A former contestant on the reality show The Apprentice started a business named Bakers Toolkit, and her Twitter followers went bonkers about the missing apostrophe. Neal Whitman points out that they were missing something too.
Attributive Nouns Versus Possessives with Apostrophes
With all this arguing over what a violation of English punctuation rules it is to omit a possessive apostrophe, a possibility that tends to be overlooked is that we might not even be dealing with a possessive at all. In the example of Bakers Toolkit, maybe Bakers is simply the non-possessive plural form of the common noun baker. In other words, maybe bakers is an attributive noun—that is, a noun used to modify another noun. It’s true that in most English compound nouns, the attributive noun is singular, which is why we have toothbrushes instead of teethbrushes, and fingerprints instead of fingersprints. Still, in episode 288, we talked about compound nouns that do have a plural attributive noun, such as systems analyst, rewards cards, and admissions department.
In fact, the Associated Press even prefers to spell phrases such as writers strike and farmers market without apostrophes, so Bakers Toolkit would fit right in with AP style. On the other hand, the Chicago Manual of Style still favors using them except in cases where there’s clearly no possessive meaning. There are two problems with that rule. First, how do you determine when there’s no possessive meaning? Second, as we discussed in episode 315, possessive forms do more than show possession. For example, the phrase my doctor doesn’t mean that I have legal possession of a doctor!
The confusion between possessive singulars, possessive plurals, and non-possessive plurals didn’t always exist. In Old English, plural possessives ended in the suffix –a or –ena. It was only in the Middle English period that the suffix –s started taking over. In that period, the possessive singular ending –es and the non-possessive plural ending –as began to sound alike, and spread to words that used to form their possessives in other ways, and then to plurals, until we ended in the situation we’re in now, with -s making things plural, possessive, or both at once!
These days, in spoken English, we don’t seem to mind the fact that bakers could be a possessive singular, a non-possessive plural, or a possessive plural. In fact, if you’re listening to this podcast, you don’t even know how I spelled bakers in that last sentence, and I’ll bet it didn’t bother you at all! On the other hand, in written English, people expect apostrophes to make that distinction, so if you’re thinking about starting a business called Grammarians’ Playhouse, you’ll spend less time defending your choice if you use an apostrophe after that plural –s. Don’t turn to Twitter for serious advice on making the name—unless it’s just a sly publicity stunt, to get lots of people talking about your new business. On that point, Luisa Zissman is probably smarter than any of her online critics.
This podcast was written by Neal Whitman, who has a PhD in linguistics, blogs at LiteralMinded.wordpress.com, and is a regular contributor to the online resource Visual Thesaurus.