To apostrophise or not to apostrophise?

Most of the time, deciding whether to use a possessive apostrophe is pretty easy. If the concept demonstrates some possession (i.e., you can turn it around and include ‘of’ or ‘belonging to’), then a possessive apostrophe is needed.

Boys’ books? The books belonging to the boys. Easy.

But I often get asked how to decide whether something is an adjective that doesn’t need the possessive. That decision isn’t always as clear. And it can be particularly tricky if the word in question is a plural.

For example, I’m about to launch a series of seminars for small business owners, to be held at Northside Meetings. Is it Northside Meetings’ Small Business Series or Northside Meetings Small Business Series?

My personal preference is to use the apostrophe. But it all depends on how you expect people to understand ‘Northside Meetings’.

Substituting other words usually helps me to make the decision:

  • I’d write: Red Small Business Series or Helpful Small Business Series, because ‘red’ and ‘helpful’ are clearly describing the business series.
  • I’d write: Sarah’s Small Business Series, because ‘Sarah’ is the ‘owner’ of the series. This is about ownership, not description, so the possessive apostrophe is needed.

So does Northside Meetings have more in common with ‘red’ or ‘Sarah’? I see it as more similar to ‘Sarah’, so that leads me to write Northside Meetings’ Small Business Series. It’s the series ‘at’ or ‘belonging to’ Northside Meetings. I feel confident in my choice because Northside Meetings is a place, not a term that can be used to describe things.

But there’s a conundrum: If Northside Meetings’ sister company ran the series, would I write The Letter Lounge’s Small Business Series? Applying the same logic would give me that apostrophe. And yet, I’ve got a hunch that The Letter Lounge Small Business Series looks better on the page and is easier to say.

So maybe the answer is this:

  • Be guided by context
  • Be consistent within a document
  • Understand why you make your decision
  • Accept that some writing questions have no easy answer
  • Accept that many people will claim you’ve made the wrong choice.