Much ado about an apostrophe

Grammatical rules and the walk’s communal nature require that no apostrophe be used in its name.

As a longtime University of Minnesota editor and writer (and an alumna who earned two English degrees), I was drawn to the Feb. 3 front-page article regarding whether to add an apostrophe to “the Scholars Walk.” The issue is especially pertinent to me since I also teach punctuation workshops for the American Medical Writers Association. Unless the University wants to look hopelessly outmoded, an apostrophe should not be used in “the Scholars Walk.”

The au courant rule, followed by most grammatical authorities, is this: When regularly formed plurals of common nouns, like “scholar” or “writer” above, are enmeshed as attributive adjectives in noun phrases, omit the apostrophe unless it’s (still) part of an organization’s official name. 

Thus, do include the apostrophe if an organization officially retains it (such as the Freelance Editors’ Association of Canada or First Lutheran Church Ladies’ Auxiliary). But jettison the apostrophe in, for example, Veterans Affairs Medical Center (even though there used to be one in Veterans’ Administration).

The long-standing trend has been to skip the apostrophe in organizations’ names: the Harvard Six Cities Study, the Cancer Survivors Network, the Boys and Girls Club of New York.

Likewise, the apostrophe is usually skipped nowadays in everyday generic references (except with irregularly formed plurals, e.g., “a women’s support group,” “a new children’s wing,” “a men’s unit”). So, do not use an apostrophe when writing about a new moms support group or the cardiovascular fellows seminar or the residents reading room.  

The University’s own online style manual would not place an apostrophe in “the Scholars Walk,” although it doesn’t cite that exact phrase. Here is its advice: “Do not use an apostrophe with words that are descriptive or attributive rather than possessive. A noun may serve an attributive function rather than a possessive function if it modifies the noun following it. This may be true of plural as well as singular nouns.” It gives these examples: “teachers manual, veterans benefits, proofreaders marks, city streets, University department, student fees, faculty union.”

While cautioning about the difference in meaning between “parent organization” and parents’ organization,” the University’s style manual also notes, “The Office of the Board of Regents has adopted a style without the apostrophe. A similar style may be used for other instances in which the unit name serves an attributive rather than a possessive function.” It gives the examples: “regents meeting, Regents Professor of History, College of Liberal Arts faculty, history faculty.”

In my firm opinion, the adjective “Scholars” in “the Scholars Walk” is clearly attributive, not possessive. Scholars do not own the walk, nor are they associated with it in the same close way as, say, the namesake “St. Mark” is in “St. Mark’s Hospital.” Instead, the walk is about scholars, for bestowing honor on scholars, a way to showcase scholars.

Several academic-minded Web sites I looked at also feature “Scholars” as an attributive (and thus apostrophe-free) adjective. West Virginia University, according to an announcement from its communications director, dedicated “a Scholars Walk” in 2002. “The Ohio State Scholars Program” is described online in detail. A white paper prepared in 2000 for the Association of Research Libraries is entitled “The Case for Creating a Scholars Portal to the Web.” Numerous scholarly style guides agree with the University’s.

The “American Medical Association Manual of Style” states that an apostrophe should not be used “in the name of an organization in which the qualifying term is used as an adjective or an attributive rather than a possessive.”

Similarly, The Associated Press style is as follows: Do not add an apostrophe to a word ending in ‘s’ when it is used primarily in a descriptive sense Some governmental, corporate and institutional organizations with a descriptive word in their names use an apostrophe; some do not. 

Even the latest edition of the “Chicago Manual of Style” (which reversed its previous stand and now favors an apostrophe in many regular attributive adjectives) allows that “the line between a possessive or genitive form” and “a noun used attributively as an adjective is sometimes fuzzy, especially in the plural. Although terms such as “employees’ cafeteria” sometimes appear without an apostrophe, Chicago dispenses with the apostrophe only in proper names (often corporate names) or where there is clearly no possessive meaning.”

Of course, after all of this controversy about a tiny apostrophe (let alone earlier criticism of the total cost of the project), the scholars, living or dead, that the University is trying to honor may indeed come back to haunt, if not outright possess, the Scholars Walk.

Mary E. Knatterud is a University research assistant. Please send comments to [email protected]