I love fortuitous coincidences. I’d been fretting all week because I couldn’t think of anything to write about. Or rather, that I’d thought of around 15 things to write, and all of them turned out to be mind-meltingly dull when I wrote them. (And if there’s one thing we can’t let grammar become, it’s dull.) But then, thankfully, a comment came that I was compelled to answer. Regarding the previous post, about how Philadelphia Flyers fans use exclamation points where a Penguins fan would use a question mark, commenter Duncan asked:

Shouldn’t that be “Flyers’ fans” and “Penguins’ fan”?

My answer is no. But to the related question “Couldn’t that be…”, the answer is yes.  Let’s start by looking at the apostrophized version. Penguins’ fan is a noun phrase, with the possessive Penguins’ serving as a determiner. “Determiner” is basically a more general term for “article”, which is what they teach you in school that the and a(n) are. Determiners include articles, demonstratives (this, that, these, those), and possessives (my, your, Leon Czolgosz’s), among others. The general rule with determiners is the opposite of the Lay’s Potato Chips Rule: you can’t have more than one.

(1a) *I broke the her glass menagerie.
(1b) *I read the Grant’s paper.

Yet I have no problems with saying

(2a) I saw a Flyers fan engage in morally reprehensible actions.
(2b) Those Penguins fans just solved world hunger!

So it appears that Flyers and Penguins aren’t functioning as determiners in these situations. Instead, they’re the first half of the compound nouns Flyers/Penguins fan.  Each of these consists of two nouns that have been grouped together. In this respect, a Flyers fan is like a tennis shoe. Compound nouns are common in English for referring to something that is related to someone, but not possessed by them; there’re Gibson girls, the Marlboro Man, Bush backers, Obama supporters, and so on. Furthermore, this is the standard form of these phrases; “Marlboro’s Man” has 172 Google hits, compared to more than 900,000 for “Marlboro Man”; “Bush’s backers” has 3,600 to the 30,000 for “Bush backers”; and so on. So too with sports fans; 8 of the first 10 Google hits for “penguins fans” are without the apostrophe.

Further evidence of this is supplied by the acceptability of the phrase Penguin fan, which is well-attested (albeit more rarely than Penguins fan), and sounds perfectly normal to me. There, all the ambiguity disappears; it’s definitely a compound noun, not a possessed one.

Now, that’s not to say you can’t use the apostrophe. Penguins’ fans can also be used as a whole noun phrase that gets its own determiner. This puts two determiners in a row, but that’s acceptable in some situations:

(3a) To reach the The Simpsons Ride, visitors walk through the mouth of an 8-foot-tall, 36-foot-wide Krusty head. [link]
(3b) But I wanted the Marie Callender’s pie. [link]

Basically, you can use two determiners if the second one has a really close association with the head noun. Then the determiner and head noun form a noun unto themselves (rather like a compound noun).  And I think you could argue that Penguins’ and fan have such an association pretty easily. In summary, both with and without an apostrophe are okay, but it seems without the apostrophe is preferred. Well, I prefer it, at least.

So where’s the fortuitous coincidence in all this? Because it dovetails nicely into a comment I’d wanted to make about another post. Anyone who read the Wall Street Journal Blog Watch article is familiar with GrammarBlog. They’re the good kind of prescriptivists, the kind that are complaining, by and large, about really egregious errors — ones that stand in the way of understanding what people are saying. For instance, one of the recent posts is about a sign at a fish ‘n chips shop declaring the special to be “Fish few, chips few, peas”. I still am not certain what this means, although I assume it’s that the special is fish with a few chips and peas. But with those commas where there are, it’s maddeningly unclear.

The reason that I bring up GrammarBlog is that I’ve been meaning to point out a post of theirs that is just great, and is all about this same issue: which is the best choice for National Singles/Single’s/Singles’ Day? This was one of those posts where I realized in the course of reading it that it was exactly what I thought, for exactly the same reasons, only I hadn’t realized it until then.

Summary: Penguins fans is a compound noun, so it doesn’t need an apostrophe. That doesn’t mean it can’t take an apostrophe, but it does seem to be dispreferred.