Appositives and Possessives

By Jacquelyn Landis

Are you planning to go to a writers conference? Or is it a writers’ conference? Is the Saturday market in the town square a farmers market or a farmers’ market?

This is a construction that often perplexes writers. The first instance in each example is an appositive: a noun phrase consisting of a plural noun that modifies another noun that follows it. The form with the apostrophe is a possessive, a noun that “owns” the noun that follows it.

So if the conference is one that is organized for writers, it’s an appositive. But if it’s a conference organized by writers—one that belongs to them—it’s a possessive. Likewise, if it’s a market for farmers, the proper construction would be the appositive farmers; a market owned by the farmers would be the possessive farmers’.

The trouble with such noun phrases is that they frequently are ambiguous. Lacking insider knowledge, you’re often left to guess whether it’s an appositive or a possessive. Furthermore, there are plenty of commonly accepted constructions that defy appropriate construction.

Children’s Hospital is a case in point. Clearly, the children don’t own the hospital; it’s a hospital for children. But you’ll see the possessive apostrophe on just about every such hospital in the country. One in San Diego seems to be aware of the problem and has hedged its bet. Instead of an apostrophe in its logo, a blue kite with a tail occupies the apostrophe slot. You can choose to read it as an apostrophe or simply view it as a decoration.

An example of an entity that got it right is Publishers Weekly. This is a publication for the publishing industry, not owned by it.

The key is to do your best to determine possession (or not) and punctuate accordingly. So if it’s the boys football team, it’s an appositive. But if it’s the boys’ football uniforms, it’s a possessive.

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25 Responses to “Appositives and Possessives”

  • Brad K.

    Thank you. Farmers market punctuation has bothered me.

  • Karla

    Every place I’ve worked, we always get into the discussion as to whether it should be “user’s guide” or “users guide.” To avoid the issue completely, I’ve just been calling it a “User Guide.”

  • Rod

    Thanks it’s easier to understand and explain it like this, good post

  • Eric C

    Sticky issue. I only feel more confused.

  • Lydia, Clueless Crafter

    Thanks for the clarification. I like what the hospital did with the apostrophe. Here I was thinking that all the hospitals were owned by children!

  • Levi Montgomery

    So, do you want to toss in your two cents on “boys room/girls room” vs “boys’ room/girls’ room”? I’ve been seeking a definitive answer on that issue for years.

  • Brad K.

    I like the boys room. The room set aside for boys. The girls room is the room for girls. The boys and girls don’t decide who goes where; adults do. And usually adults clean the places, refresh the soap dispensers, set out the consumables.

    My soul is content. For now.

  • Althea Hayden

    Thank you for this clear and concise explanation!

  • Mulled Vine

    I have always wondered about his. Thanks!!!

  • thebluebird11

    Great post. I even printed it out and put it with my Style Manual.
    However, since there is no such construction as “childrens” (children is already plural), the “s” must be separated by an apostrophe, kites notwithstanding. Otherwise, it must be “Children Hospital.” Which sounds really, uh, stupid. Are there “Adult Hospitals” or “Teen Hospitals”? Perhaps the construction should be “Pediatric Hospital” and let’s stop fussing with the “s” at the end. Otherwise, we can reverse it and call it “Hospital for Children.”
    I also have always wondered about “Veterans Day” (since it’s my birthday) and “Veterans Administration (VA).” I was told in the past to leave off the apostrophe-S (possessive form). This jives with what you said, as the day and the organization are intended FOR veterans, not owned by them.

    But what about Valentine’s Day, for example? This day is not “owned” by the saint, it is a day commemorating the saint. Still, if we love someone, we call the person our valentine. So maybe it should be Valentines Day? Oy!

    I’m still uncomfortable leaving off the apostrophe at times, but at least now I have someone to blame it on when I do!
    ( yes, mother, “someone on whom to blame it”).

  • Levi Montgomery

    Re “girls room”: I like this also, as it looks a little less pedantic, but I find I can’t really force myself to use it in print, much as I’d love to.

    Re “Valentine’s day”: I believe that the apostrophe is needed here, just as one would not say “It is Rebeccas birthday today.” (In fact, Firefox is rather haughtily informing me that “Rebeccas” is not a word. Beg to differ, Firefox: Both Rebeccas are attending the party.)

  • Andy Knoedler

    OK. “Children hospital” sounds weird, but what about “pet hospital”?

    I’m annoyed every time I go into Marks & Spencer and see signs for “Womens Clothes” and “Childrens Clothes”. Maybe I won’t be quite so annoyed after reading your explanation!

  • Sarah Turner

    Not sure about this. Surely it has to be Children’s Hospital as there’s no such word as Childrens. Or for that matter Womens or Mens. They should all have apostrophes.

  • Precise Edit

    Interesting. I’ve always thought of an appositive as a word or phrase that 1) renames something and 2) can serve the same grammatical function as the word or phrase it renames.

    For example: “The committee chairwoman, a harsh and stubborn woman, scorned the director’s request.”

    First test: In this sample, the phrase “a harsh and stubborn woman” renames “The committee chairwoman.” This satisfies the first test.

    Second test: “The committee chairwoman” is the subject of the sentence. However, if we leave it, then “a harsh and stubborn woman” will serve as the subject (minus the comma that follows). In this way, “a harsh and stubborn woman” can serve the same grammatical function as “the committee chairwoman.” This satisfies the second test.

    Based on these two tests, the phrase “a harsh and stubborn woman” is an appositive.

    Here is another sentence with an appositive. “My brother, a violin player, is coming home.” The appositive is “a violin player.” It renames “my brother” and can serve the same grammatical function.

    And one more sentence with an appositive. “A streak in the sky, the eagle raced overhead.” The appositive is “a streak in the sky.” It renames “eagle” and can serve the same grammatical function.

    When appositives are non-restrictive, as in the examples above, they are set off with commas. When they are restrictive, as in the following sentence, they are not: “The belief that he was alone led him to depression.” Here, the restrictive appositive is “that he was alone.”

    Your definition for the appositive is new to me. Perhaps you can explain a bit more. I always appreciate the opportunity to learn more about grammar and punctuation. Thanks!

  • Nick Daws

    Although in general I like this article, I have to say that it is nonsense to imply that children’s hospital is incorrect. Children’s hospital is simply a contracted version of ‘hospital of the children’. In the same way we would write women’s hospital, even though the hospital is unlikely to be owned exclusively by women. The grammatical term ‘possessive’ does not always equate to actual ownership.

  • Jacquelyn Landis

    @ Levi: I would opt for “boys room” and “girls room” (no appositive). There’s no possession implied; “boys” and “girls” are simply descriptors of “room.”

    @ 10.thebluebird11: Valentine’s Day does need an apotrophe. It’s not a plural noun, for one thing. The thought behind this type of construction probably began as “a day to honor St. Valentine.” Over time, it became naturally truncated to Valentine’s Day.

    @ 14.Precise Edit: The standard definition of an appositive is two nouns side by side, where one defines or modifies the other. The examples you provided don’t fall under that definition. Side by side is the key!

  • thebluebird11

    @Jacquelyn: I wasn’t saying we should necessarily do away with the apostrophe in Valentine’s Day, because in general it is interpreted to mean what you said. However, commercially speaking, you can ask someone to “be” your valentine. As such, it seems to me that this is used as a generic noun, and can therefore be pluralized (ie, valentines). So Feb. 14 can now be construed as a day to honor not specifically St Valentine, but all one’s “valentines.” This would not require a capital letter and would also not require an apostrophe. I’m not saying I vote for this construction; I’m just proposing that it could exist. And as an aside, as a Jewish kid, I was not allowed to celebrate a “Saint’s” holiday (St Valentine, St Patrick, whatever else). But if it is just a holiday to send candy and flowers to people you love, well…who can object to that?!

  • Clare Lynch

    Amusingly, for a long time the British satirical magazine Private Eye had a section of its letters page called “Pedants Corner”, which featured nit-picking letters from readers about its articles.

    Inevitably, readers began engaging in a long, pedantic debate about whether the column itself should be called “Pedants Corner” or “Pedants’ Corner”.

    The issue has since been resolved – it’s now called “Pedantry Corner”.

  • thebluebird11

    @Clare. That IS funny! And perfectly resolved.

  • Precise Edit

    Perhaps we can get Maeve to weigh in on a definition of “appositive.”

    Two nouns side by side, where one modifies the other, seems an incomplete definition. For example: “I have a television screen.” This has two nouns side by side (i.e., television screen), and “television” describes “screen.” Would this, then, be an appositive?

    Let’s look at two examples of appositives taken from the Online Writing Lab at Perdue (http://owl.english.purdue.edu/owl/resource/596/1)

    1. “My brother’s car, a sporty red convertible with bucket seats, is the envy of my friends.”

    The appositive is “a sporty red convertible with bucket seats.” This is an appositive for “car.” Let’s see what this appositive is doing.
    First, it is defining and/or modifying “car.” It is renaming “car” inasmuch as it means the same thing. Car = a sporty red convertible with bucket seats.

    Second, it can serve the same grammatical function. In this sentence, “My brother’s car” is the subject. However, if we remove the subject (and fix the punctuation), “A sporty red convertible with bucket seats” becomes the subject. [This one is non-restrictive. My brother has only one car. As such, the appositive is set off with commas.]

    2. Your friend Bill is in trouble.

    “Bill” is an appositive for “friend.” “Bill” is renaming “friend” inasmuch as it means the same thing. Friend = Bill. Second, the appositive can serve the same grammatical function. The sentence “Your friend is in trouble” has the same grammatical structure as “Bill is in trouble.” [This one is restrictive, assuming you have more than one friend. As such, the appositive is not set off with commas.]

    Perhaps the confusion comes from the part of your definition for appositive: “defines or modifies.” “Modify” does not mean as “define.” The Center for Writing Studies at the University of Illinois (http://www.cws.illinois.edu/workshop/writers/appositives/) provides a decent definition: Appositives are two words or word groups which MEAN THE SAME THING and are placed together. Appositives identify or explain the nouns or pronouns which they modify.

    Here is one of their examples: “Our teacher, Professor Lamanna, loves grammar.” The appositive they identify is “Professor Lamanna.” This appositive renames “our teacher” and can serve as the same grammatical function if “our teacher” (and the pair of commas) is removed.

    What does this mean? To determine whether or not a word or words are appositives, we need to look at what they are doing and how they are used.

    Now let’s look at “writers conference,” which you say is an appositive in “Are you planning to go to a writers conference?” Because you compare “writers” to “writers’,” I’m assuming you mean “writers” is the appositive. Here, the noun “writers” is side by side with “conference,” and it describes or modifies “conference.” Let’s see if “writers” works the same way as the appositives above.

    First, does “writers” rename, restate, or define “conference”? Does “writers” = “conference.” No. It does modify or describe it. In this way, it is serving as an adjective.

    Second, can “writers” and “conference” serve the same function in the sentence? Can we say “go to a writers” and “go to a conference”? Again, no.

    (If you meant “conference” to be the appositive, we can apply the same evaluation–with the same result.)

    But, as I mentioned above, I hope Maeve will toss in her two cents.

  • Precise Edit

    Now, if only I could learn to spell “Purdue.” Maybe someone will do me a BIG favor and fix that? /blush

  • thebluebird11

    @Precise Edit: I don’t see where you misspelled it (and we can certainly forgive you a typo), but depending on context, I can think of at least 2 different spellings. Purdue (as in the university) and Perdue (as in the chicken). I have a friend whose last name is Perdue (no relation to Frank). I have to make sure I don’t spell it the “other way”!
    Don’t sweat the petty things and don’t pet the sweaty things…or something like that LOL

  • Maeve Maddox

    PrecisEdit,
    You asked for my two cents. I’ve always taught that a noun “in apposition” follows the noun with which it is in apposition:

    Alfred, King of England, resisted the Danes.

    “King of England” is in apposition to “Alfred.”

  • Bartleby

    Precise Edit is completely correct about appositives. In the sentence “I am going to a writers conference,” there is no appositive. The word “writers” is a noun functioning adjectivally; it is an attributive use of a noun, not an appositive. Nouns frequently are used attributively: student loan, brick wall, bottle opener, crowd control, dog catcher. These noun phrases with one noun modifying another do not involve appositives. In fact, an appositive is a noun or noun phrase (or nominal phrase or clause) functioning nominally, not adjectivally. Ms. Landis’s article is completely mistaken about appositives, rather shockingly so.

  • jill

    I am still confused – should a sentence read:

    If you enjoy decorating childrens’ rooms you will like xyz

    or

    If you enjoy decorating children’s rooms you will like xyz

    Where should the apostrophe be in childrens? Help please.

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