Q&A: Plurals, possession and apostrophes

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Each week, we take a look at a common confusions and ambiguities in the English language (that gives us about a century’s worth of material!) – making things easier through the power of friendly conversation. This week, a word or two about possession…

Q: Hello. Every May and September I am literally paralysed with terror over where to put the apostrophe in the terms Mother’s Day and Father’s Day. Any advice?
A: Well, for starters, try looking up what “literally” means.

Q: No really, I’m writing this from the hospital. The doctors say my case is very unique.
A: Oh, sorry about that. Awkward. Okay, well yeah it’s one that newsagents, card makers and every retailer on the planet can’t seem to agree on. But thankfully there is generally accepted form YOU should use.

Q: Oh wait, don’t tell me yet. Can you talk me through it as if you were announcing the winner on a talent search reality TV show?
A: Ummmm okay. So, we’re down to our final three contestants: Fathers Day, Fathers’ Day and Father’s Day. Now let’s cut to a montage showing their journey to this point.

Q: Nice. Loving the poignant yet uplifting music. Wow, they’ve come so far…
A: Yep. First up it’s time to say goodbye… to… Fathers Day. I’m sorry “no apostrophe” – you often get used by apostrophobes, and your cover version of “It’s a day that simply celebrates fathers, plural” was amazing. But, the world has voted. It’s time to go.

Q: Did you just say “apostrophobes”?
A: Yeah, it’s what we like to call people who are scared they’ll put the apostrophe in the wrong place, so they end up not putting one in at all. We see it all the time.

Q: OK, back to the show. I knew early on that the no-apostrophe version would be eliminated. Waaay too inconsistent, week to week.
A: Indeed. So, the hugging is over. And it’s down to two: “s-apostrophe” and “apostrophe-s”

Q: Both strong contenders.
A: Flashback time. “Fathers’ Day” wowed us in week 4 with their rendition of “It’s a day belonging to ALL the fathers”, while “Father’s Day” completely floored the judges in week 7 with their proof that the original US holiday used it to indicate each individual family celebrating their own father.

Q: That was pretty compelling. I YouTubed it at least 10 times.
A: So, time to announce the winner. The winner…is….

Q: Yes?
A: …..

Q: Well?
A: ….. coming up right after these messages.

Q: Arrrgh. Fair enough, well played. So during the break, can I ask why the Melbourne Writers Festival – which just finished – has no apostrophe, while Sydney Writers’ Festival does?
A: Yeah nice. In fact, Sydney is the only one of the main centres that uses the apostrophe in their festival name. And certainly while we’d suggest a “Writer’s Festival” is wrong (smallest festival EVER), the other two options are open to interpretation. Sydney’s festival perhaps more literally “belongs to” writers, as it were, while Melbourne’s festival celebrates “writers” as a collective group. Neither is incorrect. Even here at Australian Writers’ Centre, we have an apostrophe because we believe it is a more active interpretation – a place belonging to all writers! But yeah, the festival one is always fun because they’re places that naturally attract grammar buffs who may do a double take depending on which version they prefer and which festival they attend!

Q: Shhhhh shhhh, it’s back on!
A: So it is. Welcome back. We’ll now spend 3 minutes showing you what happened before the break. And now for the winner… “Father’s Day”!!! Congratulations apostrophe-s, well deserved.

Q: Wow, after that chat during the break, I’m quite surprised. Plus I spent forty bucks SMS-voting for the other guy. Hmmm.
A: Yeah I know right? After all that talk of festivals, it can seem almost “quaint” that Father’s Day is so individualised. But this is one of those cases where it comes down to what was originally decided a hundred years ago as the intended meaning of the holiday. So that’s the official version worldwide.

Q: So today I’m seeing a theme. From a grammatical point of view, there are often a couple of options that COULD make sense. But there are no set rules: one is just decided on as the ‘official’ version.
A: Yep. Case by case I’m afraid. Often the whole “apostrophe possession” thing is blurred simply because we’re not sure if the thing doing the owning is singular or plural. But sometimes, like “Workers Compensation” (which has no apostrophe on the legislation) or Writers’ Festival (which has either), it’s just the version they decided to go with.

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