While I generally feel sure-footed on matters of literary greengrocery, I'm at a loss on this one. How would a pedant write a sign alerting others to the presence of nests of wasps to make other pedants maximally happy?

You can use the words "Danger!" "Wasp" and "Nest" and can suffix one or more "s" and an apostrophe to any of them or refrain from doing so, as you see fit.

I'm aware of the irrelevance of such considerations in the grand scheme of things.

  • 7
    Danger! Wasps' nests! (It's a lot easier to write than to say.) Aug 17, 2015 at 18:25
  • 1
    In the US I'm familiar with the nest used by wasps being called a "wasp nest" (though when pronounced this is admittedly difficult to distinguish from "wasp's nest").
    – Hot Licks
    Aug 17, 2015 at 18:27
  • @Hot Licks: Disregarding the apostrophe (a trivial issue of orthography, compared to the real issue of spoken usage), would you also prefer to take your lucky rabbit foot with you on a dangerous expedition? I think the vast majority would enunciate an /s/ there, apostrophized or not. Aug 17, 2015 at 21:02
  • @FumbleFingers - Well, maybe you're right. I used to live in Kentucky where there were lots of horses' farms (though somehow I'm remembering that it was "horse farms").
    – Hot Licks
    Aug 17, 2015 at 21:06
  • 1
    To be pedantic: Are you sure they are wasps and not yellow jackets? Yellow jackets nest in the ground and have very short tempers. Wasps have easily visible nests above ground -- for example, under the eaves -- and are pretty laid back.
    – ab2
    Aug 17, 2015 at 21:46

2 Answers 2


Danger! Wasp Nests!

No apostrophe in this case, because there is no possessive*. Here "Wasp" is an attributive noun, and therefore can be in the singular form even though there is more than one nest and there isn't necessarily just one wasp associated with each nest. "Nests" is the ordinary plural form of "nest." Nothing here should bother a well-educated pedant. (Peevers, on the other hand, can be bothered by anything, even demonstrably correct uses of words.)

*That's not to say that you can't find forms of this phrase that do use the possessive, like "wasp's nest." I'm just saying that it's not necessary to use a possessive, and avoiding it makes the situation with regard to prescriptive grammar a lot easier.

  • I suppose it's in the nature of pedants to go against the crowd, but if we're to believe this NGram they're seriously out of touch with actual usage. Aug 17, 2015 at 20:35
  • @FumbleFingers: you left out "a wasp nest," the answer I was proposing. You see Hot Licks suggested the same thing below the original question. The plural of "wasp nest" is "wasp nests," just like the plural of "dog bone" is "dog bones."
    – herisson
    Aug 17, 2015 at 20:39
  • Ah. That was an out-and-out mistake - I meant to post a link to this NGram, which shows that in toto the apostrophized forms are four times more common than a wasp nest. Pedants usually look to the past - but interestingly, in this case a century ago they were actually forty times more common. Aug 17, 2015 at 20:53

We all know about greengrocers' proverbial fondness for apostrophes. But it turns out for OP's specific context, everyone prefers to include the apostrophe. The only question being whether they pluralize wasp first...


...where as you can see, usage is pretty evenly split on that point. I suppose some pedants might say because there are many wasps associated with the nest, they should be pluralized.

To summarise, a wasp's nest and a wasps' nest are equally common, a wasps nest is very rare, and a wasp nest sits somewhere in the middle. Relative prevalence has changed little over several generations.

  • I think the question refers to a situation where there are multiple nests. So why are the ngrams for the singular forms relevant?
    – herisson
    Aug 17, 2015 at 18:51
  • @sumelic: I can imagine an "extremist greengrocer" adding an apostrophe to three wasp's nest's, but I can't see why any pedant (extreme or not) would say the punctuation of attributive/possessive noun wasp(s) should be affected by the plurality of the following noun. Aug 17, 2015 at 20:19
  • The plurality of the following noun may be related to the plurality of the preceding noun. For example: I would write "a horse's head" but "horses' heads." Sometimes, it doesn't make sense to pluralize the first noun because it's a singular concept: I would write the plural of "a death's head" as "death's heads." With "wasp's nest," it's complicated because even a single nest is usually associated with more than one wasp, as you say. Nevertheless, while "wasp's nest" is for me marginal, "wasp's nests" seems to me outright wrong.
    – herisson
    Aug 17, 2015 at 20:27
  • 2
    Wasp nest seems as fine as "chicken coop", or "hen house". And for city folks, yes, these domiciles typically have more than one inhabitant too. Aug 17, 2015 at 21:44
  • 1
    British English isn't logical regarding this "chicken coop" analogy. One bee-hive, or several bee-hives, but also a (wild) bees' nest. Similarly a fox hole (most likely inhabited by a family group) but the same thing may be called a fox's lair or a fox's den. But a "wasp's (singular) nest" is biologically wrong, since the species known as "solitary wasps" don't build nests. The only time you would have one wasp per nest is between the queen wasp emerging from hibernation in spring and starting to build the nest, and the first eggs hatching.
    – alephzero
    Aug 17, 2015 at 23:04

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge that you have read and understand our privacy policy and code of conduct.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.