I love this time of year for many reasons, but perhaps my favorite thing about early summer is the farmers market. I make sure to stock up on kettle corn, sweet corn, cornhole bags, candy corn, and top off my peppercorn grinder. What can I say? In Indiana, we love our corn.

But today’s big question is: does “farmers market” need an apostrophe in it? We have three contending spellings vying for the top spot: farmers market, farmer’s market and farmers’ market. Which is it?

Farmers market is what the AP Stylebook considers a “descriptive phrase” (as opposed to a possessive phrase). In general, the farmers do not own the market, nor does one sole farmer. And, as far as I know, they’re not selling farmers at the market. It’s a market for farmers, not a market that belongs to farmers.

Use an apostrophe when “of” would be an accurate longer form possessive phrase. For example: Newton’s law. This is a law of Newton. Victoria’s Secret is a secret of, or belonging to, Victoria.

For descriptive phrases, you don’t need an apostrophe when “for” or “by” are accurate longer form phrases. For example: Colts quarterback is a quarterback for the Colts. A teachers college is a college for teachers. In these cases, the plural noun (farmers, Colts or teachers) function as adjectives to describe what kind of market, quarterback or school you’re discussing.

Now for some exceptions (because English is fun)! Descriptive phrases such as women’s rugby get an apostrophe because the plural “women” doesn’t end in the letter “s.” Other examples include children’s hospital (the children certainly don’t own the hospital) and men’s restroom.

Of course, the Chicago Manual of Style people disagree with the AP Style crew. It’s a classic “Sharks vs. Jets” back alley knife fight scenario where the two rival factions never seem to see eye-to-eye; instead, they’ll just do fierce, synchronized snapping around each other to attempt to intimidate the other gang. I couldn’t find a great explanation as to why the Chicago Manual of Style prefers “farmers’ market,” but they just do.

As long as my local farmers market is always well-stocked with corn-related items, I don’t think I’ll complain if I see a rogue apostrophe on its sign; besides, apostrophes are just commas giving high fives. I do, however, personally think the term “farmers market” as a descriptive phrase does not require an apostrophe.

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(1) comment

Carol Saller

As a newspaper journalist, you're obviously an AP guy, but CMOS does explain its preference for "farmers' market" (plural) in section 7.27: "Although terms denoting group ownership or participation sometimes appear without an apostrophe (i.e., as an attributive rather than a possessive noun), Chicago dispenses with the apostrophe only in proper names (often corporate names) that do not officially include one. In a few established cases, a singular noun can be used attributively; if in doubt, choose the plural possessive. (Irregular plurals such as children and women must always be in the possessive.)"

Among the examples:
children’s rights (or child rights)
farmers’ market
women’s soccer team
boys’ clubs

As for the AP vs Chicago battle, we're actually old allies—but your take is funnier!

—Carol Saller, contributing editor to The Chicago Manual of Style

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