Those pesky apostrophes

A friend recently joked that it was ironic that the ACT Writers Association couldn’t get the apostrophe right, when the National Farmers’ Federation could.

Is she right?

It turns out that some phrases and titles that look like they might need an apostrophe actually don’t.

As we remember from primary school grammar, we use an apostrophe to show ownership or possession of the noun:

  • Ermintrude’s book (Ermintrude owns the book)
  • the dragon’s tail (the dragon possesses the tail).

But, for the ACT Writers Association, the writers don’t own or possess the association – they are members of the association. In this case, ‘writers’ is descriptive, not possessive.

In general, there has been a shift away from using the possessive form in associations, centres and the like, because it is not strictly needed and adds clutter to the name.

How to decide?

There is a quick trick to help you figure out whether something is descriptive or possessive.

An apostrophe is usually not needed if for rather than of would fit the sentence. So:

  • a college for teachers (not of teachers) = teachers college
  • a licence for drivers (not of drivers) = drivers licence
  • the eve of New Year (not for New Year) = New Year’s Eve
  • the traditional recipe of my mother-in-law (not for cooking mother-in-laws) = mother-in-law’s traditional recipe.

In some cases, of course, the answer to ‘for’ or ‘of’ is ambiguous. This is probably where we get the National Farmers’ Federation, as you could see it as either a federation for farmers, or a federation of farmers.

Which is why googling every organisation name is part of our editing process, to make sure we’ve got it right.