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I was trying to decide whether to put an apostrophe at the end of "couples" in this sentence:

You're invited to the annual married couples breakfast.

My knee-jerk answer is yes, it needs an apostrophe. But then I got to thinking about contrary examples, similarly structured. I wouldn't, for instance, put an apostrophe after "clothes" in this example:

Your coat is upstairs in the winter clothes closet.

My overall question: Why does the first example seem to work well with that apostrophe (though I can see it going either way) while the second seems absolutely correct without it? I can't work out the structural difference between the two examples.

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    I would say that 'clothes' is a generic term for 'wearing apparel' rather than a plural noun as such. – Kate Bunting Feb 5 '17 at 15:12
  • @KateBunting: To use different examples, "book shelf" or "tool shed" are common, the plural generally isn't except for pluralisms like "parents". Arguably, "couples" could be understood as a pluralism within the compound noun, because "a wedding couple dance" would be a different thing. The tendency to use the possessive "'s" is separate from the plural s, german has the Fugen-S, but different plural forms, however the Fugen-S is not always used (Paartanz vs Paarestanz) and likewise not needed in English, because English is analytic. – vectorious May 6 '17 at 23:21
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Technically, they would both be correct with apostrophes at the end of couples and clothes. The reason you would definitely want to say couples' dance, and probably not say clothes closet, is because the latter is a common enough phrase that it has become a compound noun in popular usage. Couples dance is not as common a phrase, and therefore sounds more awkward if you make it a compound noun rather than a possessive followed by a noun.

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