Is it correct not to use a possessive apostrophe in 1990s icon? I've just read an article where it was omitted.

I understand that you don't put an apostrophe in decades/dates when you're saying something like I was born in the 1980s, as this is just a plural. But I would have thought that 1990's icon would be correct as a possessive apostrophe is needed because the icon belongs to the 1990s. Am I correct on this?

  • 2
    There's a possibility you didn't consider: using an apostrophe, but not to indicate possession. – user230 Aug 7 '15 at 16:36
  • 1
    @snailboat Duncan did consider it: "I understand that you don't put an apostrophe in decades/dates when you're saying something like I was born in the 1980s, as this is just a plural." As he suggests, using an apostrophe for plurality (i.e. "not to indicate possession" as you say) is incorrect. – talrnu Aug 7 '15 at 17:47
  • "Plurals with 's: An apostrophe may be used to separate the plural suffix from the base with letters, numbers (notably dates), symbols, abbreviations, and words used metalinguistically: (i) p's and q's, 1960's, &'s, Ph.D.'s, if's and but's (ii) She got four A's and two B's. This practice is less common than it used to be; with dates and abbreviations ending in an upper case letter, the form without the apostrophe is now more usual: in the 1960s, two candidates with Ph.D.s." – The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language (2002), p.1586 – user230 Aug 7 '15 at 17:50
  • @snailboat As your own quote suggests, it's a dated practice and sees declining usage. If you want to base correctness on usage trends, I'd say this still makes it incorrect. – talrnu Aug 7 '15 at 17:53

It depends how you think of it.

If your intent is, "an icon that belongs to 1990", then you should write "1990's icon".

If your intent is, "an icon that belongs to the decade of the 1990s", then you should write "1990s' icon".

But we also often use nouns as adjectives without using a possessive. Like, "this is an automobile part". It's not a possessive. The part may belong to an automobile in some sense, but the point isn't to say that it belongs to an automobile, but rather that it is a part and it is of "type" automobile. Similarly for, say, "a baseball bat". We could say, "a baseball player's bat" and make it a possessive, but we're saying is that it is a bat of type baseball. "A computer keyboard", "a hardware store", etc.

So I think it's more common to write "a 1990s icon" in this sense. It is not a possessive, it is not an icon that belongs to the 1990s. Rather, it is an icon of type 1990s.

  • 5
    Exactly. For an even closer analogy, we say 19th-century literature, not 19th-century's literature, and wartime austerities, not wartime's austerities. – StoneyB on hiatus Aug 7 '15 at 16:18
  • 1
    @StoneyB but "literature" is not a "type" or "part" of the 19th-century; so why do u write it without the s' ? – Gamal Thomas Jun 1 '17 at 8:35
  • 1
    @GamalThomas You've got it backwards: 19th-century is a subcategory of the category literature. – StoneyB on hiatus Jun 1 '17 at 9:57

Logically you might think the possessive apostrophe should be used, but (presumably because it looks "cluttered, fussy") writers normally don't include it.

1980s icon (no apostrophe, 333 hits in Google Books)
1980's icon (with the apostrophe, just 21 hits)

Note that Google Books ignores apostrophes (more accurately, treats them as "white space"), so any written instances with the apostrophe after the (pluralized) decade name would match my first search above. But I didn't notice any at all.

Also note that there's not a "one size fits all" rule here. For example, where a plural attributive noun is involved, the apostrophe is normally used with a children's book, but not with a high seas vessel.

  • 2
    1980's means "belongs to the year 1980", not "belongs to the decade of the 80s". For example: "The 1980s' top hits include 1980's Call Me by Blondie and 1988's Faith by George Michael." – talrnu Aug 7 '15 at 17:22
  • @talrnu: That's quite true, if we want to be really pedantic. But whereas you can achieve a "top hit" in a single year, you probably need something approaching a decade to merit the title icon. I suppose you could in principle refer to 1966's football icon Bobby Moore, but apparently I'm the first one to do that. – FumbleFingers Aug 7 '15 at 17:31
  • 2
    Of course, I agree. I'm pointing out that the 1980's in your blockquote doesn't fit the need here, the need being for a decade and not a single year. – talrnu Aug 7 '15 at 17:43
  • 1
    Doesn't correctness align with the "idea of what people should mean"? The asker explicitly asks for correctness. A popular mistake (or, as snailboat pointed out in a comment on the question, a dated practice) does not constitute correctness, but merely acceptance. Correctness is absolute, so my pedantry is necessary. – talrnu Aug 7 '15 at 18:01
  • 1
    @talrnu: In the matter of language use I don't have much time for the concept of "correctness" - certainly not as an "absolute". I'll grant that I would of baked a cake is "wrong" even though quite a few people write (or imagine they're saying) that. But personally I don't agree with the prescriptive position that If I had have known you were coming... is inherently and forever "wrong", regardless of what the formal analysis says. Then again, I don't have to teach people how to pass exams - I'm just here to tell learners what forms native speakers actually use. – FumbleFingers Aug 7 '15 at 19:52

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

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