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Apostrophes

Today's topic is apostrophe usage.

By
Mignon Fogarty,
December 29, 2016
Episode #549

farmers market

Last month, we had an article on the Quick and Dirty Tips website with the title 10 Facts You Should Know About Homeowners Insurance. What you didn't hear was that behind the scenes, the editor debated whether to put an apostrophe in the word homeowners.

This topic also comes up in the news when there's a writers 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.

Read more about why the possessive case indicates more than just simple possession in English, and what Robert Lowth has to do with it.

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 teachers strike, it can be a tougher call. I believe it's pretty clear that the teachers don't own the strike, and that the word teachers is there to tell us more about what kind of strike it is. 

The Associate Press recommends writing teachers strike without the apostrophe and it makes the same recommendation about the phrase homeowners association, so I follow that pattern for homeowners insurance too, which is what the editor of our article also decided. 

An important point is that if you use an apostrophe, make sure you put it after the final S. If you call it a homeowner's association or a teacher’s strike (with the apostrophe before the S), you're talking about an association of one homeowner or a strike by one teacher.

Does ‘Farmers Market’ Have an Apostrophe?

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 acting like an adjective.

Again, AP style is farmers market without an apostrophe. The AP typically recommend leaving out the apostrophe whenever the phrase is descriptive rather than showing possession.

I should note that other credible people firmly believe an apostrophe is required on farmers market, teachers strike and similar phrases. For example, the Chicago Manual of Style specifically calls for an apostrophe after the S in farmers market. It’s a contentious topic, and you may have to defend your choice to someone no matter which choice you make. 

Cases like this are a good reason to have a designated style guide. Are you an AP woman? Write farmers market without the apostrophe. Are you more of a Chicago man? Write farmers’ market with the apostrophe.

An Apostrophe Can Change the Meaning

In some sentences though, you can’t just default to the style guide standard when you see these common phrases because even though I just told you not to put the apostrophe before the S, occasionally you do want it before the S because you are talking about one person. 

Here’s an example. It’s fine to write this without the apostrophe:

We now offer homeowners insurance. (Homeowners is descriptive, so it doesn’t need an apostrophe.)

But if you work in an insurance office and you’re writing an e-mail to ask whether one specific policy got sent, you want an apostrophe before the S:

Did you mail the homeowner's insurance policy? (You write that with an apostrophe before the S in homeowner’s because you’re talking about one policy that belongs to one homeowner. It’s singular and possessive.)

It would be the same thing if there was a man named Farmer who owned a market, and you were writing Do you want to go to Farmer’s market today? Just like when we were talking about Mr. Green’s beans, you’d want the apostrophe before the final S because you’re talking about Mr. Farmer’s market.

The bottom line is that with these kinds of phrases, it’s good to know what your style guide recommends, but you still need to keep an eye out to know when you’re dealing with a descriptive plural and when you’re dealing with a singular possessive. 

Farmers’ market  image, NatalieMaynor at Flickr. CC BY 2.0

An earlier version of this article was originally published January 18, 2008.

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