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The Shawnee News-Star
  • Wood on Words: More confusion over apostrophes

  • The big story in my hometown of Rockford this week is the teachers strike — or should that be “teachers’ strike.” Should “teachers” take the possessive form or not?

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  • The big story in my hometown of Rockford this week is the teachers strike — or should that be “teachers’ strike.” Should “teachers” take the possessive form or not?
    First, a word about terminology, which at some point is unavoidable in grammar. I find it helps to think of “possessive” as just a label and try to ignore its usual meaning.
    In grammar, “possessive” can connote possession, but it also can indicate other kinds of relationships. “Possessive” doesn’t necessarily mean ownership or inhabited by demons, any more than “objective” means “without bias or prejudice” and therefore reality-based or “subjective” means “personal” or filtered to fit a point of view.
    These are just terms to identify a word’s role in a sentence.
    So, does “teachers strike” call for the possessive (with an apostrophe) or not? The key is whether the noun “teachers” is being “used primarily in a descriptive sense,” according to The Associated Press Stylebook. As examples of such usage, it includes “a teachers college,” “citizens band radio” and “a Cincinnati Reds infielder.”
    It offers the following as a “memory aid”:
    “The apostrophe usually is not used if ‘for’ or ‘by’ rather than ‘of’ would be appropriate in the longer form,” such as “a college for teachers.”
    The situation is altered when dealing with unconventional plurals. For example, “a girls basketball team” becomes “a women’s basketball team” when the players become adults, because the plural is “women,” not “womens.”
    And an organization or other entity can write its name any way it wants. So we have “Diners Club” but “Actors’ Equity,” “Publishers Weekly,” but “Ladies’ Home Journal” and even “Reader’s Digest.”
    We frequently face this apostrophe-or-no-apostrophe question in our coverage of sports. For example:
    “The best basketball player ever was Chicago Bulls star Michael Jordan.” (“Bulls” is a descriptive noun doing the job of an adjective — no apostrophe.)
    “The best basketball player ever was the Bulls’ Michael Jordan.” (This one could just as well be written “Michael Jordan of the Bulls” — the AP “test” for the possessive.)
    I remember that when I first read that AP entry many moons ago, it seemed to make this issue clear and simple. Then I started trying to apply it.
    For instance, “a boys club” is clearly a club “for” boys, but isn’t it also a club “of” boys? So which is it: apostrophe or no apostrophe? For the national organization, it’s “Boys & Girls Clubs of America” — no apostrophes.
    “The Chicago Manual of Style,” while acknowledging that such situations are “sometimes fuzzy,” chooses to go with the apostrophe, except with proper names or “where there is clearly no possessive meaning.” Of course, there can be considerable variation in how “clearly” people see things.
    Page 2 of 2 - The Chicago stylebook prefers “a boys’ club,” for example, as well as “a consumers’ group” and “a taxpayers’ association,” but considers “a housewares sale” a clear exception. To me, the AP test would seem to call for an apostrophe: It’s a sale “of” housewares, yes?
    This may well be a situation for which there is no definitive solution. In other words, we may have to be subjective about the possessive.
    Going back to the original question, then, I favor “teachers strike” — a strike “by” teachers. And I also wish that it hadn’t happened and hope it’s resolved soon.
    Next time: Some of my nitpicking favorites.
    Read Barry Wood’s Wood on Words blog at www.rrstar.com/blogs/barrywood.

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