Friday, December 04, 2009

Tricksy womenses!

Every now and then, the happy train wreck that is English grammar throws the sort of 59-foot curveball that even a good editor can't help swinging at.

The problem is that we don't have a good rule -- put another way, we have a lot of different equally good rules -- for handling nouns that modify nouns. Is it a "driver license," a "driver's license" or a "drivers license"? Depends on where you look, and sometimes -- as at the Michigan secretary of state's Web site -- it's two at once.

Stylebooks exist, in part, to handle just that sort of stuff. A rule mandating "drivers license" would be arbitrary; it has little or nothing to do with what's proper or grammatical, but it's really good for heading off unnecessary arguments on deadline. The AP stylebook has an entry for "workers' compensation," but you can't be certain what it's there to regulate: it could be the plural possessive, or it could be a reminder to avoid the sexist "workman's compensation." And that gets us into even trickier territory. I'm used to seeing the academic discipline rendered as "women's studies," but it's easy to find departments of women studies and woman's studies too.

So at a guess, the copyed who produced the hed above tried to figure out the correct form by analogy and reached for something like "drivers license" (it's "driver's license" in another 1A story, but the paper has used the plural and plural possessive forms too). Trouble is, "women" is already plural, so we get the slightly Gollumized "womens health" that made it into print.

Want another handy trick for telling whether someone's a real copy editor or not? If you claim with a straight face that you've never produced an error like that, you aren't a real copy editor.

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Blogger John Cowan said...

In general, forms like "drivers license", where the first noun is plural, are quite unusual in English. A monster that eats rats (plural) is a rat eater, not a rats eater, although people are more likely to accept "mice eater" (while still preferring "mouse eater").

When you find exceptions to this, send them to Steven Pinker to put on his exceptions list.

2:26 PM, December 04, 2009  
Blogger fev said...

"Workers comp" and "women studies" are the easiest to find (one regular plural and one not). The Freep stylebook -- at least, the version I have -- gives "workers compensation" (contrary to AP, which makes it possessive), but because it's marked as an exception to the dictionary's "workmen's compensation," my guess is that the style-givers were more concerned about the sexism of "workmen" than about the genitive/singular/plural stuff.

There's really strikingly little academic study of stylebooks, as far as I know. That's too bad.

3:27 PM, December 04, 2009  

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