Presidents' Day Special: Ask Me--Apostrophes
A timely "Ask Me" from Ed Hines of Roswell, Georgia:
Where you cite your experience under your new-book section on your home page, should not "years" indicate possession? A missing apostrophe perhaps?
The full quote Ed's referring to says How to Not Write Bad "is based largely on my twenty years experience teaching writing at the University of Delaware." And he suggests it should say "twenty years' experience." My answer to his first question is "No," and because of that, my answer to his second question is, "Perhaps, but perhaps not." (A clue to the [philosophical] place from which Ed is coming is the way he deftly hyphenates "new-book.")
The apostrophe is without question the traditional way to go. But for some years there has been a move away from it for certain plural "possessives." Sir Ernest Gowers brings this up in his 1965 revision of H.W. Fowler's Modern English Usage. Discussing "Five years' imprisonment; Three weeks' holiday, etc.", Gowers says: "Years and weeks may be treated as possessives and given an apostrophe or as as adjectival nouns without one." He allows that "the former is perhaps better." But thirty-one years later, when R.W. Burchfield edited the next (and still current) edition of Fowler's, he noted:
Since about 1900, many business firms, institutions, and journals have abandoned apostrophes in their titles, e.g., Barclays Bank, Citizens Advice Bureau, DIners Club, Farmers Weekly, Harrods, Mothers Pride Bread, Teachers Training College. (It can be argued that in some of these the word ending in s is a plural word used attributively.) ... This trend towards the dropping of the apostrophe in such names and titles seems certain to continue.
And so it has, especially in the world of commerce. The company is Travelers Insurance, apostrophe-free. The magazine of the book industry of Publishers Weekly. Significantly, when the holiday formerly known as Armistice Day changed its name, in 1954, it became Veterans Day, sans apostrophe. The trend definitely holds in unofficial usage. A Google News search of "farmers market" yields, in the first three screens, twenty-two hits without the apostrophe and seven with it. (These are divided between "farmer's market" and "farmers' market," about which more below.) And, to get to the "timely" aspect, a similar Google News search for "Presidents Day"--which is observed today in the U.S. today but is not an official holiday (it's actually called "Washington's Birthday"--you could look it up)--yields fifteen hits for both apostrophe and apostrophe-less forms. Again, in some of the latter the apostrophe comes before the "s" and in some it comes after.
Let me address that issue first: if you do use an apostrophe in such cases, it should (almost) always come at the end. This admittedly can be hard to figure out. The trick I use is to think about what I'd do with a word whose plural doesn't end with an "s." Thus, you would write "women's issues," "the men's department," and "children's toys," not "women issues," "the men department," or "children toys," which are the equivalent of the apostrophe-less form. It's almost always, because there are such expressions as "farmer's tan," "mother's little helper," or (to invoke another holiday) "Mother's Day," which refer to attributes, qualities or possessions of a protypical and singular farmer or mom.
I'd say that in a non-business setting, you still do have to use an apostrophe for strong possessives of plurals. By "strong," I mean where the thing referred to does really belong to the group; you simply could not eschew the apostrophe in the brothers' room, the Martins' house, or the bosses' wishes. But it's different for "weak" possessives, in which the relationship isn't one of possession or ownership, but rather association or proximity, and can sometimes be expressed by "for" or "having to do with," rather than "of." Getting back to Ed's question, the "twenty years" don't in any sense possess the experience; they are associated with it. In these situations, including the apostrophe sounds a trifle fussy, dispensing with it sounds a trifle fast and loose, but you can go either way: "farmers market" or "farmers' market"; "Presidents Day" or "Presidents' Day"; "girls club" or "girls' club"; and "twenty years experience" or "twenty years' experience."