Grammar Girl Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing

Taylor Swift Doesn't Need Your Grammatical Approval. In Love. Foil Lump Surprise.

Episode Summary

968. We explain why Taylor Swift's album title doesn't need an apostrophe and how the preposition "in" signals passion.

Episode Notes

968. This week, I expand on my comments for the New York Times about Taylor Swift's grammatically sound but apostrophe-free new album title: "The Tortured Poets Department." Plus, we dive deep into the nuances between "loving" someone and being "in love," tracing how the word evolved from the ancient Proto-Indo-European root "leubh" yet still doesn't fully capture love's complexity across languages. 

The "in love" segment was written by Valerie Fridland, a professor of linguistics at the University of Nevada in Reno and the author of "Like, Literally, Dude: Arguing for the Good in Bad English." You can find her at

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Episode Transcription

Grammar Girl here. I’m Mignon Fogarty, your friendly guide to the English language. We talk about writing, history, rules, and other cool stuff. This week, I have hot news about Taylor Swift and an apostrophe! And then in honor of Valentine's Day, we'll talk about how that little word "in" you find in the phrase "in love." It changes everything.

But first, if you've been thinking about signing up for Grammarpoalooza, don't wait! I'm sending out all kinds of fun language facts and peeks into how I make the show. Plus, I'd really appreciate it. If you appreciate what I do, it's the most direct way for you to support my work. The first two weeks are free, and you can sign up at That's

For me, the Grammys were all about Tracy Chapman. I've watched "Fast Car" videos old and new over and over this week, but if your mother has ever corrected your grammar, you might also appreciate that Taylor Swift, or "Mother" as she is known to many of her fans, lined us up for a grammar lesson at the Grammys when she announced the title of her next album, "The Tortured Poets Department," and it became clear that she (gasp) didn't include an apostrophe in the word "poets." 

It's the "farmers market" and "writers strike" problem all over again, and the New York Times actually contacted me for a comment. So I thought I would expand here on what I told them since they definitely aren't going to publish my long, multi-paragraph commentary. 

First, Taylor Swift is following in the fine tradition of the movie "Dead Poets Society," which also didn't have an apostrophe.

The reason people wonder if phrases like this should have an apostrophe is that they kind of look possessive. They remind us of possessives. For example, if two poets forgot their umbrellas when they left a coffee shop, the barista might say, "Oh, those are the poets' umbrellas!" 

And that is clearly possessive — "poets'" with an apostrophe at the end— because the two poets own the umbrellas. 

So when you see a name, or a description of people, before a noun, like "umbrellas" or "department," you tend to think about possessives.

But Taylor Swift isn't violating any grammar rule by writing "The Tortured Poets Department" without an apostrophe because nouns can also be attributive, which just means we can use them to describe things the same way we use adjectives to describe things — the way we might say the "new department" or the "dysfunctional department."

In this case, "tortured poets" tells us what kind of department it is the same way "new" and "dysfunctional" did or the same way "electronics" and "cosmetics" tell us what kind of department we're shopping in at Walmart or Macy's. 

People make a similar argument for leaving the apostrophe out of phrases like "farmers market" and "writers strike." The Associated Press writes both those terms without the apostrophe for example, saying that "farmers" and "writers" are primarily descriptive. A framework they recommend is that if you would use "of," use the apostrophe; but if you would use "for" or "by," leave it out.

For example, you'd be more likely to say "a market for farmers" than "a market of farmers," so you leave off the apostrophe. And you'd be more likely to say "a strike by writers" than "a strike of writers," so again, you leave out the apostrophe.

Veterans Day is another example. The official name of the holiday has no apostrophe: "veterans" is plural, not possessive. And it fits the AP framework: you say "a day for veterans," not "a day of veterans." So no apostrophe.

With "The Tortured Poets Department," I could imagine it going either way. You could say it is a department of poets or a department for poets. And they each have a subtly different meaning.

It wouldn't be wrong to think of it as a department of poets and write it with an apostrophe, but it would convey a stronger sense that the poets owned or controlled the department. Apostrophes aren't exclusively for ownership — they can also show relationships as in "Travis is Taylor's boyfriend" — but leaving the apostrophe off "poets" gives more of a sense that it is a department for poets … more of a sense of tortured poets gathering in frustrated misery than of tortured poets doing the administrative work of running a department. 

Who knew a little apostrophe could carry so much feeling?

The one thing that is clear and easy though is that unless you mean one person, you don't put the apostrophe before the S in "poets," "writers," and "farmers." 

It does occasionally come up with one person. For example, the Guardian Style Guide says to use the singular form for “writer’s cramp” and “collector's item.” It’s the cramp of one writer and the item of one collector. When in doubt, check a good dictionary; it will often give you the correct spelling of these kinds of phrases. 

So to sum up, Taylor Swift is perfectly within her grammatical rights to name her album "The Tortured Poets Department" without an apostrophe. Shame on anyone who doubted her! But you could also make an argument for "The Tortured Poets [apostrophe] Department," just like "farmers market" can go either way depending on what style guide you follow. The only clearly wrong answer here is  "The Tortured Poet [apostrophe] s Department" unless, of course, there's only one lonely poet in the whole department.


What does it mean to be 'in love'?

by Valerie Fridland

"Love." The root of this word existed well before people were speaking English, and the complexity of emotion it represents has fueled philosophical debate since antiquity. But, despite such longevity, the meaning of love is still sometimes hard to untangle.

What is Love?

The modern word "love" came from the Old English word "lufu," which itself came from the ancient Proto-Indo European root "leubh," which carried the sense of caring or desire. Our Western sense of love as having a deep connection with someone developed from this idea of caring. Interestingly, the word "libido" came from this same root, suggesting that the tension between affection and sexual desire has been around for a long time.

Indeed, psychologists have suggested that there are several different main types or "flavors" of love, including familial love, platonic love,  self-love, and romantic love. But, not all languages have specific words for these categories, and linguists have found huge differences in which types of love languages have specific words for, meaning sometimes these "love" words don't translate well across languages.

For example, the Australian aboriginal language Pintupi has the word "kanyininpa," which translates roughly into "holding," which denotes a form of nurturing and caring love between parent and child. While a person who speaks English may understand this form of love and even talk about it as something like maternal or paternal love, in Pintupi, it has been lexicalized — it's been given a unique word that conveys that specific meaning.

Because English uses just one word for many different types of love — we can love our friends, and we can love our partners, and just as readily we can love apple pie — it is not surprising that subtle differences in how we talk about loving those people and things might reveal differences in the types of love we are expressing.

What Does It Mean to Be 'In Love'?

Languages often have gaps where no single word captures a specific concept, so when people want to talk about such things, they sometimes borrow words from other languages or combine existing words in new ways. And, so, it seems, English has done just that with a critical distinction between love that involves strong affection and romantic love that involves sexual desire.

What is this difference? Well, it's the idea of being "in love" as opposed to simply "love." In a study in the 1990s, which asked people to list those they loved versus those with whom they were in love, participants seem to view these as conceptually distinct categories. Not surprisingly, the list of people they "loved" was quite a bit larger than the number of people they listed under "in love." If you made a Venn diagram, the "in love" circle is small and contained entirely within a bigger "love" circle.

The difference in large part seemed to rest on whether people felt sexual desire. For example, the researchers also asked participants to list people they were sexually attracted to, and thankfully, found dramatically more cross-over between the "in love" category and the "sexual desire" category than the "love" category and the "sexual desire" category.

These results suggest that the common refrain that you can love someone, but not be in love with them, hinges on the difference between feeling care and affection versus feeling passion.

Not Enough Words

What these studies on the meaning of "love" both within English and in other languages suggest is that, in English, love is semantically broad and somewhat generic.

The varied senses that "love" has come to express makes it more difficult to tease out where the boundaries between the types of love are because of the vagueness of the word we use. This is what drives our need to use descriptive terms and metaphors—falling in and out of love, motherly love, burning love—suggesting that, regardless of what your love language might be, English’s love language is pretty impoverished—and that the one tiny little "in" in the phrase "in love" is a key marker of which type of love we feel.

That segment was written by Valerie Fridland, a professor of linguistics at the University of Nevada in Reno and the author of "Like, Literally, Dude: Arguing for the Good in Bad English." You can find her at

And if you're still in the mood for love, another Quick and Dirty Tips podcast, the Savvy Psychologist, had a show back in November about some surprising things that are helpful when you're looking for love. The title was "Eight Factors that Influence Your Love Life," and that's from Dr. Monica Johnson, the Savvy Psychologist.

Finally, I have a familect story.


"Hi, Grammar Girl. This is Sharon from Massachusetts. And I just heard your podcast about the chicken surprise, and it made me think about a familect with a family that I lived with who whenever they would find something in the freezer that they couldn't remember what it was, they would call it foil lump surprise, and I just thought that was really cool. Thanks for all your work. Have a good day."

Thanks, Sharon. "Foil lump surprise" is really descriptive; I can just imagine what it looks like! Thanks for the call. 

If you want to share the story of your familect, your family dialect, a word your family and only your family uses, call the voicemail line at 83-321-4-GIRL. It’s in the show notes, and be sure to tell me the story behind your familect because that’s always the best part.

And now, if you're a Grammarpalooza subscriber you can also send a voice memo. To sign up, visit or text "hello" to (917) 540-0876.

Grammar Girl is a Quick and Dirty Tips podcast. Thanks to marketing associate, Davina Tomlin; ad operations specialist, Morgan Christianson; digital operations specialist, Holly Hutchings; director of podcasts, Brannan Goetschius; marketing assistant, Kamryn Lacey; and audio engineer, Nathan Semes, who can manually ear rumble (and just found out this is a thing, and isn't common).

And I’m Mignon Fogarty, better known as Grammar Girl. That's all. Thanks for listening.


References for the "in love" segment

Lomas, T. (2018). The flavours of love: A cross‐cultural lexical analysis. Journal for the Theory of Social Behaviour, 48(1), 134–152.

Meyers, S. A., & Berscheid, E. (1997). The language of love: The difference a preposition makes. Personality & Social Psychology Bulletin, 23(4), 347-362.