“Tortured Poets Department” or “Tortured Poets’ Department” or Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off?

Ben Yagoda
3 min readFeb 8, 2024

I suppose it’s nice that numerous people should ask my opinion about something. I just wish the something were more momentous than the minutiae of punctuation.

But, whatever. I will accept the challenge and offer my thoughts on whether there should be an apostrophe somewhere in the third word of the title of Taylor Swift’s forthcoming album, “The Tortured Poets Department.”

But first, a complaint. The word “possessive” in this context has misled a heap of people, including so-called experts quoted in the New York Times. These folks have announced themselves as Team No Apostrophe because the tortured poets don’t possess or own the department.

But that shows an incomplete understanding of how the possessive case in English works. In fact, because of that pesky p-word, a better term is “genitive case.” In the words of the Merriam-Webster website, the genitive shows — by the use of an apostrophe or certain other means, such as the word “of” — “that someone or something owns, controls, or is associated with someone or something else.” (Emphasis mine.)

Here are some examples that bespeak association rather than possession:

Bill’s enemies.

Last summer’s heavy storms.

The law’s delay. (That’s from “Hamlet.”)

The children’s department.

I like that last example not only because it echoes Swift’s title but because, somehow, plural words with an “s” at the end tend to confuse this issue. So when there’s a question about whether to put in an apostrophe in a plural I swap in “children,” “women” or “men,” and see if the apostrophe seems required.

Thus, apostrophe or not in “taxpayers association”? Well, one would say “men’s association” rather than “men association.” So, yes: “taxpayers’ association.”

(“Taxpayer’s association” would also be an option if you wanted to focus on the individual taxpayer. That’s the thinking behind “Mother’s Day,” “Father’s Day,” “Reader’s Digest,” “farmer’s tan,” and “dealer’s choice.” While I’m in this parenthesis, I’ll get a little farther into the weeds and address another argument of the no-apostrophe side, that in the Swift case, “Poets” is not a possessive or genitive but an attributive, that is a noun that modifies another noun without implying possession or strong association. A problem with that thinking is attributives tend to be singular: we say cookie jar, shoe store, car manufacturer, and fruit aisle, not “cookies,” “shoes,” “cars” or “fruits.” They also tend to be inanimate objects rather than people or their organizations. Out of the weeds now.)

“Taxpayers’ association” is fact one of the examples “The Chicago Manual of Style” (17th edition) gives in support of its policy of using an apostrophe in any names “denoting group ownership or participation.” Others are:

farmers’ markets

boys’ clubs

players’ unions

consumers’ groups

veterans’ organizations

Now, that last example leads to misleading counter-examples brought up in the Times article. The United States has a Department of Veterans Affairs which leads the celebration of Veterans Day. On its website, the department explains the lack of apostrophe in the day by saying, “Veterans Day does not include an apostrophe but does include an ‘s’ at the end of ‘veterans’ because it is not a day that ‘belongs’ to veterans, it is a day for honoring all veterans.”

No! “Belonging” is not the issue! Rather, the U.S. government, which is in charge of the department and the holiday, has chosen to render them without an apostrophe, and has the right to do so. Just like corporate owners have exercised the right to render their properties “Publishers Weekly” and “Diners Club.”

And just like Swift has the right to call her album “The Tortured Poets Department.”

Even though there really should be an apostrophe.

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Ben Yagoda

Author, "The B Side: The Death of Tin Pan Alley and the Rebirth of the Great American Song. " www.benyagoda.com. Linktree https://linktr.ee/benyagoda