House style, apostrophes, and why you can’t win

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House style, apostrophes, and why you can’t win

It’s a very tricky thing trying to position yourself as a ‘writing expert’. You open yourself up to internet excoriation. Invariably, there will be errors that slip into some things (most things?) that you write, and other writing geeks will be keen to take aim at any error, perceived or actual.

Grammar Girl, in her post on comma use with strings of adjectives, uses as her first example of a string of adjectives:

When you use a string of adjectives, you often separate the adjectives with commas, as in ‘He is tall, dark, and handsome.’

But that example was always going to be separated by commas, because they were after the noun being modified, and were just, you know, a list.

You could find grammatical errors or stylistic inconsistencies in the writing of even the most authoritative people, like David Crystal or Steven Pinker; no one is immune.

English is messed up. It’s not like maths, were we can  expect a repeatable answer, every time. No matter what you do, someone will take exception. Certain rules (like comma placement, in some cases!) are more fluid. Some things are a matter of house style, like whether you use single or double quotes, or whether you spell out numbers 1–10 or use numerals.

Or whether you use an apostrophe with expressions using time, like:

He has 5 years experience.

Now the convention, traditionally, is to write it like this:

He has 5 years’ experience.

There are many writing experts out there telling us that, absolutely, there needs to be an apostrophe after the s. They might use terms like ‘genitive case’ and ‘Latin’. They generally accept that this may feel strange to some people, and, in that case, we should add an ‘of’ between ‘years’ and ‘experience’.

However, while you will see this rule followed with terms like ‘experience’ or ‘jail’, it’s not generally applied in a lot of other situations, where, if we want to be all prescriptivist about it, it should.

If we look at the grammatical form, we have:

5 years’ experience
Number > unit of measurement > noun

Let’s look at some other similar constructions. Would you add the apostrophe here?

  • 2 litres capacity
    • or abbreviated, 2000cc capacity
  • 24 months interest free
    [implied: finance].

It seems very odd to me to add an apostrophe to these, as the number and unit of measurement directly quantify the following noun. Kind of like how in the example below, the number and unit of measurement directly quantify the adjective.

The assignment was 2 days late.

(Note, as in the example above, if an adjective or preposition—such as ‘2 weeks in‘—follows the unit of measurement instead of a noun, an apostrophe is not used.)

Which makes applying the apostrophe to ‘years’ only if it’s followed by a noun feel quite arbitrary.

The Commonwealth Style Manual for Authors, Editors and Printers (6th Ed.) generally agrees:

It was previously conventional to use an apostrophe in expressions of time involving a plural reference, such as:

  • six weeks’ time
  • three months’ wages

The apostrophe is now often left out. Again, the sense of these phrases tends to be more descriptive than possessive.

My preference is to leave it out (still included in singular references, such as ‘a year’s time’) as there is no effect on meaning. Of course, if I’m working somewhere that uses the apostrophe in these situations as part of their house style, I can comply.

So, if it in no way affects meaning, why do some people insist it stays? Is it one of those social markers that people like to use to demonstrate their education?

By | 2017-05-19T08:20:55+00:00 March 14th, 2015|Grammar|5 Comments

About the Author:

Writer, editor, musician, plain English evangelist, content ninja for hire, and general web guy, Rory does lots of things, when he has time...


  1. Kevin Kim March 14, 2015 at 10.30am - Reply

    Grammar Girl has this and this to say re: apostrophes and time. I doubt she’s taking this stance just to show off her education, but admittedly, she sees herself as providing people a service, which I suppose implies that she sees herself as a sort of master (mistress??) or guide when it comes to grammar. But isn’t this also true of those who argue the descriptivist line? Don’t they also see themselves as speaking with some sort of authority?

    re: “it in no way affects meaning”

    And there’s the epistemic/doxastic problem in a nutshell. Some people say the presence or absence of the apostrophe does affect meaning. Both sides are trying to make their claims sound objective. Whom to believe, then—and why?

  2. Kevin Kim March 14, 2015 at 10.33am - Reply

    Oh, man… is your comment feature designed to remove hard returns so that there are no spaces between lines?
    I’m going to have to start inserting periods to preserve the hard returns, if that’s the case.
    Damn quirky comments feature.

  3. Rory March 14, 2015 at 9.34pm - Reply

    Hi Kevin

    Congratulations! You are our first blog comment. I shall have to award you some kind of yet-to-be-determined digital tribute. (And not the alarming kind.)

    Re the issue with hard returns… I suspect it’s a security thing; designed to escape any code submitted through the comment box. I’ll have a look at other options that allow proper formatting.

    I appreciate I’m viewing this through the bias of my viewpoint (and I like GG’s stuff). However, while I can easily think of examples where an apostrophe in the wrong place, or an omitted hyphen, could change the meaning of a sentence—say, by creating confusion around whether a sense of possession is singular or plural, or whether adjectives stand alone or form a compound—I can’t come up with a situation where leaving out the apostrophe in an expression like ‘5 years’ time’ could lead a reader down a different path of meaning.

    There may be a little cognitive jolt for people who expect to encounter an apostrophe in these situations and don’t find one…

  4. Rory March 14, 2015 at 9.34pm - Reply

    Oh yeah, that lack of hard returns sucks.

  5. Kevin Kim March 15, 2015 at 2.47am - Reply

    Indeed, I get the cognitive jolt. “Five years time”—no apostrophe—reads like “Rory book” when it should say “Rory’s book.”
    My university students, the ones privileged enough to be alerted to my blog’s presence, still get a chuckle from the tribute pic you made—the one of Britney Spears’s body with my fat head on top, sitting there on my blog’s right-hand margin. Always thankful for that. And really, that’s all the prize I need.
    May you eventually host many commenters. (Careful: that could be a curse as much as it is a blessing.)

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