The Grammarphobia Blog

Driver education

Q: I’m a court reporter, so it’s important to keep an accurate written record, but I’m always confused about “driver side” versus “driver’s side.” I have the same problem with “passenger side” and “passenger’s side.” What confuses me is that darned “s” in the word “side.” I’ve pulled out my hair in frustration many times.

A: It can be a tough job to translate speech into writing, and we’re not going to be of much help to you on that score. But as for grammar and usage, we can assure you of one thing: you can’t go wrong here.

Both “driver side” and “driver’s side” are fine, and both are quite common. People can correctly modify the noun “side” with whichever word they prefer—“driver” or “driver’s.”

In one case, the modifier is an adjective (in fact, an attributive noun, which is a noun used as an adjective); in the other, the modifier is a possessive adjective.

We use constructions like this all the time. Examples include “dog collar” vs. “dog’s collar,” and “ship captain” vs. “ship’s captain.” At times a speaker might prefer one, and at times the other.

The difference is clear when the word being modified doesn’t start with “s.” But when it does, as with “driver side” and “driver’s side,” the phrases sound virtually identical when spoken. That’s a real challenge to court reporters, who try to record speech in people’s exact words.

The best we can do is tell you how popular the various versions are.

A Google search shows that people prefer “driver side” to “driver’s side” by a margin of roughly two to one (25.7 million hits vs. 14.6 million).

People are much more emphatic in their preference for “passenger side” over “passenger’s side.” When we Googled both versions, “passenger side” was the preference by more than twenty to one (45.4 million hits vs. 2.1 million).

So we suppose you’d be justified in choosing the version that’s more prevalent in common usage.

We’ve written several times on the blog about attributive nouns, including postings in May and June of 2010.

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