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Attributive Nouns

By Judy Vorfeld

Bird of Paradise Photo by David B CrookDo you feel okay punc­tu­at­ing pos­ses­sives until you have to decide on “men’s room,” “mens’ room,” or “mens room?” I have peo­ple reg­u­larly ask­ing for the answer. Let’s investigate.

In this case, we’re talk­ing about attribu­tive nouns, not com­pounded nouns. Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary says an attribu­tive noun acts as an adjec­tive. It uses the word “city” in “city streets” as an example.

Chicago Manual of Style (15th Edition 7.27) says that the line between a pos­ses­sive or gene­tive form and a noun used attribu­tively (as an adjec­tive) can be fuzzy, espe­cially in the plural. It now dis­penses with the apos­tro­phe only in proper (often cor­po­rate) names, or where there’s clearly no pos­ses­sive meaning.

Professor Charles Darling says, “One of the most dif­fi­cult deci­sions to make about pos­ses­sives and plu­rals of com­pound words occurs when you can’t decide whether the first noun in a com­pound struc­ture is act­ing as a noun that ought to be show­ing pos­ses­sion or as what is called an attribu­tive noun, essen­tially an adjective.”

Amy Einsohn, in The Copyeditor’s Handbook, says, “C15 7.27 dis­cour­ages apostrophe-less attribu­tive nouns (con­sumers’ group, not con­sumers group) but notes that the attribu­tive is used in some names (Publishers Weekly, Diners Club).”


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