So you say you’re going to the farmer’s market?

Oh, really? Which farmer’s market is that? The farm stand owned by Jordan’s Farm in Cape Elizabeth?

Maybe what you really mean is that you’re going to the farmers market. In that case, which farmer are you interested in buying, Farmer Brown or Old McDonald? Because the only thing you’re coming home with is a guy in faded overalls with dirt under his nails.

If you’re going to the farmers’ market, well, congratulations. In that case, Tom Roberts would like to give you a friendly pat on the back for getting it right – in his opinion, anyway.

In the age-old debate over “where does the apostrophe go” (at least among former English majors), Roberts – an organic farmer from Pittsfield – falls solidly in the “s-apostrophe” camp, as you might have guessed since he is also a member of the board of the Maine Federation of Farmers’ Markets. Note where they put the apostrophe.

“In the sixth grade, Mrs. Liston made it really clear how to use an apostrophe, and it’s always stuck with me,” Roberts explained. “If you put farmer-apostrophe-s, it means it’s a market of a farmer, and farmers’ markets are markets of many farmers. And so the only way to do that is to use the plural and put the aspostrophe after the s.”

Hold your horses, pardner. No less an authority than the U.S. Department of Agriculture spells farmers market with no apostrophe at all. That spelling is also what’s preferred by the Associated Press Stylebook, the holy book of journalism. Ignore the AP Stylebook, and your editor might just throw you into the nether regions of hell, also known as the night copy desk.

David Minthorn, co-editor of the AP Stylebook and the AP’s “Ask the Editor” columnist, explained that the AP prefers farmers market as a descriptive term, rather than a possessive with an apostrophe, as a generic spelling. Why?

“Farmers markets are rarely owned by the farmers who sell produce and other goods at these markets,” he said in an e-mail. “Often the markets are sponsored or organized by localities or other agencies.”

He added that many local markets that are listed online, state by state, use the “farmers market” variant. Minthorn also cited the USDA spelling. (Roberts doesn’t buy it. Government bureaucrats spell it that way, he said, “because they’re just not sure” and figure they can stay out of trouble by avoiding the apostrophe altogether.)

Minthorn said that exceptions are made for formal names, such as “Portland Farmers’ Market.”

Except, here’s the thing: The Portland Farmers’ Market spells it that way on their website, but the market’s attractive new logo on the same website doesn’t use an apostrophe at all. It’s enough to curl your kale.

“Farmer’s market” is most common, Roberts has noticed, adding disdainfully that these are the same folks who think the plural of tomatoes is “tomato’s.” He points out that many of the markets in Maine are, actually, owned and run by the farmers, another argument in favor of “farmers’ market.” Almost no one, he says, skips the apostrophe altogether. “I expect a lot of people just don’t know,” he said. “They just didn’t pay attention in English class.”

Ouch.

When Roberts sees the phrase “spelled funny,” he politely (“without being too pedantic”) points out the error. Some people roll their eyes at him. Others take it under consideration.

Around Maine, markets steer their own course. Roberts would feel at home shopping in Kennebunk, Belfast or Augusta, which all have “farmers’ markets.” But not along the midcoast, “farmers market” is how it’s spelled in Bath, Boothbay and Damariscotta. Avoiding the conflict altogether, Kittery and Houlton hold a “Community Market,” while Unity and Eastport have “Market Days.”

Even Roberts admits that, in the grand scheme of things, all this haggling over an apostrophe doesn’t amount to a hill of beans. Whether a sign says “This way to the farmers’ market” – or farmer’s market or farmers market – most people will understand where to go.

Contact Meredith Goad at 791-6332 or at:

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