GIRLS, GIRL'S or GIRLS' ???
(Investigator 171, 2016 November)
Which title is correct?
The article on Schlocky Horror in Investigator #170 mentions the
• Werewolf in a Girl's Dormitory; and
• Werewolf in a Girls Dormitory
Girl's — the
apostrophe before the "s" — occurs in Leonard Maltin's Movie Guide.
Posters for the movie have a third variation, Girls', the apostrophe after the
Which is correct, Girls,
Girl's or Girls' ?
The movie was Italian-made (with inferior dubbing), but
consulting the Italian title doesn't help to settle our query since the
Italian title is Lycanthropus.
Girls' Schools or Girls?
Consider schools for girls.
Which position for the apostrophe (if any) is correct in the phrases
"Girls Schools" and "All-Girls Schools"?
Google Search commonly, but not always, gives Girls' Schools, apostrophe after
the "s". However, All-Girls School(s)
mostly appears without an apostrophe.
England has the Girls'
Schools Association and the USA the National Coalition of Girls' Schools.
The Adelaide phone book has a list headed — Schools-Girls'.
Ask a girl
On a question about girls it made sense to consult some
Flinders University student Sophie Seeley seemed ideal
because one of the subjects she studies for her Arts degree is English.
Sophie opted for Girls' but
thought it might depend on context.
Maltin's apostrophe wrong
version of the title, with the apostrophe before the "s", is wrong
because that would refer to just one girl whereas the werewolf went
after multiple girls.
If majority opinion regarding apostrophes wins then the
correct title is Werewolf in a
However, apostrophes often indicate possession or
ownership and students do not own the school they attend. It is really
a School for Girls or attended
The "Dormitory" (which in the movie is a reformatory or
detention centre) seemed owned by the werewolf/superintendant. It was
not the girls' dormitory in the sense that the girls owned it, but in
the sense that they occupied it. It was therefore a dormitory for girls.
Similarly, Girls' Schools are not Girls' Schools in the
sense that girl students own the schools. The schools are really
"Schools for Girls" or
On that basis the apostrophe in the movie title should
be omitted, giving us Werewolf in a
Girls Dormitory (or Werewolf
in a Dormitory for Girls).
There is a caveat to the preceding conclusion.
Language, grammar and spelling are not necessarily
consistent but often based on convention and common usage. The words
"bake", "say" and "paid", for example, are spoken with the same vowel
sound despite the different spelling. Yet we do not declare two of the
spellings wrong. By convention all three are correct.
Similarly, "Girls' Schools" might be correct by
convention although wrong by the above analysis.
APOSTROPHES AND GIRLS
(see "Girls, Girl's or Girls'",
Investigator 170, pp 12-13)
It is good to see material in Investigator about matters
involving my own subject, linguistics!
I realise that the comment about consulting girls was not intended
seriously, and in fact the specific girl consulted obviously has more
relevant expertise than would most girls whom one might select
haphazardly on the streets of Adelaide; but on such points would it not
be useful to consult a qualified linguist (with a specialisation in
English)? Now linguists will not identify some native-speaker usage as
'wrong' and other usage as 'right'. We too recognise that usage may not
be consistent; and we strive to make our discipline as scientific as
possible and therefore deal 'non-prescriptively' with the facts of
usage rather than with opinions as to 'correctness' (although as sociolinguists we may study such
opinions too). But languages used as English is used do require norms
and a degree of standardisation, especially for written usage. And we
are happy to put our expertise in language to use by way of helping our
communities with such matters; we can offer recommendations for usage in
specific cases, based on broader patterns of usage and on reasoning.
One would expect the 'standard' form Girls' in this context; this is a
'possessive' plural (see below). But, as is illustrated in "Girls,
Girl's or Girls'", informal written usage varies greatly; many
inexperienced writers of English have great difficulty in deciding
which form to use in a given case (the Leave Your Trolley's Here
syndrome!). Actual ambiguity is
rare (it almost always involves singular vs
plural possessive, as in the girl's books vs the girls' books) and most
such cases are easily resolved in practice. It is possible that
end the English 'possessive' apostrophe (which at one time also
appeared in some non-possessive plurals and was not consistently or
exclusively used in possessives even in careful writing until the 18th
Century) will vanish altogether. Some
company names have already abandoned it (e.g. the booksellers Waterstones), and there are many
anomalies in place-names (Kings Park
in Perth, etc.) which would cease to confuse if there were no
possessive apostrophe at all. (But some
apparent anomalies do in fact display standard usage: Queen's College in Oxford involves
one queen, Queens' College in
Cambridge involves two.)
And, after all, German, which also has possessive -s, uses no apostrophe – though this
is hardly confusing, since very few German nouns have plurals in -s. Afrikaans has solved the problem
by separating possessive -s
off as a separate word (e.g. Jan se
boek, 'John's book').
The English possessive in -'s
(etc.) does not necessarily mark possession in the specific sense of
ownership. There is an entire range of types of 'possession'. Consider
the three-way ambiguity of John's
picture (owned by John, created by John, representing John).
(Some alternative structures are less ambiguous; a picture of John can only mean one
representing John.) The fact that girls attending a school do not
own the school is thus irrelevant to these matters of
The expression All-Girls in All-Girls School functions
adjectivally (parallel with single-sex,
etc.), and in such cases an apostrophe would not be expected. Entries
in phone books such as Schools –
Girls surely have dashes rather than hyphens and thus involve
two expressions not linked grammatically; again, no apostrophe would be
expected. It is true that Girl's would not be standard usage in the
example, either because in the story the werewolf pursues
multiple girls or because multiple girls use the dormitory (or both!).
I hope that this helps, and I would be happy to engage in further
An extract from Adelaide's Yellow
APOSTROPHES AND GIRLS REVISITED
(Investigator 173, 2017 March)
I have now seen the extract from the Adelaide Yellow Pages reproduced
in Investigator 172 (p
47). The use of a hyphen rather than a
dash (or a comma) strikes me as odd but is not confusing; the
apostrophe in the word Girls'
makes sense if the entire expression
Girls' Schools has been
reordered for the alphabetical sequencing of
I have also read the book F…ing
Apostrophes by Simon Griffin, who is
not a linguist but is well-informed about these matters. Griffin's tone
is more 'prescriptivist' than a linguist would like (talk of
'correctness', etc.), and one of his acknowledgements is to the British
author Lynne Truss, whose own books display a quite heavily
prescriptivist approach to punctuation (and some of whose own
punctuation, ironically, has been judged non-standard by purist
American commentators). Griffin does accept that changes may occur in
respect of what is considered correct or standard usage (e.g., the move
over recent decades from the 1970's
to the 1970s), and in this
he quotes with approval the relatively non-prescriptivist writer
Most of Griffin's specific comments about current usage are wholly
sensible and helpful. I especially like his carefully-drawn distinction
between Rihanna and Jennifer's photos
(photos of the two together) and
Rihanna's and Jennifer's
photos (taken separately). Griffin does not
concern himself with the genuinely difficult cases involving the
co-ordination of a noun and a pronoun in the possessive, such as Peter
and I's job (one job
being done together by both men). Anyone who
rejects this usage on the ground that the form I's does not otherwise
exist in English is welcome to propose a succinct alternative.
There are few actual infelicities in the book. Griffin does suggest
that words such as ad/advert
(cropped from advertisement) have lost a
final apostrophe over time; but final apostrophes were never commonly
written in such words. However, this is not relevant to the
possessive apostrophe as discussed here.
A couple of additional points. Firstly: some writers are
uncertain as to the punctuation of expressions such as one of the
directors' wives. A little thought will make it apparent
a monogamous society this must mean 'one of the women who are married
to the [various] directors', and that the possessive-plural final
apostrophe is thus standard. The homophonous alternative one of the
director's wives would imply that the sole director has more
wife. There is actually a linguistic joke based on this
(punch-line: 'Madam, I do not care if you are the director's only
Secondly: it should be noted that the possessive apostrophe is no
longer a simple case-inflection on the relevant head noun, as it was
originally (and as the equivalent German form still is). It attaches to
the last word (usually a noun) of the noun phrase in question, even if
that is not the head noun. Thus we say the Queen of England's
palace, not (as once did occur) the Queen's palace of England.
This change has been facilitated by the loss of all other
case-inflections on English nouns.
GIRLS, WEREWOLVES and APOSTROPHES
(Investigator 174, 2015 May)
Regarding an apostrophe in the movie title "Werewolf in a Girls [or
Dormitory" Mark Newbrook says: "One would expect the 'standard' form
Girls' in this context; this is a 'possessive' plural…" (Investigator
To my point that the girls did not own the dormitory, merely occupied
it, Newbrook responds: "The English possessive in -'s (etc.) does not
necessarily mark possession in the specific sense of ownership. There
is an entire range of types of 'possession'. Consider the three-way
ambiguity of John's picture (owned by John, created by John,
However, the dormitory in the movie besides not being owned by the
girls was also not created by them or represented them.
Newbrook also says: "The expression All-Girls in All-Girls School
functions adjectivally… and in such cases an apostrophe would not be
Griffin in F...... Apostrophes
(2016), writes: "An attributive noun is
a noun that describes another noun, essentially turning it into an
adjective, so you don't need to use a f…… apostrophe…. So you need to
decide whether the first noun owns the second or not (or just describes
it)…" (p. 36)
It seems to me that "Girls" in "Girls Dormitory" is not a possessive,
but attributive, functioning adjectivally, and an apostrophe would not
Other examples of an adjectival relationship between two nouns would be
sports car, Accounts Department, Drivers License, Teachers Manual, cows
The Internet has extensive debate about apostrophes. One web-page says:
"The possessive is much a looser concept than ownership: the girls may
not own the school but it's still a girls' school." A phenomenon named
"Grammar Girl" outlines "9 Ways to use an Apostrophe" but left me
whether it's a "girls school" or "girls' school".
Other dormitory-with-girls movies are "Girls' Dormitory" (1936) and
"Bad Girls Dormitory" (1985) the latter without the apostrophe but both
without werewolves. There is also a novel titled "Girls' Dormitory"
published in 1958.
Parkside Ranch in Canada has a "Girls Dormitory" with 62 bunk beds, but
St. Mugagga School in Indiana is getting a "New Girls' Dormitory".
Malaysia has "Sogor Girls School", but The Weekend Australian
mentioned "the elite Sydney girls' boarding school Kambala." (February
25-26, p. 4)
A recent brochure promoting a school open day is titled, "Mitcham Girls
High School". The brochure uses the phrase "Mitcham Girls High School"
with no apostrophe, nine times, and "Mitcham Girls" twice. However, it
also calls the school "A girls' school" and "a Specialist School in
"April Fools' Day", with the apostrophe, would be correct since
Reader's Digest asks: "Ever
Wonder Why … we play April Fools' Day jokes
on people every April 1?" (October 1994, p. 112)
However, getting back to werewolves, would we refer to "The werewolves
victims" or "The werewolves' victims"? Would a werewolf, or any other
tenant, get "two months notice" to vacate the premises or "two months'
Sticking now with girls, do the following require an apostrophe?
• "Tonight is the girls night out event."
• "The girls bathroom is down that corridor."
• "The girls boyfriends attended the girls chess
• "Janice joined the girls boxing team." Question:
Should the t-shirts of the girl pugilists be labelled "Girls Boxing" or
Finally, consider two enterprising girls who purchase a property and
open a school, making them the owners of the school. Furthermore, only
girls are accepted for enrolment. Which of the following is preferable:—
"The girls' school is a girls school" or "The girls' school is a girls'
school" where the first use of "girls'" in each sentence refers to the
Griffin, S. 2016 F……
PS. Listen to an
entertaining song with a catchy rhythm about the
"apostrophe apostasy" at
AND GIRLS 3
to 'Girls, Werewolves and Apostrophes',
Investigator 174, pp 50-52)
175, 2017 July)
I thank Stett
for these comments. As noted by all contributors to this discussion,
usage in this area is complex, variable and fluid!
I stated that
there is an entire range of types of 'possession'. I did not suggest
that the only three types involve ownership, creation and
representation. These are merely among the leading examples of what is
an entire range of semantic types of (grammatically-defined)
possession, and in cases such as John's picture all three are
possible. Regular occupation (or even very temporary occupation,
as in the case of a hotel room: After the conference dinner I went back
to my room) is yet another type of possession. Etc., etc. There is no
semantic objection to Girls' as in Girls' Dormitory; in context, it is
a wholly legitimate possessive.
I agree with
Griffin as cited here (except that owns is too specific; see above).
But a possessive is arguably one type of attributive modifier. In any
case, as Stett exemplifies, most nouns functioning adjectivally as
attributives do not require the possessive apostrophe; but these are
usually in the singular form and thus display no final -s (etc.) at
all. A few such nouns do appear in the plural form without an
apostrophe in this attributive construction as they do more generally
(sports, accounts, etc.). I myself find plural drivers and
teachers functioning as plain attributives, without any possessive
apostrophe, very awkward in writing, but given the current situation I
am not surprised if I see such usage. I would 'do a double-take' on
seeing Girls Dormitory, because nouns such as girl do not normally take
plural -s when used attributively (and are in fact seldom used
attributively at all); but such forms too clearly do occur.
given here in favour of April Fools' Day appears inconclusive. Is
Reader's Digest so
patterning in respect of constructions such as two months notice versus
the more established or standard two months' notice is in flux.
As a linguist I
am mainly concerned to describe and analyse actual usage, whether or
not it be deemed standard ('correct'); but I am prepared to state
whether or not I think that a given form can be seen as standard (at
any given time) on the strength of preferred careful usage (especially
if systematically surveyed) and of well-informed comments on usage.
176, 2017 September)
In the absence
of globally accepted rules that govern when apostrophes should be used,
we're left with investigating actual usage without judging it correct
or incorrect. In this I concur with Mark Newbrook. (Investigator #175)
decided that both of the following conform to actual usage:
Werewolf in a Girls'
in a Girls Dormitory
discussion therefore seemed completed.
since wondered: "Could a set of rules be defined by which every
insertion of an apostrophe would be correct or incorrect?"
considering cases where apostrophes replace the word "of" as when "The
house of Peter" becomes "Peter's house".
apostrophes are used more diversely than mere indication of ownership.
We'd probably want the rules for inserting apostrophes to include the
|a) Ownership. e.g. "Jill's
money"; "Joe's hat", etc. We would take note of
different types of ownership such as Newbrook's example, "the three-way
ambiguity of John's picture (owned by John, created by John,
b) Possession. Possession
implies a degree of control over something or
the right to use it but is not always identical to ownership e.g.
"Kirstie's hotel room", "Grandfather's daily walk".
c) Component or feature of a larger
object. e.g. "The car's doors"; "The
trees' [Plural] leaves"; "The cat's tail"; "The paint's color"; "The
coffee's temperature"; "The day's activities".
d) Relationships. e.g.
"Susan's mother"; "The teacher's students"; "The
boy's friends"; "Tom's enemies".
Apostrophes for adjectival relationships between two nouns.
F...... Apostrophes (2016), explains: "An attributive noun is a noun
that describes another noun, essentially turning it into an adjective,
so you don't need to use a f…… apostrophe… So you need to decide
whether the first noun owns the second or not (or just describes it)…"
(p. 36) Hence, there is no apostrophe in "sports car", "accounts
department", "drivers license".
table lists phrases previously considered and assigns apostrophes
according to the five Rules:
|Werewolf in a Girls
||a or b
|Queen of England's
||a or b
|Mitcham Girls High
||b or d
|Two months notice
|The girls bathroom
|The girls' boyfriends
||b or d
|Girls night out event
|The girls boxing team
|Girls Boxing [Label
|April Fools Day
victims" takes an apostrophe by Rule "d" if we regard perpetrator and
victim as a relationship but by Rule "b" if a victim is something an
By Rule "e" the
phrase "goats milk" in "I like drinking goats milk" would omit the
apostrophe. However, if the goats have not been milked and the milk is
inside the goats as in "The goats' milk is causing them pain", Rule "c"
education" takes an apostrophe by Rules "a", "b" or "c" if it refers to
the education of a particular girl or group of girls (e.g. "My girl's
education is progressing well"), but no apostrophe by Rule "e" if
education in general is meant (e.g. "Girls education is as important as
applies in the phrase "girls books". If the phrase refers to a group of
girls who purchased some books, then the books are "The girls' books"
By Rule "a" because they own the books. If the phrase refers to books
as a genre, written or intended for girls, the books would be "Girls
books" no apostrophe by Rule "e".
bathroom" has an apostrophe by Rule "b". However, the word "girls" also
describes what sort of bathroom it is — therefore an adjectival
relationship — therefore no apostrophe by Rule "e"!
"Girls night out event" and "Werewolf in a Girls Dormitory": Yes by
Rule "b" but No by Rule "e".
whether Flinders University student Sophie Seeley (#171) was "correct"
in suggesting "Girls Dormitory" requires the apostrophe remains unclear
because my layman's attempt to formulate rules leaves ambiguities!
rules remain few but be improved so that no ambiguities remain?
Griffin, S. 2016
F…… Apostrophes, Icon Books
Investigator Magazine Numbers 171,
172, 173, 174,175.
(response to 'Apostrophes And Rules', B.Stett, Investigator 176, pp
(Investigator 177, 2017 November)
I very much appreciate Stett's continuing interest in this matter!
Linguists would not accept the application of the notions 'correct' and
'incorrect' to native-speaker usage (as opposed to that of foreign
learners, who obviously may make errors). All native-speaker
usage is ipso facto valid. But some native-speaker usage is
(considered) standard as opposed to non-standard; it has been
'standardised' over time by educated users. And – although the
boundary between standard and non-standard is unclear or disputed in
places, and what counts as standard varies from country to country
(etc.) – the 'rules' describing standard usage (and thus assisting
those seeking to render their own usage more standard) are predictably
more determinate, in general, than the equivalent principles for
non-standard usage (though not necessarily totally determinate).
Indeed, such 'rules' are often made explicit in traditional
grammars. There is thus some hope of fully expressing the 'rules'
describing standard usage in some cases, perhaps including this present
Stett's list of semantic types of possession (a-d) which are
grammatically expressed with the apostrophe is of course incomplete (it
omits, for instance, two of the types which I identified as expressed
by forms such as John's picture),
but as long as this is acknowledged it is not damaging; (a-d) are examples, not an exhaustive list.
Stett is right to repeat the point that in attributive constructions
the possessive apostrophe is not
usually used. However, nouns used attributively as in 'Rule (e)' are
usually singular or else 'uncountable' (milk, etc.), and many writers
avoid forms with plural attributives such as girls schools or find them
odd or worse if encountered in reading (there are some special
exceptions involving the attributive use of certain specific plural
nouns such as sports). Most would write girls' books or girls' education even when
referring generically to a genre of books rather than to the specific
books owned (etc.) by specific girls, or to the education of girls in
general. (Obviously, those who are themselves comfortable with
usage such as girls schools are free to continue using such forms.)
The current standard English construction with the possessive plural
(final apostrophe) is thus inherently 'ambiguous' between specific and
generic senses of the possessive. However, there is little
prospect of 'improving' such 'rules' so as to avoid such
'ambiguities'. I know of no evidence that this issue is perceived
by native users as involving genuine ambiguity (this is simply a
contrast not systematically expressed in English) or as confusing (the
entire noun phrases in question, such as girls' books, are normally
unambiguous in context). And, if this is what Stett has in mind,
attempts (however well intentioned) to alter
the usage of native speakers (even in writing) are most unlikely to
succeed. (But I thank Stett for drawing my attention to this
There are various other points to be made here. For example, the
possessive with an apostrophe and the alternative construction with of do not occur in the exact same
range of environments/senses. Inanimate 'possessors' more rarely
take the apostrophe, except in some specific constructions (one of the
table's legs is more usual usage than simply the table's legs).
And expressions such as God's love vs the love of God do not have the
same range of meanings. The former can refer only to love
emanating from God, whereas the latter is ambiguous between this sense
and the sense 'love for God'.
ATTACKS ERRANT APOSTROPHES
178, 2018 January)
in the movie title "Werewolf in a Girls Dormitory" requires an
apostrophe was investigated in Investigator
Magazine 171 to 177 without a decisive yes or no finding.
Investigator lacked was the expertise available in Bristol (England).
With it we might have succeeded.
"Grammar Vigilante" has stalked the night streets for 13 years and
corrected misplaced apostrophes and other errors on street signs,
business signs and shop fronts.
The first page
of a Google search on "Grammar Vigilante" in November indicates the
Vigilante's growing fame:
Meet the 'Grammar Vigilante' of Bristol
Anonymous 'grammar vigilante' tackles UK signs
Bristol grammar vigilante: Is this the hero the world needs?
Revealed: Self-styled 'grammar vigilante' corrects badly punctuated...
The 'Grammar Vigilante': Defender Of Truth, Justice And The...
'Grammar vigilante' changes incorrect business signs across Bristol...
'Banksy of punctuation' puts full stop to bad grammar in Bristol...
'Grammar vigilante' sneaks around at night fixing bad apostrophes...
documentary titled "The Apostrophiser" (April 2017) was named after a
home-made tool with long handle used by the Vigilante to apply tape
which can add an apostrophe, or cover one, on hard-to-reach-surfaces.
identity is known to the BBC but otherwise remains a secret.
thinking that correcting street and shop signs is a caper a linguist
might indulge in, note that I've checked a map and Mark Newbrook lives
too far from Bristol. Furthermore, a report by Colin Dwyer titled "The
'Grammar Vigilante': Defender Of Truth, Justice And The Grammarian Way"
cites the BBC documentary and says the man is an engineer:
The BBC says it has
discovered the identity of the "Banksy of punctuation" — a
mild-mannered engineer by day, who by night transforms (presumably in a
telephone booth) into the intrepid superhero of sentences everywhere.
The network will not reveal his identity...
documentary the Grammar Vigilante maintains he is fighting the good
fight against bad grammar and says, “I do think it's a cause worth
if you read this and know whether the dormitory the werewolf was in was
a Girls or a Girls' dormitory Investigator
can use your help.
Apostrophes Yet Again (No Girls This Time)
(Investigator 179, 2018 March)
and the 'Grammar Vigilante' (Investigator Magazine 178 pp 12-13): I
know that this discussion is somewhat 'tongue-in-cheek'; but I repeat
that linguists do not accept the application of the notions 'correct'
and 'incorrect' to native-speaker usage, and thus would not use
expressions such as 'bad grammar'. And we certainly would not 'fight'
against any native-speaker usage in the role of a vigilante. If anyone
really thought we would, they would be working with an inaccurate view
of what linguists do. The most we will do is assist in the promotion of
moderate, useful degrees of standardisation, for instance by
'correcting' palpable non-standardisms in the context of formal writing
when acting as teacher, examiner or editor. And even here we would not
suggest that what happens to be standard usage at present is somehow
'better' than non-standard usage, except where it is less ambiguous or
more systematic (but in some cases it is non-standard usage that is
less ambiguous and/or more systematic).
If there are any
outstanding issues from earlier discussions, I am happy to comment
further in my capacity as a professional English grammarian; but it is
vain to expect the structures of natural languages to display complete
systematicity or to permit of no variation in usage or meaning.
APOSTROPHES, WEREWOLVES and GIRLS —
(Investigator 180, 2018 May)
"Werewolf in a Girls Dormitory" — Does this movie title require an apostrophe?
My exchange of
ideas with Dr Newbrook never was a debate, but a search for criteria by
which to decide whether to add or omit apostrophes.
It is impractical to decide by doing surveys of what people think — the criterion of standard usage is difficult to implement.
However, the problem is now solved, at least for my purpose of doing consistent editing.
The clue to the solution came from a webpage on which is discussed the phrase "six girls hats":
Do you add an apostrophe or not? Yes, if you wish to indicate possession, you add an apostrophe…
Six girls' hats are in the lost-and-found box. (Six hats belonging to girls are in the lost and found.)…
However, if you wish to indicate that the hats are designed for girls – they don't belong to anyone – do not use an apostrophe.
We sold six girls hats today. (Six hats for girls were sold.)
Remember, add the apostrophe to indicate possession. Omit the apostrophe if you can mentally insert the word "for."
Recall that in Investigator #176 I listed five "rules" for deciding when to employ an apostrophe.
The problem that
resulted was that Rule "b" conflicted with Rule "e" so that one rule
sometimes indicated "yes" to the apostrophe and the other rule "no". I
here repeat "b" and "e" for further consideration:
Possession implies a degree of control over something or the right to
use it but is not always identical to ownership e.g. "Kirstie's hotel
room", "Grandfather's daily walk".
e) No Apostrophes for adjectival relationships between two nouns.
Griffin in F...... Apostrophes (2016), explains: "An attributive noun
is a noun that describes another noun, essentially turning it into an
adjective, so you don't need to use a f… apostrophe… So you need to
decide whether the first noun owns the second or not (or just describes
it)…" (p. 36) Hence, there is no apostrophe in "sports car", "accounts
department", "drivers license".
In the sentence "Where is the Mitcham Girls High School?" the word "girls" is clearly adjectival, hence no apostrophe.
And that is the
solution — we need to examine in each instance the intention of the
writer or speaker, whether is it to affirm possession or to describe.
Now let's reconsider phrases that stymied me in #176.
"Werewolf in a Girls Dormitory"
The intention of
whoever thought up this movie title was probably to tell us what sort
of dormitory it is. He was describing, not emphasizing ownership or
possession. Therefore no apostrophe.
applies to the phrases "The girls bathroom", "The girls night out
event", and the label "Girls Boxing" on the t-shirts of the boxing
team. No apostrophe required.
The phrase "The
werewolves' victims" is not a description of the victims, but a
statement of what the werewolves took control of and possessed.
Therefore add the apostrophe.
What about that
cartoon in #174 where a landlord evicts a werewolf from the premises?
Did the landlord give "Two months notice" or "Two months' notice?" The
"two months" describes the "notice" and therefore omits the apostrophe.
would proceed like this on a case by case basis, whenever rules
"b" and "e" seem in conflict, and work out the intention (or probable
intention) of the speaker or writer.
Sophie Seeley of
Flinders University who studies English (and linguistics) and opted for
"Werewolf in a Girls' Dormitory" (with the apostrophe) was therefore
mistaken, but she covered herself by adding it might depend on context.
[A paragraph from the editorial of Investigator #181]
Mark Newbrook responds to Apostrophes, Werewolves and Girls — Solved (#180) and queries that the issues are solved. Newbrook's response looks like the final word about apostrophes in Investigator,
unless the "Grammar Vigilante" of Bristol checks Google and finds out
he got a mention (#178) and has something to add. If the series got you
excited and you're raring to test yourself on apostrophes, try
the ten-question test on the webpage of The University of Bristol at:
Apostrophes, Werewolves and Girls – Solved?
(response to 'Apostrophes , Werewolves and Girls – Solved', B. Stett, Investigator 180, pp 18-19)
(Investigator 181, 2018 July)
appreciate Stett's ongoing interest in this matter. I hope I never
suggested that I saw this exchange as a 'debate'!
As I said in Investigator
179, it is vain to expect the structures of natural languages to
display complete systematicity; and it is unlikely that the issues
regarding a natural-language feature of this kind – especially in a
language as rich and varied as English – could ever be fully 'solved'.
Even in cases like this, where writing rather than speech is involved,
there is too much variation (regional, stylistic, individual) in usage
or meaning, change in progress at any given time, idiomatic usage,
disagreement regarding acceptability and about what counts as standard
usage, indeterminacy of analysis, etc. It is obviously necessary to
arrive at well-defined varieties which can be taught to foreign
learners, and to agree to a significant extent, at least within a given
country, on what counts as standard usage (for the purposes of
examining, editing, etc.). But there is no real basis for the
application of the notions 'correct' and 'incorrect' to native-speaker
It is also
dangerous to rely in this context on non-authoritative sources.
Griffin, as cited here, demonstrates the limits to his expertise when
he contrasts ownership and 'description' as if these were the only
notions in play. As I have made clear, and as Stett acknowledges here,
ownership is only one of the several semantic relationships indicated
grammatically by the possessive apostrophe with -s- (or by of). Griffin also refers here to two members (sports, accounts) of the small special set of nouns which do take plural -s in attributive position, without acknowledging that there are issues with plural -s
in attributive position on a broader front (see below). And 'Ontario
Training', again as cited, does not seem to have any specifically
linguistic authority. It might be better to cite here the various
accounts of these matters produced by qualified descriptive English
grammarians (i.e. by the relevant professional linguists – not
necessarily me; there are 'bigger shots' than me!).
The most obvious specific issue here concerns forms such as girls hats ('hats for girls'); the idea is that as the word girls is attributive here no apostrophe is needed. The main problem here is that, with the exception of special cases such as sports and accounts, unequivocally attributive nouns are normally singular or 'uncountable' (and thus bear no -s). Now forms such as girls hats,
with what looks like a straightforward plural attributive, clearly do
occur, especially in informal contexts. But I would argue that
they are seldom found in more serious writing, that careful writers
tend to avoid them, and that editors and experienced readers tend to
find them awkward (I will look for figures etc. if any of this is
doubted). They are arguably non-standard, or at least 'disputed usage'.
Now there is nothing linguistically
wrong with non-standard usage – but I take it that our main focus here
is upon careful writing, which is normally in Standard English (at
least by intention), and that Standard English is thus what is in
In contrast, forms with the possessive apostrophe, such as girls' hats,
are unequivocally standard here. As noted, possessives with the
apostrophe by no means always involve ownership, control, etc.; the
fact that girls do not own their schools as they might come to own hats
in no way rules out the possessive construction with school/schools and such.
Perhaps because of his excessively narrow focus on possessives involving ownership, Griffin identifies drivers in drivers license as attributive; but the word drivers here appears clearly singular in sense (at least when modifying the singular form license), and a possessive apostrophe (before the -s) would be much more usual here in the relevant varieties. (Before plural licenses, an apostrophe after the -s as in drivers' would surely be the most common usage.)
Of course, forms such as girls school, even if they are not to be deemed standard now, could
come to be regarded as standard – perhaps with a special sense
involving relationships other than ownership or control (at present
English makes no such distinction in its grammar). This would be an
interesting change in the limits and capacities of Standard English.
decades, the use of the apostrophe has in fact been changing in various
respects, as I have noted earlier. The construction two months notice / two months' notice is one such case. Both forms occur, and arguably both are now to be deemed standard usage.
above imply that I think that Seeley was not mistaken in her judgement
on this issue; the usage which she recommended, with the apostrophe, is
the more clearly standard.
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