Wilbers: To use, or not to use: Apostrophes in names of organizations

  • Article by: STEPHEN WILBERS , Special to the Star Tribune
  • Updated: August 3, 2014 - 2:00 PM

Ah, summer. Don’t you love it?

The other day, while sitting with a big frosty glass of lemonade in the shade of our back yard crabapple tree, without a care in the world, I opened my old brown leather bag full of queries from readers and I dumped them on the grass around me. The first message I read was from Susan, who wanted to know whether there should be an apostrophe in the name of her organization:

“Our bylaws list us as Minnesota County Recorders Association — although there has been debate over the years about using Minnesota County Recorder’s Association or Minnesota County Recorders’ Association.”

My answer is yes to the bylaws, no to the apostrophe.

As an analogy, consider the NFL Players Association and the National Basketball Players Association, both spelled without apostrophes, although you sometimes see the National Basketball Players’ Association. You also see both players union and players’ union.

In other words, apostrophe usage in names is inconsistent.

So let’s go back to the basics. Apostrophes denote both possession and relationship, as in a child’s game, the recorders’ concerns and one week’s notice, but in descriptive phrases, such as players association, they are usually omitted, particularly in commonly used phrases — especially those used as acronyms, such as MCRA.

To my eye and ear, then, because the first four words in the Minnesota County Recorders Association are descriptive rather than possessive, the name should be written without an apostrophe.

But in the end, it’s your choice; in other words, you and your organization get to decide. “In all cases,” as William Sabin points out in “The Gregg Reference Manual,” “follow the organization’s preference when known,” as in Taster’s Choice and Mrs. Fields cookies.

Sabin also points out that some phrases, such as sales effort and savings account, are obviously descriptive. Others, such as girls basketball team vs. girls’ basketball team, are a close call. With phrases that could be either descriptive or possessive, Sabin offers a handy tip:

“Try substituting an irregular plural like women. You wouldn’t say the women basketball team; you would say the women’s basketball team. By analogy, the girls’ basketball team is correct.”

I chuckle as I think about a query I received nine years ago from Larry Laukka, the chief executive officer of the group developing a walkway honoring scholars at the University of Minnesota. I recommended the name be spelled Scholars’ Walk — with the apostrophe. My reasoning: Despite the tendency to treat certain phrases as descriptive rather than possessive, Scholars’ Walk, unlike Regents Professor, was not a common phrase. Besides, with more and more students seeing nothing amiss in mens restroom and womens restroom, spelling Scholar’s Walk with an apostrophe was an opportunity to remind young, impressionable minds of how one might use that inconspicuous little mark.

Although Laukka agreed with me, we lost the debate, and so today you can go unencumbered by apostrophes as you follow that lovely “Scholars Walk” through the heart of the University’s East Bank campus.

Still, I wonder. As I observed to Laukka so many years ago, if “Scholars Walk,” do they also run, trot and canter?

Stephen Wilbers offers training seminars in effective business writing. E-mail him at wilbe004@umn.edu. His website is www.wilbers.com.

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