15 Feb 2016 12:00 AM | Deleted user

Two recent book art theory blog posts use the phrase “the artists’ book.” This may be awkward, but it has precedence. Stephan Klima in his Artists Books: A Critical Survey of the Literature notes, “A most confusing aspect of the debate is the spelling of the term artists books. Its first appearance, in 1973, omitted the apostrophe. Thereafter, it appeared with the apostrophe, and sometimes without. Typographical error may explain certain cases; but there are unexplained mysteries” (10). Johanna Drucker speaks variously of “an artists’ book,” “artists’ books,” and “artists book.”

The history of the possessive apostrophe is somewhat murky. It is “a grammatical anomaly, a vestigial case marker . . . in a noun system [modern English] that has otherwise dispensed with cases,” writes Elizabeth S. Sklar. Its origins clearly go back to the case sensitive Old English, but there isn’t full agreement on its history and well into the 18th century most grammarians ignored the genitive plural, even claiming there was no such thing (177-80).

In the instance of the artist’ book, I wonder if the apostrophe inconsistency stems from confusion inherent in the concept of the artist’s book itself. That the artist is the originator, the owner, if you will, of his or her artist’s book, is as significant as any other characteristic, if not more. Also, as Ulises Carrión’s “The New Art of Making Books” suggests, this is a new genre, unchartered territory with attendant lack of terminology.

Ted Gachot, presently copyediting CBAA’s journal Openings, queried the use of the apostrophe in this context in an email to CBAA’s president Julie Chen. The real ambiguity, he explained, is whether the word “artist” refers to a person or persons responsible for the book, or simply describes a type of book. Here are excepts from his email:

[T]he terms “artists’ books” and “artist’s book” create grammatical ambiguity because they are not formed in the way such terms are usually formed.

A good example is “sailor suit.” The plural is “sailor suits.” “Sailor” in this case is an attributive (descriptive) noun. It remains the same no matter how many suits are being discussed.

In “artists’ books” and “the artist’s book,” “artist” is still attributive (probably) but it is in the genitive case. When terms like this are formed in the genitive, the plural is normally formed the same way as with “sailor suit.” The plural of “farmers’ market” is “farmers’ markets.” “Artists’ books” is not the plural of “artist’s book.” They (when used in this sense) are . . . two ways of saying the same thing, of describing a type of book.

But “artist” can also refer to an artist, and “artist’s book” to a book made by that artist. One can talk about a particular artist’s book (her book) or that artist’s books (her books), or if two artists have collaborated on a single book, the artists’ book (their book). If they’ve made more than one, they are the artists’ books (their books). “Book” or “books” in these kinds of clauses serves the same function as, and could be replaced with, “artist book” or “artist books.” You could even say an artist’s artists’ books (though it would be better not to).

Unfortunately, neither “artists’ books” nor “artist’s book” has the internal logic that “farmers’ market” has. It seems a little funny to say “an artists’ book” if discussing one person’s book. It also seems a bit odd to say “an artist’s book” if the project is collaborative. That’s because the reader does not know whether to read the terms as referring to the artist or the book. [R]eplacing these terms with one formed with an attributive noun, like “sailor suit,” would clear up all these complications. There . . .[would be] none of the haziness that gets in with “artists’ books” and “artist’s books,” where it’s unclear whether they are descriptive or possessive or how to form the plural.

Resistance to this may simply be the result of the field’s newness, of not being around long enough — certainly not as long as sailor suits, dog food, pig pens, and cat whiskers.

Note: Works cited are easily found with the exception of the following, which can be accessed in JSTOR: Elizabeth S. Sklar, “The Possessive Apostrophe: the Development and Decline of a Crooked Mark,” College English (38.2) 1976.


  • 16 Feb 2016 3:45 AM | Valerie Carrigan
    Insightful article, Susan. Thank you!
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  • 16 Feb 2016 7:36 AM | Richard Minsky
    Thanks for bringing this up, Susan. I'll stick with "artist's book" when talking about one artist's book, and "artists' books" when talking about books by several artists, with the attendant plurals.

    It's not at all like a sailor suit, which is a style of suit made for a sailor, not a suit made by a sailor. The style can be worn by many sailors, or by people who are not sailors. The style can have many variants, and remain one style.
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  • 18 Feb 2016 6:28 AM | Richard Minsky
    There are many more considerations this particular apostrophe raises-- a can of worms . . . Pandora's Box. Here are just a few of them:

    • Technicalities of grammar:
    Is genitive the relevant term or should we discuss it as an attributive clitic?
    What does "attributive" mean in the above, since this is attribution of authorship, in addition to the clitic making the noun an adjective?
    Is the term genitive in the sense that "to own" means to claim creative rights?

    • Naming and Defining what it is people are trying to talk about:
    A Field?
    A Medium?
    A Genre?
    A Format?
    A ?

    • The relationship of the term "artist book" to the term "Book Art."
    Works of Book Art are exhibited and critiqued.
    Book Art is often capitalized, like Suprematism
    It has been used as the name of a movement.
    It is also the name, when used in plural, of a set of disciplines.
    This is the College Book Art Association.

    • We also have seen many exhibitions and critiques of "artist books."
    In the 1970s the term "artists' books" generally referred to inexpensive books produced offset, photocopy, etc.,
    Often labeled "democratic multiples," they were also called "visual literature."
    Has that changed, and is there a current descriptor that will distinguish an item as "artist book" that is distinct from "Book Art" or "book art"?
    Is it about the visual content of the pages?
    When does an "artist book" become "Book Art"? Are they all?

    • Is there any meaning to the opposite question, "when does a work of "Book Art" become an "artist book"?

    There is a practical matter. This blog has adopted the Chicago Manual of Style (CMOS) for standardization. Writers and copy editors are expected to follow these rules for use of italics, punctuation, abbreviations, etc.

    Because our usage is not specifically covered in CMOS, and there are so many variants of meaning in the usages of the term "artist book," I made an inquiry to CMOS staff. Here is the reply:

    It’s fine to use the plural to refer to a book or books
    by several artists (the artists’ book or books), but in
    the plural generally I would not try to enforce a distinction.
    “Artist books” might be a compromise.

    All the best,


    This (nondefinitive) response is useful, in that it does not negate "artist books" as a possible compromise for some applications. I replied with a more elaborate query, and if they answer it I will post that.

    • Semiotics
    Among the things their response does not address is the use of the term as a generic signifier, i.e., once we decide whether this is a field, a medium, a genre, a format or whatever, should we consistently use (adopt) the term "artist book" for that category?
    If an item fits whatever description we have given to objects that have these characteristics, do we call that object an "artist book" with the plural "artist books."

    Regarding objects, we would then use "their artist books" when writing about books by several artists, whether each book is by a single artist or a collaboration. "Mary's artist book(s)" would then be the format for a single artist's work(s).

    But what if our definition of "artist books" specifies a particular form, or medium, such as a book with pages intended as visual literature? If we are reviewing a Book Art exhibition that includes some of those and some fine printing and some bindings that are works of art and some sculptural bookworks, the term would not be accurate for the entire exhibition, and we would need to write with the attributive clitic, as in "The artists' books in this exhibition demonstrate the diversity of contemporary Book Art."

    Adopting the compromise term for all situations can become referentially unclear. If "it is an artist book" defines an object as being in this genre (if we decide it is a genre), would "this artist's book" be appropriate when talking about a book by a specific artist, and "this artist's books" be accurate when referring to several (or all) books by one artist? Would "these artists' books" make sense when talking about books from several specific artists? And would "Their artist book" and "their artist books" be correct for collaborative work(s)? Similarly to what Ted points out, we don't want to write "the artist's artist book(s)."
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  • 19 Feb 2016 9:20 AM | Anonymous
    I don't really see the difficulty here. Artists' Books is the name of the category or type. An artists' book is a token. One may have several of these--artists' books--but one shouldn't confuse a plurality of tokens with the type. In our collection of artists' books we have many artists' books. Granted, the term is the same but the concept is different. Why should that cause anybody any problems though?

    Sure, it would be simpler if there was a different term for the type.

    In our poetry collection we have many poems is easier on the ears than the phrase, in our artists' book collection we have many artists' books, but it signifies the same condition.

    I should think the more difficult part involved the fact that an artists' book isn't, or isn't necessarily (if you like) a book, and it isn't necessarily created by an artist.

    All that one has to know is that an art object refers in some material or conceptual way to some aspect of a book or books in order for the art to happen.

    But even that isn't that difficult to grasp. Think of Robert Lowell's unrhymed sonnets, or his twelve line sonnets. They were not "sonnets" in the conventional sense, but one had to think of them as sonnets in order to understand them. We call them "sonnets" although they're not, in the same way we call artists' books "artists' books."

    One could argue that since Lowell was a poet he had the moral authority to call his poems whatever he chose, and thus, by analogy, artists' books are essentially the creation of artists, but the point isn't that Lowell declared the poems to be "sonnets," the poems themselves functioned as sonnets albeit they didn't resemble sonnets. An artists' book is usually created by an artist (and sonnets are usually written by a poet), but the determining factor isn't the identity of the creator but the capacity of the artwork to function as an artists' book, at least in the eyes of a viewer prepared to see it as such.

    The awkwardness of the apostrophe seems inconsequential by comparison with the ontology of the work, and will surely become standardized when it's time to select a gravestone for the field.
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    • 17 Jun 2020 2:31 AM | Anonymous
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