by

Is ‘Mens’ Becoming a Word?

IMG_3630

In deciding whether or not to use, and where to place, an apostrophe after a genitive (or possessive) word, I have always relied on men. That’s men, the word. Here’s what I mean. If I wanted to refer to the school I attended as a youth, there are basically three choices: “a boy’s private school,” “a boys private school,” and “a boys’ private school.”  (“Boy private school” doesn’t sound right.) I’d be able to eliminate the first option quickly, as it implies that the school was designed for or owned by a particular boy, or a typical boy (as in “Mother’s Day” or “farmer’s tan”), neither of which is the case. To choose between the other two, I would in my mind replace boys with men — an irregular plural that lacks that pesky and distracting s. That gives us *men private school, *mens private school, and men’s private school. (The asterisk indicates constructions not consistent with English grammar and usage.) My answer, then, is to put the apostrophe after the plural form, which gives me “boys’ private school.”

You can do the same technique with other irregular plurals, like children and people. Try it, it works!

It usually works, anyway. As R.L. Burchfield notes in The New Fowler’s Modern English Usage (1996),

Since about 1900, many business firms, institutions, and journals have abandoned apostrophes in their titles, e.g., Barclays Bank, Citizens Advice Bureau, Diners Club, Farmers Weekly, Harrods, Mothers Pride Bread, Teachers Training College … . This trend towards the dropping of the apostrophe in such names and titles seems certain to continue.

Burchfield was writing from a British perspective, as has, more recently, my Lingua Franca colleague Geoff Pullum. But the same thing has happened in the United States. The magazine of the book industry is Publishers Weekly. The institution where my daughter Elizabeth Yagoda got her master’s degree is Teachers College at Columbia University. (Both institutions had apostrophes when they started in the 1800s — Publishers’ Weekly and Teachers’ College.) When the holiday formerly known as Armistice Day changed its name, in 1954, it became Veterans Day, sans apostrophe. The trend definitely holds in unofficial usage. A Google News search of “farmers market” yields, in the first two screens, 17 hits without the apostrophe and three with it. And search for “Presidents Day” – the official name of which is Washington’s Birthday”–– yields 13 hits sans apostrophe and seven avec.

I don’t object to these trends, as long as it’s acknowledged that the apostrophes have been omitted because of the institutions’ own preference, or a general public desire for streamlining — as opposed to any claim of a legitimate syntactic rationale. That claim is sometimes made. The Associated Press Stylebook section on the use of apostrophes in “Descriptive Phrases” reads:

Do not add an apostrophe to a word ending in s when it is used primarily in a descriptive sense: citizens band radio, a Cincinnati Reds outfielder, a Teamsters request, a writers guide.

Memory aid: The apostrophe usually is not used if for or by rather than of would be appropriate in the longer form: a radio band for citizens, a college for teachers, a guide for writers, a request by the Teamsters.

An s is required, however, when a term involves a plural word that does not end in s: a children’s hospital, a people’s Republic, the Young Men’s Christian Association.

I say balderdash. There is no good reason why the rules for regular and irregular plurals should be different, and I submit that citizens’ bandTeamsters’ request, and writers’ guide should in a just and consistent world all have apostrophes. (There are indeed cases where a plural modifying noun remains apostrophe-less, and Reds outfielder is one of them, along with arms dealer, jobs report, and a city’s records department. But it’s wrong to name for or by as the prepositions that define the nouns’ relationship when an apostrophe is properly abjured. Rather, this happens with a looser connection, more or less of proximity, expressed by something along the lines of  “associated with.”)

Nevertheless, my own memory aid — the word men – would appear to be in jeopardy. Consider two photos I  snapped over the course of a couple of days. The first, at the top of this post, was in an Old Navy, and the one below on a street in the Chestnut Hill section of Philadelphia.

IMG_3652

Is men’s in the process of losing its apostrophe, in the manner of another possessive, it’s – which had universally turned into its by the beginning of the 19th century? And will I in turn therefore lose my own “memory aid” for apostrophe use? It’s early days so I can’t predict for sure, but if so, the pattern would follow the term that began its existence as men’s wear. That’s how the first (1823) Oxford English Dictionary citation is rendered, as is every subsequent one through 1947, when Delmore Schwartz wrote this in his short story “In Dreams Begin Responsibility”: “the truth was that Seymour’s taste in clothes and men’s wear was loud, practically spectacular.” But a 1964 quote from the New York Post has a single, apostrophe-less word:  “Russ Togs in black, brown, loden, navy, and menswear grey.” And there, for the most part, menswear remains. (The New York Times, endearingly, is still committed to men’s wear.)

This Google Ngram Viewer graph shows the relative frequency of the two terms in printed sources.

Screen Shot 2017-01-24 at 8.57.40 AM

The question brought back a memory from my college years in the 1970s. The great blues singer, sculptor, and gravedigger James (Son) Thomas came to perform. Looking out over the crowd, he said, “I love seeing all you pretty womens.” A sort of double-pluraling of this irregular plural seems to be a feature of African-American Vernacular English. Googling the last two words of Thomas’s remark, I found this quote from Langston Hughes’s collection Simple Uncle Sam: “There are more homely womens in the world than there are pretty womens.”

The author of that sentence needs a bit of an attitude adjustment. But he doesn’t need an apostrophe.

 

Return to Top