struggling with a question relating to English usage, I often look for relevant examples on the BBC website. It’s not perfect, by any means: news articles are obviously usually written at pace; I am guessing that copy-editing processes will inevitably be less thorough than in, say, the book-publishing industry; and it’s not unusual to find inconsistencies — try googling ‘BBC + special advisor’ and then ‘BBC + special adviser’.

Speaking of the BBC, I note that Dragons’ Den is back on — apostrophe in place. But, hang on, they have also been showing repeats of Dad’s Army. Apostrophe in place — but shouldn’t it be Dads’ Army? How many older gents were there in the Home Guard?

But it’s a starting-point, and so I was spooked when I saw, splashed across my television screen, a banner headline on the BBC News channel that included the phrase schools minister. It just looked a bit iffy. Nick Gibb is the minister for schools (well, school standards). Ditto, prisons minister, equalities minister and so on. When Rory Stewart was the minister for prisons, was he not the prisons’ minister? To be clear, this isn’t just a BBC thing, as a cursory check on government websites confirms.

We don’t use an apostrophe. Okay, I get that — but why not? What’s the rule?

Animate or inanimate?

One obvious point is that schools, prisons, equalities, carbon credits, human rights, accounts etc are all inanimate objects or abstract nouns, as opposed to sentient beings — 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. I am currently reading Peter H Wilson’s book Europe’s Tragedy, which 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. Even football hooligans qualify as sentient beings. The paper 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 the apostrophe; the Magistrates Association, the self-styled HomeOwners Alliance and Citizens Advice don’t. 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 thought I was starting to get to grips with The Guardian’s style rules, but they had a bafflingly inconsistent day on 17 August — The Grauniad at its best:

  • …animals rights’ march
  • …citizen’s assembly — surely a typo
  • …April Fools Day

Here are a few more, seen since I first uploaded this article:

  • …a number of terrorist victims campaign groups (3 October 2019)
  • …criticism of fossil fuel corporations involvement in the arts (3 October 2019)
  • Private tutors plan is not the best solution (20 June 2020)

Perhaps I should write to Paul Chadwick – he’s their readers’ editor (their title, not mine).

The ‘private tutors’ headline above (added, as the date shows, long after I first wrote this article) is a particularly interesting one. It is in the context of the coronavirus emergency, of course, and relates to the government’s plan to use private tutors to support children who have lost huge amounts of learning time. In this example, use of an apostrophe would perhaps have introduced ambiguity, suggesting that the authors of the plan were private tutors.

The Americans to the rescue — not

I continued my Google quest for enlightenment. Another US website, The Guide to Grammar and Writing suggests an interesting test:

If you can insert another modifer between the -s word and whatever it modifies, you’re probably dealing with a possessive. Additional modifiers will also help determine which form to use.

Patriots quarterback Drew Bledsoe threw three touchdown passes. (plural as modifier)
The Patriots’ [new] quarterback, Drew Bledsoe, threw three touchdown passes. (possessive as modifier]

Following this guidance, I guess I might write about the girls’ outstanding school to refer to a specific group of girls — the school itself might or might not be a single-sex establishment — but the outstanding girls school.

The same website goes on to refer to the Chicago Manual of Style (CMOS), which apparently says (note: it is behind a paywall, so I cannot confirm the accuracy of this paraphrasing):

… if singular nouns can act as attributive nouns — city government, tax relief — then plural nouns should be able to act as attributive nouns: consumers group, teachers union. This principle is not universally endorsed, however, and writers must remember to be consistent within a document.

Gulp: they just look wrong to me. I was more than a little relieved to read that final sentence.

The American author and occasional blogger CS Lakin also refers to the “venerable” (her word) CMOS in an interesting blog. She writes:

Their solution is to remove the apostrophe in proper nouns. For example:

Midwest Governors Association
Department of Veterans Affairs
North Dakota Hamster Lovers Association.

But keep these types as possessives:

employees’ cafeteria
farmers’ market
men’s soccer club

This distinction seems ridiculous to me. It also seems to contradict what the Guide to Grammar and Writing (quoted above) claims that the CMOS advises – consumers group, teachers union etc.

Back to Gyles Brandreth’s book, he refers on page 82 to the 2018 Oscars’ Ceremony. What rule or convention is that following, I ask myself?

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.

If it’s men’s clothing, surely it is boys’ clothing? If it’s women’s football, surely it is girls’ football? Amber Rudd was until recently the minister for women and equalities in the government. News organisations (including the BBC) are happy to refer to the women’s minister but also to the equalities minister. If she was the women’s minister, why not the equalities’ minister?

As a political aside, legislation is interesting. The 1989 act 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 and many other such examples, with — according to the 2020 Queen’s Speech — a Prisoners Act to come.

A way forward?
So am I any the wiser?

It seems to me that there are plural (possessive) noun phrases that definitely require an apostrophe and there are plural (attributive) noun phrases that are clearly functioning adjectivally and therefore don’t require an apostrophe — United States senator, economics professor.

It is possible that examples of the latter are on the increase. There are also phrases about which there seems to be no consensus: apostrophes are sometimes used and sometimes not.

Does any of this actually matter? A Guardian ‘Long Read’ feature on Thursday 15 August 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.

My love of language started as a teenager with two inspirational Latin teachers: Latin schools you in the importance of logical rules. The authorities I tend to consult for guidance – anything published by Oxford University Press, the websites of universities and high-performing schools, the Grammar and Style in British English website, the Queen’s English Society – are all likely to be upholders of rules and tradition, instinctively wary of change, perhaps prone to seeing a failure to follow set rules and established conventions as a decline in standards.

American websites, on the other hand, seem far more willing to embrace language evolution. After all, the Americans rewrote the rules on spelling in the nineteenth century.

Is this, then, all a conspiracy by an unholy alliance of Americans and language anarchists to debase the Queen’s English? It would be entirely in keeping with the ethos of The Guardian that, if indeed there is a “recent trend” [a Wikipedia phrase] towards use of plural modifiers without an apostrophe, the paper has embraced it. It prides itself on being at the cutting edge of style.

The Guardian‘s policy on the use of capital letters, for example, reflects its hostility to deference. This example featured on its front page on 16 August 2019: “… after public pressure from president Donald Trump”. It also seems to have declared war on hyphens: antisemitism, nonfiction, multibillion, noncompliance. Non-compliance, indeed.

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 (perhaps most, but definitely not all — Simon Schama’s book Citizens refers repeatedly to the Seven Years’ War) writers 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’.

Until I come across some unambiguous guidance, I will attempt to keep to these ‘rules’:

  • Always use an apostrophe with nouns relating to sentient beings: parents’ evening but also options evening
  • Always use an apostrophe if the plural noun does not end in an ‘s’
  • In the case of organisations etc, use capitals and follow how they themselves render their name: Taxpayers’ Alliance but also HomeOwners Alliance
  • Further to the above, the HomeOwners Alliance sees itself as a homeowners’ alliance
  • Adhere to the basic principle: use as little punctuation as possible while maintaining clarity and accuracy
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