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Which of the following phrases are grammatically correct, meaning "a name for a boy"?

  1. A boy's name.

  2. A boys' name.

  3. A boy name.

  4. A boys name.

Any response would be appreciated.

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We commonly write "a boy's name". "Boy's" is a singular possessive. It is a name for one boy.

You could talk about "boys' names", plural. That is, names for many boys.

"A boys' name" is grammatically valid but almost never used in practice. "Boys'" is a plural possessive but "name" is singular, so you would be referring to one name used by many boys. That's certainly logically possible. There are many boys named "John", so we could say "John is a name used by many boys. John is a boys' name." But we just don't normally write this. We still say "boy's name". I suppose you could say we're thinking of one boy at a time. Even if they have a common name, we think of each boy as having his own "copy" of the name. It would be different if it was a single item that they really shared. Like "We have one gym for boys and another gym for girls. This is the boys' gym."

"Boy name" is often used in informal speech, but not in formal speech or writing. One could argue that it is valid: using a noun as an adjective, like "car part". But we just don't do that.

"Boys name" is thus doubly a problem. There's the singular vs plural problem that I discussed with "boys' name", plus the noun vs adjective problem.

So to put it briefly: Use "boy's name".

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  • Great answer and examples. Though politically suspect, we could add "We have names for girls and names for boys; 'Alan' is a boys' name." – Strawberry Mar 19 at 11:40
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    @Strawberry: Hmm. By that token, "We have names for men and names for women; 'Alan' is a men's name." That certainly doesn't work for me - it still has to be ...is a man's name. – FumbleFingers Reinstate Monica Mar 19 at 13:07
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    An exception could be something like "All those boys have the same name, and John is the boys' name." – Barmar Mar 19 at 14:13
  • @Strawberry I didn't mean that the plural possessive is appropriate if preceded by a sentence sounding like my example. What I was trying to say is that a plural possessive makes sense when we are talking about one thing jointly owned by multiple people. But as I said, in the case of names, we tend to think of each person as having his own "copy" of the name. – Jay Mar 19 at 18:54
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    @mcalex Sorry, I see my paragraph on that is a bit muddled. I was trying to say, "'Boy name' is commonly used in informal speech, but not in formal writing." By "we just don't do that" I mean, we don't do it in formal writing. – Jay Mar 20 at 14:10
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A boy's name

Perfectly grammatical and idiomatic. Refers to the name of a specific boy or a name that could be used for a boy.

A boys' name

Perfectly grammatical and idiomatic. Refers to a name that is commonly used for boys.

A boy name

This is probably the most controversial of the list. In my experience, "boy" is not uncommonly used as an adjective, e.g. "boy toy". So I would say this is fine but informal and not as common as "a boy's name". Google's Ngrams shows it as about 1/10th as common

A boys name

Grammatically incorrect and non-idiomatic. "Boys" is a plural noun.

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  • Is "boys' name" plural? I think the plural form is "boys' names", isn't it? – shapoor Mar 18 at 16:38
  • @shapoor I don't understand your question. You seem to be repeating what I said – Kevin Mar 18 at 16:39
  • I mean "boys' name" isn't plural. It's a name for boys. So it is singular. – shapoor Mar 18 at 16:42
  • @shapoor Hmm. I see what you're getting at. Have to think about that for a second – Kevin Mar 18 at 17:20
  • @shapoor You are correct. Edited my answer to reflect that. What do you think of how I have the answer worded now? – Kevin Mar 18 at 17:27
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Here's the relevant usage chart...

enter image description here

Note that in this specific case, the difference is purely one of orthography for the boys, boy's, boys' choices (not reflected in real spoken language), so you shouldn't be surprised if you sometimes encounter incorrectly written forms.

But all native speakers know perfectly well that no-one ever says X is a men name (and a man name is extremely unlikely). And since there's no such word as mans in English, that leaves X is a man's name as the only credible orthography - then it's easy to apply the same principle to X is a boy's name.

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  • Do you mean all of them are grammatically correct? – shapoor Mar 18 at 16:10
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    Certainly not! I said X is a man's name is the only credible orthography - that's to say all other alternatives are so badly wrong that they're not even credible (no native speaker would believe them to be valid). The whole point of my answer was to show that this is blindingly obvious if we consider a man's name (it's not so easy with a boy's name because there's no difference between singular/plural possessive written and spoken forms). And I put a red circle round the "not found" NGram text for the invalid versions. – FumbleFingers Reinstate Monica Mar 18 at 16:46
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They're not really sentences: they're phrases.

1) is the only correct one:

Is Sixtus a boy's name?

But we also say a name for a boy (as you did in your question) in certain contexts:

Naming girls is easy, but it's difficult to think of a name for a boy.

Boys' is the possessive of a plural noun, so a boys' . . . doesn't make sense.

Boys' names like Peter and Matthew are found in the Bible.

A boy name is not idiomatic.

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    I disagree about the last one. "a boy name" is somewhat common informally. e.g. "You named your daughter Kevin? That's a boy name" – Kevin Mar 18 at 16:14
  • @Kevin While writing my answer I did look for that usage. On Lexico. It isn't there under 'boy' OR if you search for the phrase (lexico.com/…). I'm familiar with such expressions as 'boy racer' 'boy things', 'boy band' etc, but have never heard "A boy name". – Old Brixtonian Mar 18 at 20:31

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