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'.
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