Party leaders don’t own the debates

Patricia Treble: These aren’t leaders’ debates. They’re just the ones onstage. Debate planners who add an apostrophe to the title are making a downright painful mistake.

There are times when caring about copy style hurts. It can be a yelp when reading a factually wrong title or a grimace when a “which” is misused instead of a “that.” Everyone has their own bête noire. And their own weaknesses. Yet there are a few basic writing rules that are ground into almost everyone, either in the classroom or workplace.

  1. “Which” comes after a comma, otherwise it’s “that”
  2. If unsure of “its” vs. “it’s,” then sound out “it’s” as “it is” in the sentence to determine which is the correct usage
  3. Hover your hand a few centimetres above a surface. That’s “over,” and every other context is “more than.” (Yes, this rule is slowly vanishing, though that’s a shame, in my opinion.)

So it’s a bit dumbfounding to discover that the commission running this year’s federal leaders debates don’t seem to know about Rule No. 4: Use a possessive apostrophe if the thing belongs to that person or group. So, Patricia’s tiaras means Patricia owns a collection of tiaras (a girl can dream, no?). Hendersons’ Cattle Ranch intuitively tells everyone that the agricultural concern belongs to the Hendersons.

But the Leaders’ Debates Commission? The federal political party leaders don’t own the debate; rather, it’s a debate of federal leaders. So no apostrophe is needed in the commission’s name or in the Federal Leaders’ Debate 2019 event title. The error is downright painful to see, especially as it’s been repeated seemingly everywhere.

“Perhaps more interesting to think about where ownership should lie,” one veteran copy editor opined. “Obviously a debate is meant to be helpful to voters, but I doubt many feel better informed after watching one (if they can get through one at all without feeling like they’re in an elementary schoolyard).” Another copy editor just used a profane expletive when told of the copy style.

(For the record, Maclean’s and Citytv didn’t use an apostrophe for their debate.)

Maclean’s and Citytv Federal Leaders Debate in Toronto, featuring Elizabeth May, Jagmeet Singh, and Andrew Scheer. (Photograph by Cole Burston)