When the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution was ratified on July 9, 1868 —150 years ago this Monday — it closed the door on schemes that aimed to make the U.S. a white man’s country. (source)

I wonder why it is not "a white men's country". We often speak of men's clothes and men's room. Consider:

This is the only large dogs' shelter in the area.
This is the only large dog's shelter in the area.

Which one sounds more natural or idiomatic?

  • 2
    ... only large dog shelter... – Jim Sep 12 '18 at 3:40
  • @Jim Right, not the best example, since attributive nouns also work in that example. Trying to come up with a better one. – user280704 Sep 12 '18 at 4:09
  • I recommend you use the same construction in the secondary example, i.e. "This is a large dogs' shelter" vs "this is a large dog's shelter". Otherwise, you're complicating the question... – Chappo Hasn't Forgotten Monica Sep 12 '18 at 11:12
  • It's a rich man's world, the working man's blues, poor man's poison, and so on. – Matt Sep 13 '18 at 22:59
  • 1
    Dog's vs. dogs' might not be the best example even if we really did say dog(')s(') shelter, because they're pronounced equivalently, so you won't get the same sort of strong native-speaker intuitions that you get with an example like man's vs. men's. – ruakh Sep 14 '18 at 1:52

It's standard usage to say "a white man's country", whereas it would be unusual to say "a white men's country", since the expectation is that an indefinite article is followed by a singular noun.

In this particular context there's a further complication in that it's ambiguous whether the indefinite article relates to "man" (in other words, it's a country belonging to the white man) or to "country" (in which "white man's" or "white men's" acts as adjectival phrases). In the former construction, "a white men's" would be ungrammatical, whereas in the latter construction it would be perfectly fine grammatically. Such ambiguity is sometimes avoided by hyphenating the words in the adjectival phrase: "a white-man's country" or "a white-men's country".

Note that while the non-gendered expression "a white person's country" is often preferable as it's more inclusive, in this particular historical context the gendered usage could be seen as appropriate.

It would be grammatically correct to delete the indefinite article and use the plural - "schemes that aimed to make the U.S. white men’s country" - but this is not a common construction. If you were intent on using the plural men, "schemes that aimed to make the U.S. a country for white men" would be a suitable alternative.

  • This answer focuses on explaining the presence/absence of the article in different possible versions of this phrase, but does not explain why the version in the singular is generally preferred over the one in the plural, and that seems to be what puzzled the OP. – jsw29 Apr 6 '20 at 17:46

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