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I'm working with a friend on a short sentence for an announcement, and was asked whether the possessive should be used or dropped on program:

Current:

Please congratulate our program's graduates.

We believe it may be more correct to simply use:

Please congratulate our program graduates.

The graduates aren't owned by the program, so why express it as such? This seems like a common error.

Are we correct in this assessment?

Edit:

To expand on the question a bit, in the second case we are simply using program as an adjective for graduates: the type of graduate (ones of our program). I am aware that 's, the genitive case, can mean that something is associated with something else, and not strictly to convey ownership.

Thus, I know that the current form is correct, but am asking whether the second form seems improved, acceptable, or unusual in this example.

This may be a case of something similar to orthographic incredulity, where after staring at something too long it starts to appear wrong. That may be the case here, but I'd appreciate any constructive insight.

marked as duplicate by tchrist, Edwin Ashworth, Drew, FumbleFingers, Zairja Jan 22 '15 at 21:10

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  • You are completely confused about the apostrophe-s clitic in English. It is NOT restricted to possession, and it is not an error. However, this is a duplicate question. – tchrist Jan 22 '15 at 0:13
  • ... although there is a move (endorsed by many) away from using the possessive 's in at least some non-ownership situations (eg Writers Guild, dogs home). Also, check here on attributive nouns vs possessives. – Edwin Ashworth Jan 22 '15 at 0:25
  • @tchrist I disagree that this is a duplicate. I am not asking whether program, an inanimate thing, can utilize apostrophe-s, I'm asking whether the usage of apostrophe-s is unnecessary, since the second version seems just as clear. – JYelton Jan 22 '15 at 0:30
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No, this is an incorrect assessment.

Apostrophe-s is used as a vestigial remnant of the Anglo-Saxon genitive which has a number of distinct uses: as well as indicating possession it can be used in quite a standard way to indicate a partitive relationship, without implied possession.

Your second construction uses a "noun as adjective" construction. It is uncommon and awkward to use this construction when the genitive form is easily available (it is certainly a less productive construction than 's), in part because it provides fewer grammatical signposts for a reader. Using this construction with such ambiguous and multi-purpose words as "graduate" and "program" is inviting a reader to stumble.

The most common exception to this is in journalism, where the space restrictions due to print have carried over into other news media. If you are writing a headline with limited space the second form is probably an acceptable, -- if slightly gauche -- substitute for the first.

You seem to be an articulate speaker of English: don't let yourself lose your natural voice in a legalistic frenzy.

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While looking up information to answer this I found some guidelines here:

Rule 10. Beware of false possessives, which often occur with nouns ending in s. Don't add apostrophes to noun-derived adjectives ending in s. Close analysis is the best guide.

Incorrect: We enjoyed the New Orleans' cuisine.

In the preceding sentence, the word the makes no sense unless New Orleans is being used as an adjective to describe cuisine. In English, nouns frequently become adjectives. Adjectives rarely if ever take apostrophes.

Even though "program" doesn't end with s, the fact that "adjectives rarely take apostrophes" makes it seem like the second announcement is "more correct."

  • This is not a case of a false possessive. "Program" doesn't already end in "s", which would make this true if it were only an adjective. In the first example I gave, it's a noun, so it is showing association to another noun, graduates. The second example, without apostrophe-s, uses program as an adjective, describing what type of graduate. – JYelton Jan 22 '15 at 17:29
  • Yes, which is why I thought it fell in line with "We enjoyed the New Orleans cuisine," which is correct. Here "New Orleans" acts as an adjective. – Ryan Jan 22 '15 at 17:46

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