Is it master’s or masters degree?…
September 11th, 2009


Is it master’s or masters degree? Juggling a few possible topics for this week’s blog, I settled instantly upon the spelling theme when a colleague wrote to point out that another error of this kind had just been committed in a campus-wide bulletin. It’s enough to make you rip up the parchment your degree was printed on.
Look, grammatically, it’s master of arts and master of science – no apostrophes. But it’s a master’s degree. When we use the possessive case we need an apostrophe, right?  Properly speaking, we are talking about the degree of master, although no one speaks like that, thank goodness. And we would never say masters’ degree, although I am sure at this very moment somewhere in the world someone is writing that. If anything, the intent would be masters’ degrees—plural.

Even those who do not identify themselves as pedants would agree that the misuse of apostrophes in our time is epidemic. I blame it all on Tim Horton’s. Why did Tim put that damn apostrophe in his Horton? It makes no sense. The entire country is plastered with that offense. I could live with Tim Horton’s maple glazed doughnuts, but not with Tim Horton’s all by himself. I wrote an article about Tim and his lousy spelling and all the other pervasive abuses of the apostrophe in a weekly newspaper a couple of months ago.  Few columns in my writing life have generated as much attention—and support—as that one. Of course, people who abuse the apostrophe without knowing it were not going to be writing me in sympathy. Perhaps they were chastened and vowed to eliminate all those improperly spelled nouns from their life.

Sadly, there is a lot of evidence that ignorance of the possessive case is ubiquitous. How often does one see mailboxes all over the place registering such ignorance? Just the other day I saw some beauties worth mentioning. Does Canada Post really deliver mail to boxes labeled Jone’s, Collin’s, or Mather’s? If you don’t see anything wrong with these spellings you need to stop reading and get help immediately. Memorial’s Writing Centre is a good place to start.
Remember: your master of arts is a master’s degree, and don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.

Note that there is never an apostrophe in honours. And you would write honours degree, not honour’s degree. You would not be receiving a degree of honours but a degree with honours—no possessive case, no apostrophe. The distinction between an honours degree and master’s degree should go some way to helping you remember why you need an apostrophe for the higher degree. Then again, perhaps you are largely confused by now. If so, keep plugging away until you can earn your doctorate. There is no ambiguity about the possessive case of a PhD. Or is Ph.D.?

Dr. Noreen Golfman is Professor of English and Dean of Graduate Studies. Her post secondary education included study at McGill, University of Alberta, and University of Western Ontario. She has been teaching and writing in the areas of Canadian literature and film studies for most of her career. She is the president of the Canadian Federation of Humanities and Social Sciences, founding director of the annual St. John's International Women's Film Festival, and director of the MUN Cinema Series. Dr. Golfman's blog 'Postcards From the Edge' will be updated every Thursday.

2 Responses to “Is it master’s or masters degree?…”

  1. Rhonda says:

    Two things worth noting in this entry, both about your reference to Tim Hortons. Firstly, it should be noted that in recent years Tim Hortons has gone through a rebranding process, and in doing such has removed the apostrophe from it’s signage. You can see evidence of this at

    However, the reason that little apostrophe found itself there in the first place is because the original ( and, from my understanding, still legal name of the company) is “Tim Horton’s Coffee and Doughnuts”

    Just thought it was worth putting out there!


  2. Robyn says:

    I guess the same rationale is used when people write “Master’s (degree) in Whatever”.

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