We recently asked the talented members of our Proofreading Advisory Council this question:
“What is the worst apostrophe conundrum you’ve had to resolve?”
Here are their answers:
I’m still never sure on Ladies Room. I believe we don’t need an apostrophe. But other things like girls school, girls club, I’ve always wondered whether to apostrophe or not.
I have to admit that I always think twice when the word “worth” is involved; a month’s worth of work; two years’ worth of work, etc. I know some reporters do not want it there, feeling it has fallen by the wayside.
And proper and plural names, James’ home, the Joneses’ house (or is it Jones’ house).
Another one I have been getting recently, Victim’s Advocate Department. Is it Victims’ Advocate Department or Victim’s Advocate? I believe it is Victim’s Advocate because they are advocating for that one particular person at that point in time.
Impossible to remember the worst. There have been some doozies. The really good ones seem to occur in confidential technical work, where I am reluctant to save examples. One that is always very tricky, though, is the apostrophe out of sync with the norm, whether as a possessive or a contraction. “May as well’ve been” or “That certification’d be necessary to keep my job.” I created these examples. The situations that actually occur are not so straightforward.
As in the ladies room example, I’ve made the decision that if it can be descriptive or possessive, go with descriptive and forego the apostrophe. If it has a companion in the transcript, such as men’s room and ladies’ room, I opt for consistency. That situation, descriptive v. possessive, happens frequently.
A colleague, Dianna Pugliese, gave the following example:
With perhaps a group of letters, like, “Could you please look at the column of T’s?” It’s not really possessive but doesn’t really look right if you put Ts.
I have a mental block with other’s/others’. And I think others have mentioned things like homeowners insurance, association, etc.
While editing a transcript, I was just reading over Cornell Law School’s Rule 609 article where they cite, “Rule 609(c) as submitted by the Court provided in part that evidence of a witness’ prior conviction is not admissible to attack his credibility…”
In my mind, it’s always been that you add apostrophe+s to these type of words — hostess, waitress, witness — so it becomes “a witness’s” in the above example. However, I just learned, after some further research, that this only applies in the case if the word following that noun does not begin with an “S” as well:
A witness’ story…
A witness’s prior conviction…
Interesting! I never knew this! I always knew that you add the apostrophe+s to these tricky words that end in “-ess” but had no idea that you use only an apostrophe if the next word begins with “S.” Of course, plural possessives of these words would remain, i.e., “the witnesses’ returned together” or “the witnesses’ stories were all the same.” That’s something I’ll have to look out for now!
Also, another conundrum with apostrophes that I’ve seen are how people write dates. The ’80s vs. the 80’s. Writers need to remember that the apostrophe, in addition to showing possession, is to replace missing letters/numbers. So “The ’80s” would be correct in this instance.
A tricky phrase for me is “nurses station.” That used to baffle me as to why there wouldn’t be any apostrophe used in this phrase.
Do you have a language question for our Proofreading Advisory Council? Send it to firstname.lastname@example.org.