An Apostrophe in 'Couple's Massage'?


A co-worker who was editing a travel article asked me the other day how to write about a massage for couples. Is it a couple’s massage, a couples’ massage, or just a couples massage, he wanted to know.

He had come to the right place. I spent quite a bit of time researching this very subject for my punctuation book. So, from that on-high position of authority, I was able to tell him with great authority and absolute certainty that I don’t know.

Okay, that’s overstating it a bit. I do know what to do in these situations. But issues like “couple’s massage,” “couples’ retreat,” “shopper’s paradise,” “chocolate lover’s package,” “teachers college,” and “farmers market” are anything but straightforward. In fact, when I surveyed working copy editors to include their opinions in the book, they split on how to handle a lot of these. So not only are the rules unclear, but they’re open to the full range of interpretations.

For certain terms, like "teachers college," style guides have specific rules. AP says no apostrophe in "teachers college." "Farmers market" often has no apostrophe. "Couples’ retreat" might be plural possessive whereas "couple’s massage" is often singular possessive.

At the heart of all these issues are two questions that will lead you to the best choice: 1. Is the emphasis on the singular noun or the plural? 2. Is actual possession emphasized? 

If you’re talking about “a shopper’s paradise,” it seems to me that you’re emphasizing a singular fictional individual who serves as a sort of representative: the shopper. If you’re talking about a “couples’ retreat,” to me that sounds like it’s emphasizing multiple couples at once. Thought it’s sort of a toss-up whether it’s possessive or not. It would make just as much sense to think of “couples” as an adjective here: couples retreat.

If you disagree, your opinions are valid, too. But if you want to know mine, here are the picks I’d probably make:

farmers market

chocolate lover’s package

couples’ retreat

couple’s massage

shopper’s paradise (especially if it began with “a” – a shopper’s paradise. Not because the “a” necessarily modifies “shopper.” It could be modifying “paradise.” But because its presence there creates that singular vibe anyway.)

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