Writing tip: Association apostrophes are optional with plurals

Association apostrophes are optional


Sometimes an apostrophe shows association rather than possession: a week's pay, Christchurch Girls' High School.

Strange to say, in such cases, you always need an apostrophe when the associated word is singular (a summer's day), but an apostrophe is optional when the associated word is plural (Christchurch Girls' High School).

This is a grammatical oddity that is the cause of many an argument, so let's look a bit closer.

  • A summer's day (The summer doesn't own the day. But the day is a summer sort of a day.)
  • Last week's pay (The pay does not belong to last week: it belongs to the person who got paid. But it's associated with last week.)

These examples are to do with time, and they're singular: just one summer, just one week. In such cases you must always use an apostrophe.

It's my belief that in such cases, the apostrophe is there just to prevent confusion—because summers looks like a plural. A summers looks weird, so we always write a summer's day and a week's pay.

When it comes to plural examples of association, the apostrophe is optional.

'Yeeeeeeooooooooouuuuu traitor!' A blood-curdling roar emanates from our friends in the Apostrophe Protection Society. Some people believe you must always, always, always put an apostrophe in such phrases as visitors' book and girls' high school.

But the book does not belong to the visitors. The high school does not belong to the girls, as they quickly discover.

  • A visitors book is a book associated with visitors.
  • A girls high school is a school for girls, or associated with girls.

So how do you decide whether to use an apostrophe? In order of priority, choose like this:
1. Follow the rule set by the organization, for example, check the official stationery or web site of that particular girls school.
2. In other cases, follow your own style guide.

In the names of high schools, you'll find variation. This does not mean some schools are making a grammar mistake. It just means they have made a legitimate choice, or are stuck with a choice made long ago. The following names, all found on a school's official web site, are all grammatically correct.

  • Wellington Girls' College
  • Tauranga Girls' College
  • Christchurch Boys' High School
  • All Saints Catholic Girls College
  • Westlake Boys High School
  • Sydney Boys High School
  • Epping Boys High School

Rachel McAlpine
Rachel McAlpine

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8 Comments

Howard Silcock
Howard Silcock

December 10, 2011

Thanks for your explanation, Rachel. An interesting use of the word ‘belief’ – a possible explanation that I have no evidence for and no intention of looking for any!

Martha Roden
Martha Roden

September 16, 2011

Thank you for the explanation.

As a technical writer, I am always wondering whether I need an apostrophe when I refer to a “Users Guide.” Now I know I don’t!

Lloyd Pearson
Lloyd Pearson

September 19, 2011

The old guide was to reverse the words and insert an “of” such that a week’s pay becomes a pay of a week, and a summer’s day becomes a day of summer. Ownership isn’t relevant in the sense of the employer owning the pay until ownership is tranferred to the employee.
In the old style, Christchurch Boys High School could have been interpreted as the High School of Christchurch Boys, so of course should be written Christchurch Boys’ High School. But if the name had been High School for Christchurch Boys, would it have been reversed?
How about Kings High School? High School of Kings? High School for Kings? High School owned by Mr King? High School owned by the King? High School owned by Mr & Mrs King?
But with changing language usage, how about Queens High School?
Gay times ahead….

Rachel McAlpine
Rachel McAlpine

September 19, 2011

Thanks Lloyd for this historic grammatical joyride. You’ve just shown how futile it is to attempt a rational explanation of such thorny grammatical questions. It’s amusing to push the rules a bit further, as you have done: they cannot hold together under scrutiny. I love teaching students who ask ‘But why? Yes but why?’ But we sometimes have to admit, ‘Just because!’

Howard Silcock
Howard Silcock

September 15, 2011

You say: ’It’s my belief that in such cases, the apostrophe is there just to prevent confusion—because summers looks like a plural.’ But you offer no evidence whatever for this strange belief. Are you suggesting that the phrase ‘a summer’s day’ was originally written ‘a summers day’ in normal usage? If so, how would you account for the -s ending? It’s not a plural, not a genitive ending because that does use the apostrophe.

Rachel McAlpine
Rachel McAlpine

September 16, 2011

Howard, that’s exactly why I used the words ’it’s my belief…’ This is purely a hunch. I have no evidence, as I tried to make clear. When I start worrying away about insoluble questions, such as when, how and why such a grammatical oddity emerged, an intuitive explanation helps me to settle down and enjoy my day.

Rachel McAlpine
Rachel McAlpine

September 16, 2011

Lorraine, that’s a good way to look at it. Thanks.

lorraine
lorraine

September 15, 2011

Another way of looking at it:
“Visitors” (in visitors book) is a noun masquerading as an adjective, so it wouldn’t need an apostrophe.

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