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You won't find an apostrophe at the farmers market

A listener recently wrote to us with a seasonably appropriate question. Tom from Grand Rapids asks:

"I feel really passionate about supporting farmers and eating locally grown produce. 

That means in conversation and writing I find myself confused over how to talk about the location where local farmers gather to sell their wares. Do I say or write 'farmers market,' 'farmer market' or 'farmer's market'?

In case you missed the subtle differences in each of these constructions, Tom is asking whether the first word should be plural or singular and whether it should include an apostrophe.

You're not the only one who finds this confusing, Tom.

Let's break it down. The first word is a group of people and the second is another noun. The question comes down to whether the people are a descriptor or a possessor of the second noun.

If they're a possessor, they should take the apostrophe. If they're just a descriptor, then no apostrophe.

The Associated Press says that in "farmers market," the first word is considered a descriptor. In other words, this is a market for farmers, not a market owned by farmers. Therefore, no apostrophe is needed. 

Other examples are "teachers college" -- a college for teachers -- and "homeowners insurance" -- insurance for homeowners. 

Remember though, this rule isn't hard and fast. For example, the first word in "Mother's Day" is both singular and possessive, even though it makes sense to think of today as a day for your mother.

This construction goes back to the woman who founded the holiday, Anna Jarvis. She said she wanted the holiday to be a celebration of each individual mother in her individual family.

And yes, we included this example as a reminder for you to call your mom.

Are there other constructions that confuse you? Let us know at rkruth@umich.edu or acurzan@umich.edu. 

Anne Curzan is the Geneva Smitherman Collegiate Professor of English and an Arthur F. Thurnau Professor at the University of Michigan. She also holds faculty appointments in the Department of Linguistics and the School of Education.
Rebecca Kruth is the host of All Things Considered at Michigan Public. She also co-hosts Michigan Public's weekly language podcast That’s What They Say with English professor Anne Curzan.
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