Friday, June 5, 2009

Possessive or Descriptor? (Or: 'Why Newspaper Columnists Should Stop Being Such Babies About Checking Their E-mail')

I got an e-mail yesterday from a former student of my Mediabistro class who wanted to know whether the school where she works should put an apostrophe in the name of its new building, which here we’ll call Explorers Hall. (Not its real name.)

Her bosses want it written thusly, with no apostrophe. She thought it needed one: Explorers’ Hall.

Because such apostrophes seem to be getting less popular every day, I thought I’d share my reply here.

* * * * * * * *

In the traditional view, things like Explorers' Hall are perceived to be possessive, which would mean they need the apostrophe.

It's Explorers' Hall if it's a plural possessive, Explorer's Hall if it refers to a single explorer (even a sort of abstract idea of "the explorer" as opposed to someone specific).

HOWEVER, more and more, publications are taking the interpretation that this Explorers is not a possessive but an adjective.

For example, the Los Angeles Times Style Guide tells users:

<<5. Special cases:
B. In some cases, the apostrophe is dropped when a word is primarily descriptive rather than possessive: citizens band radio, a teachers college, the homeowners association.
C. In the case of proper names, follow the usage of the entity involved: Department of Veterans Affairs, National Governors' Conference, Childrens Hospital (in Los Angeles), Children's Hospital (in Orange).
D. Note: Mother's Day, Father's Day, Veterans Day.>>

In other words, nobody knows.

Second HOWEVER: The people who pay attention to punctuation tend to think "teachers college," "workers compensation," "homeowners insurance," etc. are errors. Some don't know about the flexibility of the rules. Others simply disagree.

That's why, if it were my call, I would want to avoid the eye rolls and disparaging thoughts by including an apostrophe:

Explorers' Hall

If you don't, some people will think it was out of ignorance and not by choice.

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LL Blackwell said...

Dude! We were talking about this just a few days ago, when trying to write a memo about honors classes. I *really* want an apostrophe there, but no one else seems to, so I will go with the style of my school. It's a weird and tricky thing, but I do think that explaining by saying its a descriptor makes it pretty clear and so I can be fairly happy, in my case.

For the hall, however, I think apostrophes on buildings look a little weird. But that's just me.

June Casagrande said...

Yes! They are weird on buildings which is why, I suspect, they're falling out of favor.

I still prefer the apostrophe but I bet that within a year's time I'll change my mind.

Or is that a years time?

(Glad the post was timely for you!)

Linnee said...

I still want to add an apostrophe to "California Teachers Association" every time I see it.


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