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Genitives & Attributive Modifiers

The average audience member may believe punctuation to be a minor part of a written work, but the copyeditor knows that a simple punctuation error can affect the author’s entire meaning. One of these finicky punctuation marks is the apostrophe. 

I was once asked whether it was correct to include the apostrophe in the following phrases: 

  • Writers Council
  • Visitors Center
  • Pastors Vision Trip
  • Sponsors Handbook

And if the apostrophe should be included, should it be placed at the end of each plural word, such as “Writers’ Council”? 

When looking at each of these phrases, it is important to ask whether you have a genitive of purpose or an attributive modifier. In its opening section on “Case,” The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language says that a pronoun’s case tells you its function in a noun phrase as it relates to the context it’s in. For example, when a pronoun is the subject of a clause, it is in the nominative case: I slept soundly. When the pronoun is the object of a clause, it is in the accusative case: Please help me. And when the pronoun is the subject-determiner of a noun phrase, it is in the genitive case: Where is my bag? English no longer shows the distinction between nouns in the nominative and accusative cases (The doctor slept soundly. Please help the doctor.). But it does show the distinction in the genitive: the doctor’s bag. Note that the genitive noun uses an apostrophe-s construction to show the relationship.

There are several genitive constructions; in the examples above, we’re interested in the genitive of purpose, such as children’s books. In simple terms, a noun that is in the genitive of purpose case (children) is used for the person or group modifying it (books for children). There’s a relationship present; it might be one of ownership, but it might be less formal than that, as in for pity’s sake.

An attributive noun is a noun functioning as something else. In this case, we’re looking at nouns functioning as adjectives—attributive modifiers, Cambridge Grammar calls them—such as government inquiry. The noun government is modifying inquiry. Note that the apostrophe-s construction is not used here to show the relationship.

Nouns used as attributive modifiers are usually used in the singular, but increasingly they are used in the plural, as when there is no singular form (blues music) or when the singular form would be confused with an adjective (a good delivery vs. a goods delivery). There’s one other case when a plural might be used: when the plural noun is a proper noun: a Cincinnati Reds infielder. The relationship between the attributive modifier and the noun is stretched a bit when the modifier is a proper noun.

Now let’s turn to the examples. Are writers, visitors, pastors, and sponsors genitives of purpose or attributive modifiers? We can determine whether Writers Council is an attributive modifier by using a singular noun in the adjective position: writer council. Most native English speakers would think that sounds odd; we tend not to make people into adjectives.

Are we dealing with a genitive of purpose, then? One test for that is to turn the phrase in question into a prepositional phrase using for, a relationship supported by the genitive case: council for writers. Yes, that sounds plausible. If the council were created for one writer (perhaps a group to counsel the writer through revisions), you might have a Writer’s Council. But since the council is most likely for several writers, you’d write Writers’ Council.

For tougher cases, there are two further tests. Try replacing the regular plural noun with an irregular plural noun. For example you wouldn’t write the women book club; you’d write the women’s book club.

Given all that, style guides treat genitives of purpose differently. The Chicago Manual of Style uses the apostrophe, except with proper nouns (CMOS 17th ed, 7.27), while the Associated Press Stylebook drops the apostrophe. Always check your style guide for what it advises.

A version of this article originally published in the December 2011–January 2012 issue of Copyediting newsletter.

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