Thursday, 26 August 2010

Out, Out Damned Apostrophe!

I had thought that I had a pretty decent command of the apostrophe. But this week, a particularly egregious apostrophe has caused me a few headaches. I had just written a Reviewer’s Guide for one of my company’s programming software products. Yes, that’s right - a Reviewer’s Guide. Or then again, maybe that should that be a Reviewers’ Guide?

The second version (Reviewers’) suggests that this guide is intended to be read by more than one reviewer (which it is), whereas the first version (Reviewer’s) suggests that I expect only one reviewer at a time to read it (which I do).

So which should I go for? Reviewers’ in the plural or Reviewer’s in the singular?

I tried to think of some comparable examples. You would say “a child’s toy”, wouldn’t you? So maybe it should be “a reviewer’s guide”? But then you would say “a children’s book” so that means it should be “a reviewers’ guide”!

No, no, this is madness! Why is a toy aimed at a single child but a book aimed at a whole load of them? Let’s try to think of some better examples...

If I said “Butch Omi” is a Men’s Magazine, that would mean it is a magazine aimed at a male readership (thus men, plural). I could equally say that it is a Man’s Magazine but if I were to do so I think I would be most likely to qualify ‘man’ in some way - for example, “It’s the working man’s magazine” or “the thinking man’s magazine”.

I am not at all sure that there is any hard and fast rule to determine where the apostrophe should be placed when you are describing something that is aimed at an individual who is also a member of a group. In most cases, the pronunciation of the singular and plural nouns is identical so it would be impossible to distinguish between them in spoken language (reviewer’s guide or reviewers’ guide; dog’s lead or dogs’ lead). In the examples above, I deliberately chose words (man/men, child/children) whose sounds change from singular to plural to try to make the distinction more obvious.

Just to add to the confusion, glancing along my bookshelf, I notice copies of those two invaluable reference works for the freelance writer: the Writer’s Handbook and The Writers’ and Artists’ Yearbook. What am I to deduce? That the first assumes a lone reader while the latter expects to be passed from hand to hand among a multitude?

Well, the time has come to make a decision. I think I’m going to stick with Reviewer’s Guide (and assume that each reviewer believes the guide was written for him or her alone). Mind you, this bothersome matter is probably not something worth losing sleep over. The apostrophe is such an ill-treated punctuation mark these days that I suspect a great many people won’t know why I’ve put one there at all: Reviewers Guide anyone...?

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