Although Children's books is what everybody says, I would like to understand why the genitive case is applied in such case.

If I write books for children, children is an adjective here; not the owners of my book! The word "children" just defines or characterizes the type of books I write. Therefore, it's an adjective.

So, I understand that genitive/possessive case ("I write children's book") is incorrect grammar.

My question is: is the genitive case here really accepted as right? If I use "I write children books" (following the grammar principle) as as I say "I write pets books" (books about pets, and not possessions of pets) - would I be incorrect? Why?

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    General Reference - children is never used adjectivally, as could be established by consulting any dictionary. Commented Nov 26, 2012 at 18:03
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    @FumbleFingers True, but the example sentence is problematic: children is not necessarily an adjective there. It could be hyperbole, and mean "I write children long letters".
    – MetaEd
    Commented Nov 26, 2012 at 19:24
  • Did you read what Wikipedia has to say about the genetive case? It has a nice description of non-possessive uses of the genetive case, demonstrating how the fact that children are not necessarily the owners of these books does not negate the correctness of "Children's books." A quote from there: "It often marks a noun as being the possessor of another noun; however, it can also indicate various other relationships than possession."
    – J.R.
    Commented Nov 26, 2012 at 19:41
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    I read multiple dictionary entries for children (actually, child), and while yes, it's always listed as a noun, in English we regularly use words in grammatical positions they're not nominally suited for. So I think this is a case of: careful, just because it's absolutely obvious to you as a native speaker, that doesn't mean it's totally straightforward, and it definitely doesn't mean it's a dumb question.
    – Marthaª
    Commented Nov 26, 2012 at 21:39
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    We use children's as an adjective rather often. At the library: You can find that in the children's section. At the family reunion: Jane, you'll have to sit at the children's table. On television: The network plays children's cartoons on Saturday morning. At the doctor's office: You'll have to take your daughter to the children's hospital to see a specialist.
    – J.R.
    Commented Nov 27, 2012 at 0:09

6 Answers 6


There are some interesting points here. One is whether the apostrophe (’) serves any purpose, but we can leave that for another day.

We speak of children’s books, not because, in this context, the books belong to the children, but because the books are for children. Children’s acts as a modifier rather than a determiner. As the ‘Longman Grammar of Spoken and Written English’ says,

[such] genitives have the role of classifying the reference of the head noun: the question answered here is ‘What kind of X? . . . In many cases, a classifying genitive is equivalent to an adjective or a noun modifier . . .

To take up that last point, children’s books could, just about, be replaced with juvenile books or junior books. We can certainly speak of adult literature as well as adults' literature.

I don’t think pets books would normally be found. Instead you might possibly see a section in a bookshop for pet books. A better example might be animal books (not animals' books), which clearly refers to books about animals rather than books for animals.

  • I don't think "apostrophise or not?" is the issue here. The question is whether you can use a "bare" plural form "adjectivally". In my opinion, you can't ever really do this. We go along with it in things like Battersea Dogs Home because we're getting used to discarding "redundant" apostrophes, but where the plural form doesn't end in "s", it simply doesn't work. Commented Nov 26, 2012 at 18:38
  • @FumbleFingers. Yes, I'm sure you're right. Commented Nov 26, 2012 at 18:50
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    Note that a possessive does not necessarily indicate ownership in the sense of legal property rights. It can mean many sorts of association. Like it's common for people in an office to say, "This is Bob's desk." That doesn't mean that Bob owns the desk and has the right to take it home, sell it, etc., but merely that the company has designated it as being for use by Bob for the time being. Likewise we say things like "the car's steering wheel", even though a car is not a person and can't own anything.
    – Jay
    Commented Nov 26, 2012 at 18:56
  • Hmm, I'm struck by the inconsistency in our language here. We say "children's book" for books aimed at children, but "adult books" for books aimed at adults. Why does the first use the possessive and the second does not? I doubt there's a real reason, it's probably just convention.
    – Jay
    Commented Nov 26, 2012 at 18:59
  • @Jay: Per my earlier comments, "adult" is a singular noun, and it's perfectly common for us to use those as adjectives. What we don't do is use plural nouns as adjectives (it just sometimes sounds as if we do, because in the spoken form you can't really distinguish the possessive 's from pluralising "s"). Commented Nov 26, 2012 at 21:35

Grammar is as it is, not as you would like it to be.

A story book, a picture book, a fiction book are all grammatical, but a children book is not, at least in the sense you mean it (It is possibly grammatical in the sense of a book about children, but is not in common use even in that sense).

  • 6
    If we assume that "grammatical" means "acceptable to most competent speakers", I suggest a children book isn't grammatical in any context. We simply don't use pluralised nouns in that way, except where the plural form ends in "s" (and can thus get confused with the possessive 's). I suppose someone somewhere has said "It's a men thing", but even without my bold text, you just know it would only be said facetiously, with implied "quotes" around the plural word being used ungrammatically. Commented Nov 26, 2012 at 18:29

The problem here is that basically "children's books" is an idiom. It is not incorrect to put two nouns together, but sometimes it goes against an established convention.

For instance "white and black photograph" is not incorrect, but it is strange because we only ever hear "black and white photograph".

A "driver's license" could be a "driver license" or "driving license". But it isn't, and that's that. It sounds strange because we are accustomed to using "driver's license" as a canned phrase.

"Children's book" has a more specific meaning, that the book belongs to children, and isn't about children.

Compare with "people's republic", which says something different from "people republic".

If we use A B, where A and B are nouns, there is a relationship between A and B in that an A B is a kind of B, which is somehow restricted to a narrower set, as qualified by A.

But A's B is more specific. There is a relationship bewteen A and B such that A's B is a kind of B, which belongs to A.

A "children book" or "child book" could be about children (for example rearing them) rather than for children, the way "car manual" is about a car (whereas the "owner's manual" is clearly not about the owner).

  • This answer does not address the question, and most of its paragraphs are irrelevant. And we certainly do say driving licence where I live, though I believe that people in some other country say driver's license.
    – Colin Fine
    Commented Nov 27, 2012 at 18:22
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    @Kaz: This answer DOES ADDRESS MY QUESTION! I am the one who asked the question, and this is the best ever answer in here! That's exactly what I was afraid of: a convention. It may look like incorrect grammar,but it has been established as so. By the way, Colin Fine, I live in Illinois, USA and people here do say driver's license, and I always thought that it was grammatically incorrect, but hey... it's a convention! And that's how it is, then! THANK YOU so much, Kaz! You made my day! :)
    – Uba
    Commented Nov 27, 2012 at 20:54

There is a move away from the use of the apostrophe in the 'adjectival' (rather than the 'true possessive') sense you mention here. However, the tendency is to just drop the apostrophe rather than switch to an unusual-sounding singular modifying noun:

Childrens Home

Dogs Home

Travellers Rest

Working Mens Club

Mens Clothing Department.

( at http://dict.leo.org/forum/viewGeneraldi ... de&lang=de :

Style Manual for Authors, Editors and Printers (John Wiley & Sons):

Nonpossessive and generic phrases. In phrases such as drivers licence, travellers cheques and visitors book, the plural noun is descriptive rather than possessive. As it describes an association with the following word rather than any direct ownership, no apostrophe is necessary. Some other examples: After primary school, she went on to the girls grammar school. The various proofreaders marks are shown in an appendix. Phrases such as drivers licence and travellers cheques have become merely generic ways of referring to common items. If used in a [non-, EA] generic sense, however, an apostrophe is still needed: The young driver's licence was cancelled.)

Sorry - that link seems to have expired. However, a parallel recommendation can be found at: http://grammar.about.com/od/ab/g/apostrophepunctuationterm.htm

That's gone too. Try this extract from The Associated Press Guide To Punctuation By Rene J. Cappon (and thanks to sumelic):

Descriptive Phrases Without Apostrophes

Don't use apostrophes in such primarily descriptive phrases as a New York Mets outfielder, a teachers college, a writers manual, a childrens book, the agencies request. As the AP Stylebook helpfully notes, the apostrophe is usually skipped if 'for' or 'by' would go better than 'of' in a longer version: college for teachers, manual for writers, request by the agencies.

In descriptive names, some organizations or institutions use the apostrophe while others don't. For instance, Diners Club , and National Governors Association. [both updated; EA] [The Long Island Writers' Guild, Redbud Writers Guild, The Harlem Writers Guild - examples still valid, EA.] Consult your house style." (Rene J. Cappon, The Associated Press Guide to Punctuation. Basic Books, 2003)

So, the awkward-looking spellings seem to be triumphing over the awkward-sounding alternatives.

  • If ‘drivers licence’ were really a descriptive plural rather than a mis-spelt possessive, wouldn’t it be ‘driving’ or ‘driver’ which are always correct; ‘drivers’ always questionable? Don’t ‘the’ and ‘on’ before ‘girls grammar…’ show the Wileys weren’t convinced?At risk of undermining my thesis, doesn’t it seem ‘dogs’ and ‘travellers’ could be descriptive plurals; ‘childrens’ or ‘mens’ never? Isn’t ’Don't use apostrophes in primarily descriptive phrases… ’ at least as dangerous as helpful? Won’t huge numbers of readers take that as ‘Don’t… ’ not ‘Try to find a better way of putting it.’ Commented Apr 9, 2017 at 19:11
  • You are arguing from a prescriptivist ('[these] are always correct') standpoint against a descriptivist analysis. These Google Ngrams strongly suggest that <<dogs home>> is at least a plausible alternative to <<dogs' home>>. .... Commented Apr 9, 2017 at 23:53
  • I started this answer with the hedged "There is a move away from the use of the apostrophe in the 'adjectival' " rather than "Don't use apostrophes in primarily descriptive phrases… ", and I consider your selective quoting biassed. Commented Apr 9, 2017 at 23:54
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    "D’you not think that ‘childrens’ or ‘mens’ are just wrong?" Based on what criteria? Historical usage? There was no apostrophe in English prior to the 16th Century, so one could as well argue that all usages of the apostrophe are 'just wrong'. One has to accept that changes in what is acceptable English have always taken place and continue to take place, and try to keep abreast of current trends. Where there is no consensus, one mustn't argue that one preference is wrong. // "[D]oesn’t it seem ‘dogs’ and ‘travellers’ could be descriptive plurals; ‘childrens’ or ‘mens’ never?" I'd sum up ... Commented Apr 10, 2017 at 20:40
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    Yes,and there were hardly any books prior to the 16th Century, either. Which is more relevant, d'you think? Other than that, I give up Commented Apr 10, 2017 at 20:53

In I write children's books (or, less correct but equally popular, childrens books), children's is indeed a adjective. In ?I write children books, children would probably be taken as the object of write, just as in I give children books. It might, as you say, be analogous to I write horse books/ spy books; but that has a differemt meaning; books about horses or spies, not for them. Education professionals might 'write children books' in this sense; but in fact the risk of confusion is so great that the phrase is not used.

  • @TimLymington: When does childrens books become as correct as children's books? When it accounts for 51% of the usages? 60%? 98%? And who decides? After all, the rule must have once been 'never use an apostrophe' - before they were invented in the 16th Century. Commented Nov 26, 2012 at 22:04
  • @EdwinAshworth: The obvious answer is 'when the apostrophe is abolished'. Many people have suggested this, but I see no signs of it happening. Commented Nov 26, 2012 at 22:20
  • My question is obviously: If one or more style guides recommend usage A, and the usage is employed in half the relevant cases (as I understand you to say in this case), what justification is there for saying that not A is more correct? Commented Nov 26, 2012 at 23:34

In the expression "I write children books" children is not an adjective but a noun. You might torment the verb and claim it is trivalent and that this means "I write books to children", using that American dialectic peculiarity "I wrote you letters" rather than "I wrote letters to you." You could try that sort of grammatical strappado, I doubt you'd get away with it. I think there is something about this sort of linguistic abuse in the UN charter on Human Rights.

In "I write books for children" children is also not an adjective, it is still a noun. Even if it "characterizes" the audience, it would need a noun to modify unless it is being used attributively, which it is not. "Write books for cute little children", here we have a few adjectives, but children is still a noun. Nouns self describe, though adjectives can extend the description. "We discuss this for resolution." Here the type of discussion is indeed characterized by "resolution", but it is a noun, not an adjective.

Putting it in the genitive makes it function as an adjective -- "I write children's books". However you can also use a real adjective such as "I write juvenile books" or "I write childish books" but the latter is wrong, and the former is certainly subject to misinterpretation.

Perhaps clarity is the better part of brevity, and "I write books for children" would best convey your intent.

  • You should write "modify a noun" not "function as an adjective", as those are not the same thing — and here it is doing only the former.
    – tchrist
    Commented Nov 5, 2023 at 17:57

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