Somewhere out there, in the teachers' lounge at a teachers college, people are chatting and laughing and sipping coffee — blissfully unaware that they're living exhibits in the Weird Punctuation Hall of Fame.
The weirdness comes courtesy of a single apostrophe, the one in teachers' lounge, and the conspicuous absence of another in teachers college. And, no, those aren't errors. In fact, that's how a lot of professional editors would punctuate these terms.
Careful readers sometimes notice dropped apostrophes in print: Check your homeowners policy. He joined a taxpayers association. She went to the farmers market. They got a couples massage.
People who are word-savvy enough to notice these missing apostrophes are likely to assume they're errors. After all, they know that possessives take apostrophes. Those are the teachers' cars. Visit the farmers' booths. That is the taxpayers' responsibility.
But in fact, those missing apostrophes aren't missing at all. Their absence is not an error. Yes, an apostrophe is required to show possession, but sometimes a term like teachers or homeowners or farmers or taxpayers is intended more as an adjective than as a possessor.
"Do not add an apostrophe to a word ending in S when it is used primarily in a descriptive sense: citizens band radio, a Cincinnati Reds infielder, a teachers college, a Teamsters request, a writers guide," instructs the Associated Press Stylebook.
It's a subtle distinction that leaves a lot of room for disagreement. One writer might think that a farmers market is all about the farmers, while another writer might feel that the market itself is the farmers'. Neither is right or wrong. But style guides like AP do contain a few specific rules.
For example, AP singles out teachers college as a term that does not take an apostrophe. But it doesn't give instructions on what to do when the word that follows "teachers" is something different, like "union" or "lounge." That's why, in AP style, some would write "a teachers' lounge in a teachers college," while others would write "a teachers lounge in a teachers college."
Sometimes you have to consider whether the term is singular or plural. For example, does an owner's manual refer to a single owner? Or is it an owners' manual or an owners manual, both of which emphasize plural owners? If you want one professional opinion, I'll tell you that if this term appeared in an article I was editing, I would think of it as having to do with "the owner" — be he an abstract concept or a real person. So I would make this "owner's manual." Other editors might disagree.
But for irregular plurals that don't end in S, the apostrophe isn't optional.
For example, "children" is an irregular plural not ending in S. But unlike a regular plural, it sounds too weird to use as an adjective: children hospital. Clearly, you need an S. But you can't just stick one on the end the way you would with "teacher" because there's no such thing as childrens.
So you can't put a plural S at the end, only a possessive S. And that one goes with an apostrophe: children's hospital (not childrens). Ditto that for women's healthcare (not womens) and men's department (not mens).
These oddballs aside, you often have a choice of whether to use an apostrophe. Here's a tip from AP: "The apostrophe usually is not used if 'for' or 'by' rather than the word 'of' would be appropriate in the longer form." So the house of the three dogs is the dogs' house. But the college for the teachers can be the teachers college.
But if you don't use an apostrophe, some people will think you made a mistake. So I interpret these terms as possessive whenever possible.