Thursday, February 17, 2005

Obsessive over possessives

I love seeing a good argument over punctuation in the community.

And that's just what Minneapolis has at the University of Minnesota's Twin Cities campus. Their new Scholars Walk -- or should it be Scholars' Walk? -- is stirring some strong feelings.

One school official involved in the project says: "We're honoring Nobel laureates and Pulitzer Prize winners and Academy Award winners and great scholars. It's their walk, in a sense. ... I just thought it was a good use of the apostrophe."

Another can't disagree more: "The Scholars Walk honors the scholars; it doesn't belong to the scholars. It's not possessive. Therefore, it seemed to me it didn't call for an apostrophe."

So what would AP style dictate? It's spelled out pretty clearly:
DESCRIPTIVE PHRASES: Do not add an apostrophe to a word ending in s when it is used primarily in a descriptive sense: citizens band radio, a Cincinnati Reds infielder, a teachers college, a Teamsters request, a writers guide.

Memory Aid: The apostrophe usually is not used if for or by rather than of would be appropriate in the longer form: a radio band for citizens, a college for teachers, a guide for writers, a request by the Teamsters.

An 's is required however, when a term involves a plural word that does not end in s: a children's hospital, a people's republic, the Young Men's Christian Association.
So, the Scholars Walk probably wouldn't take an apostrophe using AP. As such, my first instinct is to say "no apostrophe!"

But the more I've thought about it, the more I remember being in high school, first learning the Associated Press Stylebook. This entry befuddled me. If you need the apostrophe for women's gym, you should need the apostrophe for girls' gym. There really isn't a good argument to make against it.

And so I argue against AP style and for the apostrophe. Today. I might change my mind tomorrow.

But when the results are this close, you really can't choose wrong (or right).


At 12:50 AM, February 18, 2005, Anonymous Neil Barbour said...

Come on, it's clearly the walk for Scholars. Other people will walk on it, and it's using city funding. Even Laukka says, "We're honoring Nobel laureates." More importantly, though, I question "Today" as a sentence.

At 12:08 PM, February 18, 2005, Blogger Doug Fisher said...


Women and children are two of the oddities of English. As irregular plurals, they shouldn't be taken as evidence of the possessive. They require the 's as idiomatic constructon -- you wouldn't say women college, for instance. And while you would say children's museum, you probably should not say kids' museum for the same reason -- it's a museum for kids/children, not of them.

At 12:53 PM, February 18, 2005, Blogger Nicole said...

Neil, I too can be a rebellious writer!

And Doug: It's that idiomatic construction I'm questioning. Why don't we just call these quasi possessives and give them all the apostrophe as we do with a day's work and three weeks' vacation?

It seems to be that apostrophes denote more than possession.

So, I agree that the Scholars Walk is certainly a case of description and not ownership. I guess I just question whether our possession rules are too stringent.

At 1:52 PM, February 18, 2005, Anonymous Aaron said...

This page, from the Copy Editor newsletter, deals with this, saying: "The genitive case doesn’t just signify possession. As the Evanses note in A Dictionary of Contemporary American Usage, more than half the time it represents some other relation. One of those other relations is expressed by the descriptive genitive, in which the genitive has a role similar to that of a noun or adjective modifier: the room’s furnishings, the airplane’s speed."

It refers to the Chicago Manual of Style's rule, which was apparently changed in the latest edition. Now it says: "The line between a possessive or genitive form and a noun used attributively -- as an adjective -- is sometimes fuzzy, especially in the plural. Although terms such as employees' cafeteria sometimes appear without an apostrophe, Chicago dispenses with the apostrophe only in proper names (often corporate names) or where there is clearly no possessive meaning."

And Theodore Bernstein, in "The Careful Writer," calls forms such as teachers college, boys club and parents association -- without the apostrophe -- illogical, "demonstrated by the fact that the apostrophe is usually deemed mandatory for nouns with irregular plurals."

At 6:36 PM, February 18, 2005, Blogger Doug Fisher said...

Aaron, a great comment. My hangup has been workers' comp (compensation for injured workers sounds better to me than compensation of injured workers). So after considering all this, I think using the apostrophe does make sense.

At 12:20 PM, September 24, 2010, Anonymous Generic Viagra said...

I'm not sure whether I'm a good writer nevertheless the use of apostrophe is something I never use, but in regards to other punctuation marks I do use them.


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