Don't Get Possessive About Attributive Nouns

Rob Kyff on

Q. Should the title of a school club be written "Future Teachers' Club" (with an apostrophe) or "Future Teachers Club" (no apostrophe)? -- Nancy Vallimont, Detroit

A. Future teachers take note: No apostrophe is needed.

In this case, "teachers" is an attributive noun, that is, a noun being used in a descriptive sense, not in a possessive sense. It's not a club that will be owned by teachers in the future (future teachers' club); it's a club for future teachers.

Generally, if you can use "for" rather than "of" in the longer form of such an expression, drop the apostrophe. Hence, a college for teachers is a teachers college, a soccer team for girls is a girls soccer team, and a cruise for singles is a singles cruise, unless the singles get rowdy and stage a mutiny. Hey, it happens.

When the plural of the attributive noun doesn't end in "s," you must still add an apostrophe and an "s," e.g., "children's books," "people's republic," "women's room," though signs on restrooms often erroneously flout this rule, using "mens" and "womens."

Some long-established organizations with attributive nouns in their names do include an apostrophe, so be careful. While the names Diners Club, American Postal Workers Union, and National Governors Association, for instance, have no apostrophe, the names Boys' Life, Reserve Officers' Training Corps and Actors' Equity do.

Q. The use of "had had" has always struck me as awkward, as in, "John had had a bad habit for 10 years." Is this correct usage? -- Andy Watson, San Jose, California


A. Technically, yes. But "had had" usually reflects weak writing.

The double "had" arises because "had" can be both a helping verb in the past perfect tense ("I had lunched") or an action verb meaning "to hold, possess" (I had lunch in my picnic basket). So when you use the helping, past perfect "had" with the holding "had," you create a double-hadder. "By midafternoon, I had had two lunches," which, by the way, is never good for digestion.

When you find yourself writing "had had," try replacing the second "had" with a more specific verb, e.g., "By midafternoon, I had had (had eaten) two lunches"; "By 1608, King Blunderbuss had had (had fathered) 14 children." "By 5 p.m. the king had had (had attended) 14 parent-teacher conferences."

And, if you think "had had" sounds odd, consider this sentence, with four successive "had"s: The successful hat factory he had had had had no effect on his overall happiness." Talk about a Mad "Hadder"!


Rob Kyff, a teacher and writer in West Hartford, Connecticut, invites your language sightings. Send your reports of misuse and abuse, as well as examples of good writing, via email to or by regular mail to Rob Kyff, Creators Syndicate, 737 3rd Street, Hermosa Beach, CA 90254.

Copyright 2021 Creators Syndicate Inc.



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