On Dropping Apostrophes.

Geoff Pullum has a typically witty and provocative post about the CIA report-writing style guide, Style Manual and Writers Guide for Intelligence Publications. There’s other stuff of interest (for instance, the CIA uses the Oxford comma), but what I want to highlight here is this passage:

Before I go on, though, I wonder if you have noticed three remarkable things already. First, the book’s title: No apostrophe on Writers! Did you spot that? Second, no apostrophe on Watchers in “Word Watchers List,” either. And third (I was toying with you) I deliberately followed suit two paragraphs back when I wrote “rogues gallery” (if the CIA can risk flouting international apostrophe conventions, so can I).

You may recall that in “Being an Apostrophe,” I reported that “I always use the apostrophe in the standard way, even when texting; I’m a conservative.” Not one of those long-haired pinko radical grammarians, the Happiness Boys. But I also said that “I wouldn’t shed a tear for it,” because “the level of harmful confusion attendant on dropping all apostrophes from written English would be zero.” Our intelligence agencies seem to take a similar view, and don’t bother to include apostrophes on modifier nouns. That way they don’t have to decide whether it should have been Writer’s Guide or Writers’ Guide. They just finesse the question. Very sensible.

I don’t think that had ever occurred to me, but sure enough, it is sensible. I’m normally a stylistic conservative myself, but like Pullum, I wouldn’t shed a tear if those apostrophes disappeared from the written language.


  1. Dropping apostrophes from modifier nouns would be as disastrous for the English language as dropping the hyphen from “to-day” and “to-morrow.”

    Pullum says “seem to,” but the copy of the book I found online does in fact explicitly take this position on apostrophes. Section 5.2a6: “Do not use an apostrophe after names of states or countries and other organized bodies ending in s, or after words more descriptive than possessive, except when the plural does not end in s.” Examples: “officers club,” “teachers college,” and, yes, “writers guide.” (But: “master’s degree.”)

    I have to admit, I find this a bit unusual (although I can see the benefit in terms of time saved worrying about “officer’s club” vs “officers’ club”)—is it a CIA innovation, or was it taken from another style guide?

  2. You still have to worry about which modifier nouns are plural and which singular, and whether you’re being consistent about it. Is it a voters guide or a voter guide?

  3. Writers Guide, Watchers List, Readers Digest.

    Yes, they do all these things, so why use apostrophe?

  4. Eli Nelson says

    I dunno. I agree that dropping the apostrophe entirely from the English writing system would be A-OK. But I’m not very happy with dropping it only in expressions like “Writers Guide”, because to me this is just introducing another inconsistency into the modern system, like but not as bad as the use of possessive “its” alongside “Sally’s” and “one’s”. As long as we still have to write “women’s magazine”, “children’s clothes”, and “child’s play”, I’d rather continue to use “Writer’s Guide” and “officers’ club”.

    (I’m also low-key irritated with the similar policy of the U.S. Board on Geographic Names of stripping apostrophes from almost all of their official names. They don’t even apply it completely consistently within this domain.)

    Furthermore, in a number of cases, it seems (to an uncharitable observer like me) to be based on the misguided notion that the -’(s) genitive construction must indicate ownership (similar to the superstition that disease names like “Alzheimer’s disease” are wrong because the disease doesn’t belong to Alzheimer).

  5. There’s a norm in the US (codified by some federal authority, I think) to omit apostrophes in possessive-derived place names, like Harpers Ferry – or Kings or Queens County. On the other hand there’s Prince George’s County, Maryland, so maybe it isn’t consistently applied to counties.

    And I think I’ve mentioned this before, but Faulkner’s style was to write dont, wont, cant, aint without apostrophes, while retaining them elsewhere.

  6. Eli Nelson says

    @Lazar: Yes, the U.S. Board on Geographic Names. I linked to its site in a previous comment, but it’s stuck in moderation.

  7. Dropping apostrophes from NPs such as “writers’ guide” is very different from “dropping all apostrophes from written English”. The latter would make the plural possessive indistinguishable from the plural, and, with nouns with regular -s plurals, indistinguishable from the singular possessive. To claim that the level of harmful confusion would be zero is to make a glib generalisation. The reality is that there is already harmful confusion in written English, some of it due to the inadequacy of the medium, some of it due to mistakes, and it would only add to that confusion if certain words which are at present distinguishable were to be made identical. Note that if a written sentence confuses a reader because the writer omitted an apostrophe, the reader might have got confused because of another mistake in the sentence; perhaps the reader can tell that something is wrong but the bad writing style means that the reader isn’t sure which words are correct and which might be wrong. Don’t judge a potential change in the language based on how easy it would be to understand text where that change is made but the text is otherwise correct and perfectly easy to understand.

  8. The Board of Geographic Names is responsible only for names of natural features. Administrative bodies’ names are controlled by state governments; the names of Indian reservations generally appear in Acts of Congress, and so on.

    The BGN does indeed have a policy against apostrophes, but they give no reason for it except that it’s always been done that way. The exceptions are:

    Systematically, names containing abbreviated words, like Lake O’ the Woods (in North Carolina, not to be confused with the much larger and better-known Lake of the Woods in Minnesota, Ontario, and Manitoba).

    Systematicallly, names containing personal names written with apostrophes, like O’Malley Hollow (location unknown, possibly fictitious).

    Exceptionally, the five names Martha’s Vineyard MA (because of a local campaign for it), Ike’s Point NJ (because Ikes Point would be illegible), Joe E’s Pond RI (without an apostrophe it could be misread as “Joe S Pond”), Carlos Elmer’s Joshua View AZ (“Joshua” in this case refers to Joshua trees, and omitting the apostrophe would leave the boundary of Carlos Elmer’s name vague), and Clark’s Mountain OR (because it was the usage of Meriweather Lewis, who named it).

    The BGN’s principles, policies, and procedures” document, with 56 pages of detail, not including the five exceptions. An interesting point is that they accept diacritics in the case of names drawn from non-English languages, particularly when omitting the diacritic would have different semantics in the source language (as opposed to being a meaningless word). They also do not assign new names to features in wilderness areas, on the grounds that “a fundamental characteristic of elemental wilderness is that features are nameless and the cultural overlay of civilization is absent. No wilderness is today totally free of placenames and cultural artifacts, but a goal of Federal wilderness area administration is to minimize the impacts and traces of people.”

    I am rather tickled by the name “East Fork North Fork North Fork American River” for a sub-sub-subbranch of the American River in California.

  9. Might be clearer as American River’s North Fork’s North Fork’s East Fork?

  10. J.W. Brewer says

    If the U.S. federal government wants to ensure a standard house style in its multifarious publications and wants to delegate the toponym part of that style guide to the BGN, so be it, but there is no particular reason for private citizens (or state and local govt’s etc.) to feel obligated to follow that style.

    There is much peeving (and associated social-class disdain) directed excessive non-standard use of apostrophes by the Lower Orders, e.g. the so-called https://en.wiktionary.org/wiki/greengrocer's_apostrophe. I guess if there’s *not* an equal level of peeving and disdain aimed at omission of apostrophes where they might have been considered standard or at least more-probable-than-not in a conservative style, that’s kind of interesting and ought to be explained by theorists of the sociology of peeving. Why the lack of symmetry, if that is indeed the case?

  11. Jeffry House says

    If they don’t follow the arcane rules regarding apostrophes, how will they be able to identify Russian espionage assets inside the CIA or National Security Agency?

    It used to be that the rare reference to “Goobert Gumphrey” might tip us all off to Russians inside the Intelligence Bureaux, but what with increasing Russian sophistication, what do we have except apostrophes?

  12. “East Fork North Fork North Fork American River” reminds me of Andorra’s equally logically named Riu de la Vall del Riu.

  13. Jim (another one) says

    “The reality is that there is already harmful confusion in written English, some of it due to the inadequacy of the medium, some of it due to mistakes, and it would only add to that confusion if certain words which are at present distinguishable were to be made identical. ”

    Yet somehow none of this confusion is problematic in spoken English.

  14. J.W. Brewer says

    Jim(another one): the idea is that ambiguity-avoiding distinctions that are made in speech via pitch changes or stress patterns or the placement of pauses etc do not come through in writing, but that artificial/conventional distinctions in spelling/punctuation can provide similarly helpful disambiguation by other means. That’s the “inadequacy of the [written] medium,” and the proposed way to mitigate it.

  15. theorists of the sociology of peeving

    I hope for the sake of the hopefully non-existing pliers of that trade that this field of study is unexplored, since it seems to me to possibly be the most depressing discipline of all.

    Imagine spending years nestling apart the layers of vanity, entitlement, contempt, willful ignorance, illusions of racial and social superiority, and sheer inability to comprehend simple facts, and finding that at the core of the prescriptivist position there is simply — nothing.

  16. Lars: at one of the Universities I worked at I spoke with some researchers in sociology, and your description above seems to match how they described their field: The study of how we humans, fundamentally, manage to convince ourselves of our innate superiority over other humans. The core of this belief is as solid as the core of the prescriptivist position…and yes, sociologists are not, as a rule, the sort of people who get invited to parties (if my observations are any guide).

  17. I don’t know if Canada has a similar policy to the US, but I noticed that Crow’s Nest Pass (Passe du Nid-de-Corbeau) appears as Crowsnest Pass on highway signs.

  18. David Marjanović says

    Riu de la Vall del Riu

    Belle-Île-en-Mer. Usually called Belle Île, but sometimes explicitly distinguished from the landlocked Belle-Isle-en-Terre… which is named after the island.

  19. I don’t know what the Canadian rules are, but I do know that the countries coordinate wherever possible on the English names of shared geographical features.

  20. There’s a whole class of cases where dropping the apostrophe forces a spelling that actively misrepresents the pronunciation. When the possessing noun ends in a sibilant, you get official spellings like Fishs Eddy NY. It’s pronounced with two syllables, but spelled as if it only had one.

  21. Riu de la Vall del Riu

    University of Maryland University College

  22. When the possessing noun ends in a sibilant, you get official spellings like Fishs Eddy NY. It’s pronounced with two syllables, but spelled as if it only had one.

    I’m pretty sure most native speakers of English at least would naturally pronounce this as if it were “Fish’s” rather than trying to force out a coda that (I think) isn’t even permitted by English phonotactics, tho. Maybe there is a better example? “Mike’s Bar” minus the apostrophe could induce an error in Hungarophiles, perhaps. (Issue moot if bar belongs to Michael “Mike” Mikes.)

  23. This may have stemmed from technical-technological reasons. Note how e.g. when you copy-paste text with a trailing apostrophe into an Excel cell, it vanishes.

  24. I may be wrong, but isn’t this whole discussion, not to mention the need for apostrophes itself, the result of speaking a language that, in its modern version, does not inflect nouns, and can use nouns as adjectives without adding any modifying ending to them? In other words, the whole thing seems to be the doing of your language’s magnificent plasticity. Simplicity takes its toll on clarity? I guess there’s always two sides to a coin.

  25. @ rosie

    The latter would make the plural possessive indistinguishable from the plural, and, with nouns with regular -s plurals, indistinguishable from the singular possessive. To claim that the level of harmful confusion would be zero is to make a glib generalization.

    The apostrophe is a crutch so that people don’t have to make their meaning clear in words. Take away the crutch and people will be forced to write more clearly.

  26. marie-lucie says

    Bathrobe: Take away the crutch and people will be forced to write more clearly.

    This might be the case for sentences, but clarity would most likely come at the expense of brevity. As for place and country names, added length would lead to inconvenience and to more of the already common “compensatory shortenings” (eg “LA” used instead of “Los Angeles”, itself short for “Ciudad de Los Angeles” – and of course “US” instead of “United States of America”).

  27. Originally it was “El Pueblo de Nuestra Señora la Reina de los Ángeles de Porciúncula”. At least it didn’t become “Por-see-UNK-you-la” in English.

  28. Farewell, noble grammarian, and thanks for no thank’s!

    Richards was a member (voluntary or inducted, I don’t know) of the Dull Men’s Club. I remember him from their calendar.

    Apropos of societies, the Longman Grammar of Spoken and Written English notes at the end of its index, “Compiled by Meg Davies, Registered Indexer (Society of Indexers).” I didn’t know there was such a thing. It sounds ridiculously British; that is to say, good.

  29. It sounds ridiculously British; that is to say, good.
    This may have been linked to before on these august pages, but I couldn’t restrain myself.

  30. Rodger C says

    At least it didn’t become “Por-see-UNK-you-la” in English.


  31. Shunk for short.

  32. Just now I crashblossomed hard on the following tweet:

    That electric car perverts every second tweet is a means to manipulate the price of crypto

    It seems I sometimes still need the crutch of an apostrophe (and a hyphen). Twitter is not a good place to find either.

  33. PlasticPaddy says

    In computer language or script editors, colour is used to highlight syntax. I have never seen this with natural languages, but it would seem an obvious aid. Just think how much more quickly one could locate a Latin verb halfway down the page.

  34. David Marjanović says

    Oh, he’s an electric-car pervert, and his every second tweet is…?

  35. Easy to misread if you take “is” to be a misspelling of “as” and have no idea of the context (which is barely possible these days when everyone’s talking about Tesla no longer accepting bitcoin).

    Think of all the L2 English learners and have pity on them. They need those apostrophes real bad.

  36. David Marjanović says

    Commas, too. Commas are important people!


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