The Apostrophe in “Five Days’ Notice”

A couple of days ago I received from a reader an email that included the following:

I’ve got a question about the use of apostrophes in notice period provisions. I was rather surprised to see that section 8.96 of the MSCD includes apostrophes after the number of days/weeks/months in your example provisions. Shouldn’t such provisions simply refer to “days”, “weeks” or “months” without the apostrophe? As I read it, including an apostrophe indicates a possessive (i.e., that day/week/month owns the notice period) and I always thought the reference should simply be to the number of days/weeks/months (i.e., the “s” is there because the reference is typically to multiple days/weeks/months). Do the days/weeks/months really own the notice period or am I thinking about this wrong?

A deeply unscientific review of a sample of contracts filed on the SEC’s EDGAR system in the last few days showed that of those contract that included the usage X days’ notice, about one third dispensed with the apostrophe. That being the case, I thought my response to this reader might be of broader interest. Here it is:

Regarding the apostrophe after notice, think how you’d refer to a notice period that’s one day long: you’d say one day’s notice, with an apostrophe, not one day notice. So when you refer to a notice period that’s several days long, you say days’, with the apostrophe.

As to why you use the possessive at all, I think it’s because five days’ notice is an alternative to notice of five days. That’s analogous to David’s hat being equivalent to the hat of David.

  • 10803

    Check out the book “Eats, Shoots & Leaves.” The author, Lynne Truss, is a colorful grammar zealot. In one publicity stunt, she was protesting the premiere of the film “Two Weeks Notice” by holding up an apostrophe on a big stick. Among other things, she explains pretty clearly that the apostrophe is proper punctuation. When I was working at Lincoln’s Inn, one of the judges corrected a barrister’s brief for this point. I mentioned it to another barrister who was going to trial the next day and, despite his claim that he didn’t make that mistake, another judge caught him for the exact same thing.

    Your reason, by the way, is correct.

    Here’s Truss’s excerpt:

    Everywhere one looks, there are signs of ignorance and indifference. What about that film Two Weeks Notice? Guaranteed to give sticklers a very nasty turn, that was – its posters slung along the sides of buses in letters four feet tall, with no apostrophe in sight. I remember, at the start of the Two Weeks Notice publicity campaign in the spring of 2003, emerging cheerfully from Victoria Station (was I whistling?) and stopping dead in my tracks with my fingers in my mouth. Where was the apostrophe? Surely there should be an apostrophe on that bus? If it were “one month’s notice” there would be an apostrophe (I reasoned); yes, and if it were “one week’s notice” there would be an apostrophe. Therefore “two weeks’ notice” requires an apostrophe! Buses that I should have caught (the 73; two 38s) sailed off up Buckingham Palace Road while I communed thus at length with my inner stickler, unable to move or, indeed, regain any sense of perspective.

  • Ken Adams

    10803: Thanks. I looked at the reference works to hand and didn’t find anything directly on point. As for Truss, “colorful” is a nice way to put it! Ken

  • Wing K. Lee

    See: The American Heritage Guide to Contemporary usage and Style,at p. 37; and Bernstein, The Careful Writer, at p. 357.

  • Ken Adams

    Wing: Thank you. But note that for purposes of this issue, which is pretty straightforward, I didn’t feel the need to consult a usage manual before sounding off. Ken

  • 10803

    Lynne Truss made it into the NY Times today in an article that might be interesting to some who found this post interesting.

  • Kurt Fowler

    How about a one-week notice or a five-month notice? Why bat only the apostrophe when the hyphen is ready to be pitched?