Mad’s Men: 1960s, 1960’s, or 1960s’ advertising?

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A commenter on Grammar Girl’s Facebook page was on the right track to use the phrase “advertising of the 1960s” to describe the setting of AMC’s “Mad Men” as described in this meme. The prepositional phrase “of the 1960s” modifies “advertising” by stating that we are talking about advertising from a specific decade. The PP makes our information more specific , more definite, by limiting “advertising” to a certain era.

To put it in context of an actual relationship of possession, look at “the car of John”. The PP “of John” supplies additional information about the car, narrowing down the the field of all possible cars to just one: the one that John owns. We can also express this phrase as “John’s car”.

When we add the suffix -’s- to a noun, that noun is said to be in the “genitive case”. Case is just a fancy word that indicates something about how a noun functions. A noun in the genitive case can appear directly in front of another noun to perform the function of “determiner”.

A determiner makes the noun it is modifying more definite. From a purely functional view, putting a genitive case noun in front of another noun is similar to adding “the”, commonly known as the definite article. “The, a, and an” function as determiners. Determiners modify a noun by making it a) more specific:

the car
John’s car

or b) less specific:

a car
any car

or even express varying degrees of “specificness”:

any of John’s cars.

In the last example we limit our focus to cars owned by John, but we aren’t referring any specific one.

Note that the “possessive” is a subtype of the genitive case, just one example–ownership–of how the genitive case makes a noun phrase more specific. According to Merriam Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage, Bishop Lowth started referring to the genitive as the possessive in 1762, and the practice stuck, causing confusion among practitioners and students of grammar alike in a case of “fooling oneself with one’s own terminology”. “Possessive” is accurate about 40% of the time, according to Merriam Webster”, but wrong the other 60%. 

Back to the meme: should it be 1960s, 1960’s, or 1960s’? Let’s simplify matters a little bit. Let’s pretend that we are only concerned with some advertising we produced for a client during the month of January 2013, a time period that we agree to refer to as “January”:

a) The client loved January advertising.
b) The client loved Januarys advertising. 
c) The client loved January’s advertising.

We would all agree that c) is correct.

Let’s use a different time period. Our client wants to create a retro look for their campaign, specifically in the style of advertising produced in the year 1960.

a) The client loved 1960 advertising.
b) The client loved 1960s advertising. 
c) The client loved 1960’s advertising.

The correct answer is again c). But now it’s not that obvious whether we are describing the year “1960” or the decade known as the ”1960s”. Let’s look at the scenario where the client desires the look of the decade known as the “1960s”:

a) The client loved 1960s advertising.
b) The client loved 1960ses advertising. 
c) The client loved 1960s’ advertising.

Note that we are applying the same cases that we applied to the January and 1960 examples: singular, plural, and genitive. Again, and by the same reasoning we know to be valid for January, c), the genitive case, is the correct answer.

Of course, as good writers we value clarity, so we should consider sacrificing a little brevity with “the advertising of 1960” or “the advertising of the 1960s”, to eliminate any ambiguity over which time period we are discussing.

It is indeed tempting to use the word “adjective” to describe “1960s” because it is a word that modifies a noun, and we are taught that adjectives modify nouns. Classifying by function is indeed how modern linguistics approaches the task, and it is probably the best way to do it. For the non-grammarian it is more important to know what a word does and how to use it correctly than to know what to call it. 

However, as we saw with “possessive”, sometimes the labels we have learned end up concealing the functions we know a word performs, making it difficult to understand what is actually going on in a sentence, and making it harder to do the right thing when putting a sentence together. Words that fall into the traditional category of noun can perform other functions. Rather than wonder what other names we should be calling that noun, it is far easier to just figure out what function that noun is performing at the time.

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