Friday, February 18, 2005

Why is it workers' comp?

Nicole at A Capital Idea got to this before I did, but, as with her, apostrophes have been bugging me lately.

In my case, it's why we call it workers' compensation. Why the apostrophe? That shows my AP upbringing, being that AP dictates not using the apostrophe when the modifier is descriptive -- essentially when the word that would be used in the longer construction is "for." I suppose with workers' compensation, the argument could be made that it's compensation of workers for their injuries, but it seems to me better stated as compensation for injured workers.

So Nicole's got a good discussion going. And this comment by Aaron gets me thinking more about this. The AP seems to have followed the old Chicago Manual of Style in denoting that descriptives such as this should not get apostrophes. But Aaron points to this good 2001 discussion from Copy Editor newsletter that notes the difference between genetives of purpose (the descriptive) and the attributive. And as he points out, Chicago now appears to have changed its style: "The line between a possessive or genitive form and a noun used attributively -- as an adjective -- is sometimes fuzzy, especially in the plural. Although terms such as employees' cafeteria sometimes appear without an apostrophe, Chicago dispenses with the apostrophe only in proper names (often corporate names) or where there is clearly no possessive meaning."

(Note to family: Birthday approaching. New copies of Chicago and Garner's Dictionary of Modern American Usage needed.)

So maybe workers' does make sense and it's time for AP to reconsider.

(It would definitely make it easier for my students who have been taught in lower levels to use the apostrophe on all such forms. And it would help that style simplification movement I've suggested.)


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