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The apostrophe – we really can’t do without it

August 25, 2011

Recently I read about a campaign dedicated to doing away with the apostrophe. I paused at the thought and whilst understanding the sentiment (though not sharing it) I concluded that the confusion over its use is exaggerated.

Most of us feel comfortable using the possessive in our writing: we use it as a substitute for ‘of’. Simple enough. But there are uses that sometimes throw us. As usual, it is not so much a matter of what is correct as what choice we make. And I am not thinking of ‘it’s’ and ‘its’ here.

Choices

For example, I worked on a booklet originally entitled ‘home buyer guide’. Is this statement enough to make the intention of the article clear? Consider the choices listed for a guide targeted at those buying a home:

  • home buyer guide
  • home-buyer guide
  • home buyer’s guide
  • home-buyer’s guide
  • home-buyers’ guide.

As it stands, the original title is at best ambiguous, and at worst, completely misleading. ‘Home buyer guide’ could mean a guide for the home buyer (to something not stated), or a guide to buying a home (specifically). Which is it? When we add the hyphen (home-buyer) it settles the matter. Or does it? Could it now mean a guide to understanding home buyers? So we need to take this further to ensure this is a guide for someone buying a home.

Clarifying meaning

Does the apostrophe or a hyphen clarify what I mean? Do I need both? Since there is a missing article (‘the’) is this really an implied plural: a guide for many or all home buyers?

The ‘for’ apostrophe

Enter the apostrophe to help us: ‘home-buyer’s guide’. That’s better. But, unravelled, the possessive does not replace ‘of’, but ‘for’: a guide for a home buyer, as in ‘Parents’ guide to local schools’, or ‘A guide for parents to local schools’.

Numbers

Is it for one home buyer, or many? The position of the apostrophe will tell us. I suspect the booklet is aimed at all potential home buyers, and so I would write ‘home-buyers’ guide’.

A necessity

Is that enough? Probably. I might add ‘the’, to round out the sense of it being definitive (‘a’ places it as one of many guides). The result, ‘The home-buyers’ guide’, might be the best choice. Whatever I choose, the apostrophe helps clarify my meaning. Without it we would all be kept guessing. I suspect we really cannot do without it.

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. MJH permalink
    September 19, 2011 10:56

    Interesting. I’ve been having a similar debate with colleagues about a ‘Buyers Guide’ today. We decided in this instance to drop the apostrophe. If we were to have used an apostrophe, we would have been in disagreement, since the guide is a guide for all buyers but it is also a guide for each individual buyer. There are not likely to be two buyers for each individual purchase that is informed by the guide. I wonder, then, if it could be argued that the apostrophe in this instance could be dropped, on the grounds that the ambiguity means that both interpretations can be correct, whereas putting in an apostrophe makes the guide specific to one or other interpretation.

    In other words, perhaps the ambiguous formulation is the correct one in this instance, given that: (a) either interpretation would/could be correct; (b) the apostrophe in either position could render the phrase less comprehensive than it’s intended to be; and (c) the ambiguity does not give rise to the possibility of an incorrect interpretation.

    • September 19, 2011 12:21

      It is true that many guides do not use the apostrophe in their title. This appears to be because it looks strange to many editors. The apostrophe then appears to be a matter of personal opinion. But as it stands, the phrase ‘buyers guide’ does not make complete sense; we simply present the reader with two words and then suggest there must be a relationship between them, and it is up to the reader to draw a conclusion about the relationship. As writers, it is our job to make that relationship clear and unambiguous. I often encounter the suggestion that we might well mean to be ambiguous. Invariably this is the result of unclear thinking on our part: if you want a confused reader then go for ambiguity.
      So, in this instance, the value of the apostrophe is that it helps reduce ambiguity, by indicating the relationship between the words ‘buyers’ and ‘guide’. As for singular or plural: ‘buyers’ is unambiguously plural. ‘Buyers’ guide’ includes all buyers. ‘Buyer’s guide’ is for a buyer. If each guide is only to be bought by one buyer – then use the singular. If it can be bought by more than one buyer – use the plural. Either way I would argue that you need the apostrophe to clarify your meaning.
      Having said all that there is a case for ‘buyer guide’ where ‘buyer’ is a commonly accepted modifier for a type, as in ‘user information’ (information for a user) and ‘lawn mower’ (mower for a lawn). Here the predictable interpretation by the reader reduces ambiguity. I still go for the apostrophe.

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