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“Scholars’ Walk”
or
“Scholars Walk”?

“'Scholars (sic) Walk' so named”

“The possessive form can be confusing”

“Postscript: The Correspondence”


Your Guides to Excellent Writing

“Scholars (sic) Walk so named

By Stephen Wilbers

Author of 1,000 columns
published in the Minneapolis Star Tribune & elsewhere
 

Well, the issue has been resolved: The University of Minnesota will call its new walkway honoring scholars "The Scholars Walk" without the apostrophe. Here's my take, along with an earlier column on the topic and my correspondence with the dean and the planning committee. All in good fun, of course.

 

Please don’t think me a sore loser.

As you may have heard, the University of Minnesota has decided to name its new 2,300-foot walkway "the Scholars Walk" rather than "the Scholars’ Walk."

Am I sore that the planning committee solicited my advice and then disregarded it? Of course not.

But what troubles me is that the question apparently wasn’t decided on the basis of grammar. Instead, there were vague arguments about how the scholars didn’t actually own the walk; it was just being named for them. Reasonable enough. But one could make the same case for "the Children Hospital."

Apparently lacking was any discussion of possession beyond our everyday understanding of it, as in "That’s my book. It belongs to me."

As a grammatical construct, the possessive case indicates not just ownership but also relationship, and relationship is a broader concept, as illustrated by the phrases "a good day’s work" and "one week’s notice." Should we call it "a good day work" because it was we who did the work, not the day, or "one week notice" because it is we who must give notice, not the week? I think not.

I recognize that the trend is to omit the apostrophe, but I believe the trend is part of a larger movement toward less punctuation generally (particularly on signs) and so don’t consider it instructive.

Likewise, there is a tendency to treat a phrase as descriptive rather than possessive as the phrase becomes more common and idiomatic, as in "teachers manual." But "Scholars’ Walk," unlike "Regents Professor," is not a common phrase.

Perhaps a low point in the debate was reached when the apostrophe-free Vietnam Veterans Memorial was cited as a precedent for omitting the apostrophe.

I ask you, does it make sense for an educational institution to follow the lead of the government in matters of rigorous inquiry and precise communication? Shouldn’t it be the other way around?

A case in point: Several years ago when I renewed my driver’s license, I noticed that the phrase was spelled "driver’s license" in one place on my renewal notice and "drivers license" in another. When I went to the office to have my picture taken, I saw a sign that read "driver license."

With that example in mind, perhaps we should just throw in the towel and call it "Scholar Walk." Likewise, we could have a women club. I wonder what the women basketball team would think about that.

But as the board’s chief executive officer, Larry Laukka, who also found himself on the losing side of the argument, declared, "This was more fun than anything . . . I’ll get over it," and so will I.

So let’s end the debate. Let’s set aside all the talk about correct punctuation and the need for educational institutions to uphold standards, and let’s be happy with what we have: a beautiful walkway honoring the University’s scholars.

But I wonder, if "Scholars Walk," do they also run, trot, and canter?

 

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Your Guides to Excellent Writing

The possessive form can be confusing

By Stephen Wilbers

Author of 1,000 columns
published in the Minneapolis Star Tribune & elsewhere

 

Indicating possession can be tricky. For one thing, there’s more than one way to do it.

You can place a ring around somebody’s finger, sign your name to a document, or simply holler, "Hey, that’s mine!"

You also have options in writing. You can use a possessive pronoun, as in his knitting needle and her screwdriver; insert an apostrophe or an apostrophe s after the person or thing showing possession, as in Kathy’s promotion and the cat’s meow; or construct a phrase beginning with the preposition of, as in the handle of the screwdriver.

Sometimes it’s hard to know if you’re dealing with a possessive or a descriptive phrase. For example, the customer’s complaint is possessive because the customer owns the complaint, whereas savings account is descriptive (and so is spelled without an apostrophe) because savings describes account.

But sometimes there’s no rhyme or reason to our conventions. According to the dictionary, Presidents’ Day is spelled with an apostrophe, but Veterans Day is not. Go figure.

When you find yourself in a quandary – is it girls basketball team or girls’ basketball team? – use this handy technique from William Sabin’s The Gregg Reference Manual:

"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."

Pretty nifty, don’t you think? Let’s apply it to an example from a reader, who wrote to me about "a small controversy" on the University of Minnesota campus:

"I am a volunteer alumnus and chair of the Scholars’ Walk, a pedestrian way, currently under construction, connecting the McNamara Alumni Center to the Mall. We are drafting an inscription/placard which will identify and explain the walk and its benefactors.

"There are some who argue that the walk, which is being put in place to honor many of our great scholars, should be labeled without an apostrophe because it is a walk of scholars and therefore not possessive. Others argue that it is a pedestrian way which recognizes scholars and therefore it is theirs – a Scholars’ Walk.

"We wish, of course, to get it right, lest a Nobel laureate come by and take us to task."

So how would you respond to this query? Would you say a women walk or a women’s walk? Here’s my response:

"In some cases the difference between a descriptive phrase and a possessive form is slight. If it’s a close call, err on the side of using an apostrophe.

"A second reason to treat Scholars’ Walk as a possessive form is to avoid ambiguity. Why draw attention to the fact that scholars walk, when scholars read, scholars write, and scholars publish, among other things? To omit the apostrophe would be to invite the inevitable jokes."

Well, the 2,300-foot walk is taking shape, and I think it’s quite attractive. This week, however, on my way to the university’s rec center I was dismayed to notice Scholars Walk on a construction sign.

I anxiously await the spelling on the permanent plaque.

 


Your Guides to Excellent Writing

Postscript: The Correspondence

By Stephen Wilbers

Author of 1,000 columns
published in the Minneapolis Star Tribune & elsewhere

 

Sent: Thursday, January 06, 2005 4:54 PM
Subject: Scholars Walk or Scholars' Walk?

Dear Dr. Wilbers:

Larry Laukka forwarded me your column about possessives, which uses the UM's Scholars(') Walk as an example. I am chair of the faculty committee in charge of selecting honorees for the Scholars Walk.

I was almost persuaded by your arguments, particularly Saban's technique of substituting "women" for "scholars" to show that a simple plural is not what's intended.

However, consider the parallel example of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial (not Veterans'). The Memorial honors the Veterans, just as the Walk honors the Scholars. "Honors" is in the general category of "pertains to," not "belongs to," and therefore, I would maintain, does not imply possession.

The U's Regents Professors present a similar conundrum. The Regents are honoring the Professors, not possessing them. The honoree and honorer are in reverse order than in Scholars Walk, but the principle seems the same.

A tricky issue, to be sure. I'd value your further thoughts.

Regards,


Victor Bloomfield
Interim Dean of the Graduate School and Vice Provost for Research
University of Minnesota
 

**********
 

Vic,

Thanks for pursuing this apostrophe thing. We are all victims it seems; the apostrophe suffers misuse and abuse, and we users suffer its use . . . Let's hope Dr. Wilbers can set us straight, so we can all rejoice when we cut the ribbon on the Scholars' Walk — oops! I just can't help myself. Sorry.

Larry

P.S.: We have a few other SW components/places to similarly identify while we are at it.

1) Regents Professors
2) Regents Professors Square
3) Regents Plaza
4) Professors Lane
5) Students Grove
6) Regents Awards

 

**********


Dear Victor Bloomfield and Larry Laukka:

Thanks for your messages. I'm flattered to be asked for some additional thoughts on the "Scholars' Walk / Scholars Walk" question.

As you both have pointed out so articulately, the difference between a possessive phrase and a descriptive phrase is sometimes slight, and the decision to use or omit the apostrophe often a judgment call. Reasonable arguments can be made for both usages.

To Dean Bloomfiield's argument that the phrase has more to do with "pertaining to" than possessing, however, I would point out that the grammatical notion of possession is broad, as in "a stone's throw" and "a week's vacation." The possessive may be called for, as I believe it is in "The Scholars' Walk," when the intended meaning has little to do with possession as we think of it in our everyday experience.

At the same time, I admit that Larry Laukka's list of related examples gives me pause, particularly "Regents Professors Square." I'm prepared to defend "Regents Professors" as a descriptive rather than possessive phrase, but "Regents Professors Square" as opposed to "Regents Professors'
Square" makes me feel as though I'm on a slippery slope.

I recognize that the trend is in the direction of omitting the apostrophe, but I believe this trend may be part of a larger movement toward less punctuation generally (especially on signs), and so the trend is not instructive.

Despite the trend — and despite many examples like "Vietnam Veterans Memorial" — I would hold out for the apostrophe in "The Scholars' Walk."


In addition to the arguments I already have advanced, I offer two points:

1. The tendency to treat a phrase as descriptive rather than possessive becomes more pronounced as the phrase becomes more common and idiomatic, as in "teachers manual." "Scholar's Walk," unlike "Regents Professor," is not a common phrase.

2. "The Scholars' Walk" makes a definite statement. A question has been considered and a position has been taken. In contrast, "The Scholars Walk" may be viewed as carelessness or simply giving in to a trend toward less thoughtful and precise use of language. Note, for example, that the highly regarded Iowa Writers' Workshop retains the apostrophe. (No Iowa jokes, please.)

Of course, the main point is that this marvelous effort is taking place. I think creating a walk to honor the U's scholars is a wonderful thing to do. In my opinion, some lively, good-hearted debate that might bring attention to this effort does no harm.

Again, thanks for inviting my further comment.

Regards,

Stephen Wilbers

 

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