Q: I teach English at a college that sponsors a writers’ workshop. Last year, someone designed a logo for us and forgot the apostrophe. Some of us decided to drop the apostrophe, but the organizer overruled us and the designer refused to change the logo. So now we are without our cool logo and there has been so much strife that some big supporters have withdrawn their backing for the event. All this over one little apostrophe. What do you think?
A: The question is whether the word “writers” here is being used as a possessive (you need an apostrophe) or as an adjective (you don’t need an apostrophe). I vote for the latter.
The word “workshop” in this case doesn’t seem to me to indicate something belonging to or possessed by writers. Rather, the word “writers” describes what kind of workshop this is. And that’s the hallmark of an adjective.
Singular nouns have long been used as adjectives, positioned directly in front of the words they modify. And in recent generations, plural nouns have been used the same way (for example, “singles bar” or “honors program”). So my inclination would be to drop the apostrophe and use “writers workshop.”
However, I should note that reasonable people can disagree. The folks at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, for example, like the apostrophe. Those at the Kenyon Review Writers Workshop do not.
The Chicago Manual of Style (17th ed.) says, “In some cases, the distinction between attributive [that is, descriptive] and possessive is subtle.” But it adds that the apostrophe in the name of a group should be dropped “only in proper names (often corporate names) that do not officially include one.”
The manual gives these examples with apostrophes: “consumers’ group … taxpayers’ associations … boys’ clubs.” It gives these examples without apostrophes: “Publishers Weekly … Diners Club … Department of Veterans Affairs.” (See section 7.27.)
The New York Times Manual of Style and Usage also points out that many names of organizations don’t use the apostrophe. It gives the examples “Citizens Union; Doctors Hospital; Teachers College; etc.”
I might add the name of an organization I belong to myself: the Authors Guild.
[NOTE: This post was updated on March 24, 2018, to reflect new wording in a later edition of the Chicago Manual.]