Secretary 1, Lawyer 0
Imagine you’ve been working as a legal secretary for 20 years. All that time, you’ve been building your skills and knowledge base. You know your craft. You dot your i's and cross your t’s and you know your way around an apostrophe.
Then you start working for a new attorney who promptly tells you you’re punctuating something incorrectly and should stop immediately. What do you do? Well, if you’re one of my column readers, you e-mail me to settle the dispute. And if you’re lucky, I have some good news to offer you.
That’s the origin of an e-mail I got recently from a legal secretary in Burbank: “There are a lot of statutes that refer to time deadlines and giving proper notice to parties in a lawsuit," she wrote. “Please read the following sentence: 'Plaintiff is required to give 15 days' notice to the Defendant when serving the Motion to Compel Documents.' Throughout all my years working for attorneys, I was always taught to write 15 days' using the possessive apostrophe. I have recently been working for a new attorney and he corrected me by saying that I should get rid of the possessive apostrophe. I did what I was told but it's really bugging me. Who is correct?”
Correctness, as you may know, can be a little wily in language. Because there’s no grammar penal code documented in a great grammar law book in some hallowed halls of grammar justice, it’s hard to label any popular language choice as “wrong.”
But in this case, even though I couldn’t dub either choice “incorrect,” I could certainly label one as “more correct.” And I did.
The secretary’s way of doing it was better: 15 days’ notice is better with the apostrophe. I told her so.
The AP Stylebook uses the term a quasi-possessive to describe such phrases as “a day’s pay,” “two weeks’ vacation,” “three days’ work,” and “your money’s worth.” AP says they take an apostrophe.
The Chicago Manual of Style includes these phrases under its discussion of “Particularities of the Possessive.” Chicago’s advice is basically the same as AP’s: “Analogous to possessives, and formed like them, are certain expressions based on the old genitive case. The genitive here implies 'of': an hour’s delay; in three days’ time; six months’ leave of absence.”
I sent the legal secretary a link to a column I had written about this last year. But, just in case her boss didn’t want to take it from me, I threw in a link to an excerpt from the most popular punctuation book of all time, Lynne Truss's Eats, Shoots and Leaves, which talks at length about the movie Two Weeks Notice and its egregious omission of the apostrophe in the title.
I hope that was enough evidence for the Burbank reader to win the argument with her boss. But who knows? It’s hard to picture an attorney just backing down and accepting he lost a case to his secretary.