Driver License vs. Driver’s License

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A reader questions the use of the possessive in such constructions as “doctor’s appointment” and “driver’s license”:

If I take out my state-granted proof of authority to drive an automobile in Oklahoma, the title on that wallet-sized document is “Driver License,” not “Driver’s License.” I hear a lot of people say that they have a “doctor’s appointment,” when, in fact, they have a “doctor appointment.” It seems to me that the possessive is inappropriate to things such as a “Driver License” or a “doctor appointment,” unless, in the latter case, it is the doctor himself talking about his appointment. What do you think?

I think that where the use of the English possessive is concerned, trying to make immutable rules about it is like trying to herd cats.

The card that permits me to drive in the state of Arkansas until 2017 says “Driver’s License,” but I saw the photo of an Arkansas license posted at the English Stack Exchange that shows “Drivers License.”

Perhaps it was printed before 2007 when apostrophes came to the attention of the Arkansas General Assembly. The body passed a resolution to the effect that the possessive of Arkansas must be written Arkansas’s and not, as the AP Stylebook would have it, Arkansas’. Maybe that’s when someone decided that while they were codifying apostrophes, “Drivers License” should be “Driver’s License.”

Since my opinion is being sought, I’ll say that I think it would make more sense to call it a “driving license” to match “hunting license” and “fishing license.” As that’s not going to happen in the United States, I’ll vote for “driver’s license.” According to the Ngram Viewer, I’m with the majority: “driver’s license” and “doctor’s appointment” outstrip “driver license” and “doctor appointment” by a mile.

Rules are useful, but usage rules.

What’s on your driver’s license?

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39 thoughts on “Driver License vs. Driver’s License”

  1. Before I jump to my conclusion, I will put forth my argument against ‘usage’ trumping the ‘rule’ argument of this article. What is a driving license or a driver’s license? It is a permit document issued by state authority that allows the user “to drive”. Only after it is issued that it becomes a ‘license of a driver’, therefore a ‘driver’s license’. But, to become a ‘driver’s license’ concerned state authority must first issue it and grant this permit ‘to drive’ to the user. Therefore, by the authority vested in the state it may chose to name this document either a ‘driving license’ or a ‘driver’s license’. My view, therefore, is that either use is correct.

  2. Hello Meave,

    My (Dutch) driver’s license says it’s in fact a ‘driving licence’ (and a rijbewijs, of course).


  3. You’re in Arkansas?! Wish I’d known that when I lived there…but I don’t think I discovered your site until I moved away (thankfully I *did* discover it). Well I knew there was a reason I liked you! 🙂

  4. I should have mentioned that British English distinguishes between “licence” (noun) and “license” (verb), whereas American English uses “license” as both noun and verb.

  5. Indiana Operator License, no s, no apostrophe. Couldn’t driver’s license be correct if the license belongs to the driver?

  6. Wow. Another one that makes we wonder why I never wondered about this before.

    I currently have a “New Jersey Auto Driver License” which I never read closely enough to notice.

    “Driver license” and “Doctor appointment” both sound wrong, and they don’t seem to make any great deal more sense than the alternatives.

    With the possessive, I read it as “That which must be possessed in order for it to be so.” To be a pilot, you need a pilot’s license. To see a doctor, he must a agree to see you, so you need a doctor’s appointment.

    I’m not sure that I would notice when reading if there was no apostrophe, as I would notice if there was no S at all, but if I were writing, I would use the apostrophe.

  7. >>I should have mentioned that British English distinguishes between “licence” (noun) and “license” (verb), whereas American English uses “license” as both noun and verb.<<

    There is my "learn something new" for today!

  8. I live in Florida, and it’s listed on ours as a “Driver License.” In my case, I have a Class listing after mine on the title because I have a commercial license.

  9. In Texas I have a “Driver License” — but personally, I think I’d prefer a “License to Drive” if we’re choosing! It’s really more of an ID, based on how it gets used…at least mine is.

  10. Canada is in keeping with the majority vote, though you will notice our preferred spelling of licence. “Driver’s licence” appears to be the wording on the licences of 7 of our 10 provinces and at least 1 of our 3 territories. Two more of these, Yukon Territory and the Province of Alberta, use the same format but a different possessive adjective – “operator’s” instead of “driver’s”. The 2 exceptions are:

    PEI: driver licence
    Quebec: permis de conduire – This agrees with your vote, Maeve, for driving licence, as the literal translation is “licence to drive”.

    I could not quickly find a result for Nunavut.

    “Driver’s licence” makes sense to me – the licence of a driver; however, I agree that “driving licence” makes even better sense, though it sounds awkward to the unaccustomed ear.

  11. My current Saudi Arabian license says, just as the 4 or 5 previous ones I’ve had, Ruksa in Arabic script and Driving License in English — awhich is thus a hybrid translation, with one word styled in BE and the other in AmE.

  12. “Doctor’s appointment” has always given me cause for concern. It’s not the doctor’s appointment; it’s my appointment with my doctor, or “doctor appointment.” However, the driver’s license is mine and I am the driver.

  13. You are right that Driving License would make more sense, for consistency if nothing else. I avoid apostrophes whenever possible, myself. Hate the things. I was ready to write a strong letter of protest when they named it the Department of Veteran’s Affairs instead of the Department of Veteran Affairs. Then something genuinely important came up and I had to abandon all principle.

  14. My NSW, Australia, licence these days is a Driver Licence. But when they were paper-based and, indeed, in the early days if the cards-with-photos, they were “Driver’s Licence”. Of course, we Aussies follow the British usage of licence/license that Maeve mentioned earlier. So I’m a licensed driver with a Driver Licence.

  15. Amanda and Greg, you need time on the Doctor’s schedule when the doctor’s available to see you. In the words if the great philosopher Jeff Spicoli: ‘If you’re here AND I’m here, doesn’t that make it OUR time?’

  16. My Ontario card says Driver’s Licence in English and Permis de Conduire in French (which translates to Permit to Drive).

  17. Of course the French have to be different. Licence means license in French. We have the word permit in English, too. But we don’t call a driver’s license a permit. And, lo and behold, the word driver means driver in French, too. So, in French Licence Driver, or Licence de Driver works just fine. As if any French Canadian wouldn’t know what Driver’s Licence means, anyway. Les primodonnas.

  18. I think that whoever brought up the complaint about driver’s license is quite a dimwit because that person has clearly never heard of these:
    pilot’s license
    architect’s license
    aeronaut’s license
    balloonist’s license
    dentist’s license
    engineer’s license
    electrician’s license
    mortician’s license
    nurse’s license
    optometrist’s license
    plumber’s license
    registered psychologist’s license
    radio broadcaster’s license
    surveyor’s license
    teacher’s license
    technologist’s license
    undertaker’s license
    veterinarian’s license
    X-ray technician’s license

  19. I also want to gripe about those who complain about such phrases as {driver’s license, pilot’s license, engineer’s license, plumber’s license, surveyor’s license, and teacher’s license}. It seems that such people do not know anything about IDIOMATIC English and how things are done just because they have been done that way for centuries. They want to be literal-minded to the Nth degree and make no allowances for idioms.

    I have deep roots in government licenses because:
    1. Both of my parents were licensed teachers.
    2. My uncle was a licensed electrical engineer.
    3. My grandmother’s second husband (not my grandfather) was a licensed electrician whose son was a licensed electrical engineer.
    4. My sister is a licensed physician and surgeon.
    5. Two of my cousins are licensed nurses.
    6. I could be a licensed engineer, but I have just never bothered to do so because it never has been necessary where I worked.
    7. Another cousin of mine is a licensed schoolteacher.
    8. Another cousin of mine is a certified public accountant, which is another form of licensing.
    9. Another uncle of mine was a licensed master plumber.
    10. All of us have had driver’s licenses.

    A word about my paternal grandmother. My grandfather was 12 years older than she was, and several years after he died, she decided to get married again – to the retired electrician.
    He was always a dear and respected friend of mine, but he never was “grandpa” because I had great memories of my real grandfather.

  20. I am not a native English speaker, but driver license makes for me a difference. My opinion is that the driver modifies the license as an adjective specifying a sort of license a given one refers to, as it is in hunting license as well. So using an apostrophe, expressing possession, might blur the meaning.

  21. I have a vision impairment which effects my depth perception, and my narrator speaks UK English. My ancestors were French, and my French grandmother lived with my family from the time I was twelve years old, until I left home at nineteen years old.

    She taught me French, much of which I have forgotten. The French don’t have to be different. They are different. I dream of the day that I can live in France.

    Now to the question. Since I receive a plastic card from the state granting me permission to drive a vehicle; technically I possess permission to drive, and I therefore carry a Licence to drive.

    Calling this piece of plastic a driving Licence is as inappropriate as calling the permit to hunt (a hunting Licence) in effect, it sounds as though, the Licence is doing the hunting, doing the driving, or reading the story.
    But seeing as how, a large percentage of American English is slang or borrowed and mispronounced French. The permit and the driver does therefore possess the card; it literally becomes the Driver’s licence.

  22. My biggest beef about usage regarding a license to drive revolves around the Southern American usage of “license” as a plural noun:

    “You got your license? Show them to me!”

    “They’re checking ids at the club? I didn’t bring them with me.”

  23. Hi,

    In a way, we’re missing the boat by discussing the usage aspect of this question. Regardless that I feel driver’s license is correct, most states and provinces have moved to the term driver license, clumsy as it is, for legal reasons.

    The apostrophe in driver’s license implies that the physical document is the property of the driver (separate from the actual authority to drive). Most DMV’s wish to assert that the document belongs to them, so they can recall it at any time.

    The apostrophe hinders them in their legal proceedings with people who don’t wish to give up their licenses, because, as I said, it implies that the driver, not the DMV, owns the license.

    So, clumsy or not, they’ve simply decided to spell it the way that suits their interests.

  24. Oregon: Driver License
    I was recently informed at my local DMV that the possessive (‘s) is not appropriate for a driver license because the card does not technically belong to the driver. The state requires the driver to carry it but it can be taken away for infractions (and it is the state’s property to take). Perhaps ‘Driving License’ is a more appropriate title- it would reduce the confusion over the possessive-or-not issue.

  25. I have no problem with driver’s license. If Sue is driving a car, it’s Susan’s car – the car of Susan. If while she is driving she has a license in her purse, it’s the driver’s license – the license of the driver. If she’s technically renting or just using the car, I can still ascribe it to her with a possessive form. I agree that driving license – parallel with hunting or fishing – is even better (a license to do the verb: drive, hunt or fish). Best yet would be a fisherman’s license or hunter’s license (licenses of the actors in each case), but that’s really getting awkward.

  26. “Driver’s license means “license of a driver,” which is the correct use of the possessive tense, that is, two nouns separated by the preposition “of” and the indefinite article “a.” This is the acceptable and accepted grammar in the English language and that is not open to debate.

    By the above reasoning, “doctor’s appointment” would mean the appointment of a doctor. So when one has an appointment with a doctor the correct grammar would be “doctor appointment” and not “doctor’s appointment.”

  27. Chuck,
    I’m always amazed at the number of comments one of these posts receives. I can tell that you feel strongly about this. It’s good to be certain when we can be.

    As for me, I stand by my comment in the post: “where the use of the English possessive is concerned, trying to make immutable rules about it is like trying to herd cats.”

    Punctuation rules tend to be arbitrary at best. The apostrophe crept into the possessive to fill a void left by a possessive suffix. I wouldn’t be surprised if it eventually disappeared in the possessive.

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