Hornet's / hornets' / hornets / hornet nest

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Usage is split on this one.  Merriam-Webster goes for "hornet's nest", OED prefers "hornets' nest", and many other dictionaries and websites choose one of the four options listed in the title of this post.

To my mind, logically it should be "hornets' nest" because it's a home that belongs (genitive) to a colony of hornets (plural).

My high school sports teams were called "hornets", so I have a long acquaintanceship with this fearsome insect.

On the other hand, we also find "farmers market" and "farmers' market", usually the former, occasionally "farmer's market", but I don't think I've ever seen "farmer market".

Let's look inside a hornet's / hornets' / hornets / hornet nest and see what it's like (a treat at the end to watch a skunk eat the hornet larvae, and observe a couple of raccoons get the leftovers):

"Why You Should Never Approach A Hornet Nest – What's Inside An Active Colony."

Shawn Woods   8/22//22

One thing I'll say for sure:  "Never stir up a hornet's / hornets' / hornets / hornet nest"!


Selected readings


  1. RfP said,

    December 7, 2022 @ 5:37 pm

    After careful consideration, I have concluded that they’re all wrong…

    But seriously, there’s a way of using the singular with a definite article to characterize—and even, in fairy tales and such, to personify—a species, as in, for example, The Ant and the Grasshopper.

    Or as Monty Python would have it, “The Larch. [pause] The Larch. [pause] The Larch.”

    I’m not sure what the technical term for that is, but it confuses the hell out of me in terms of what to use in this context.

    Perhaps because of that singular usage, I want to follow Merriam-Webster—I really don’t think it’s just because of which side of The Pond I live on.

    And then I look again, and there’s no way any of them can be correct.

    No way.


  2. Taylor, Philip said,

    December 7, 2022 @ 5:42 pm

    Well, with the greatest respect, I disagree completely with RfP. One is obviously correct, the other three are all equally obviously wrong. The one that is correct is, of course, "hornets' nest" — the hornet is not a solitary creature (unlike some bees, for example), so it shares its nest with countless fellow hornets. It is their nest, they are plural, they possess the nest, so it has to be "hornets' nest". The defence rests.

  3. RfP said,

    December 7, 2022 @ 6:09 pm

    …and the defense prevails, Philip!

    But in some way, it ("hornets' nest") still doesn’t feel quite right.

    It should be an open-and-shut case, but I think my lingering doubts have to do with the influence of the usage I mentioned.

  4. RfP said,

    December 7, 2022 @ 6:19 pm

    What about “minefield”?

    I think it has a bearing on this, as it can’t be a field it there’s only one mine.

    I agree with Philip’s reasoning, but I think we’re in deeper waters here, and I have to admit that despite my agreement, I would still be sore tempted to write “hornet’s”—in fact, to be honest I almost certainly would!??!

    I would love to learn why!

  5. Stephen Hart said,

    December 7, 2022 @ 6:34 pm

    Taylor, Philip said,
    The one that is correct is, of course, "hornets' nest" — the hornet is not a solitary creature…

    (From a biologist)
    Au contraire. There are solitary bees *and* solitary wasps—that is to say the nest of a single female, who lays eggs.
    (And one can't really pick nits between "hornet" and "wasp." Hornets are wasps.)

    "the majority of wasp species are solitary"




  6. Anthony said,

    December 7, 2022 @ 7:08 pm

    I live in a small Chicago neighborhood commonly styled "Printers Row." I would prefer an apostrophe after "Printers." An alternate name is "Printing House Row," and I'm fine with that and admire its lack of room for dispute. Yes, there were several printing houses, but surely it couldn't be called "Printing Houses Row."

  7. Cindy said,

    December 7, 2022 @ 7:30 pm

    I always substitute "women" to determine if it's a plural possessive or just a plural to figure out how to handle the "s". I would go with hornets'

  8. Claire Binkley said,

    December 7, 2022 @ 7:40 pm

    I think the unusual placement of the apostrophe when you are considering a farmers' market might have to do with how when people tried to display information on signs it probably fell off with the wind. I have observed several of the given examples in this post.

    (My high school sports team was called the Vikings but I was hidden away as safely as possible in the restroom during the pep rally, with my feet tucked up so no one would be able to see me in a stall, heedless of fire safety at that age, so I couldn't tell you any more detail.)

  9. Jonathan Smith said,

    December 7, 2022 @ 7:49 pm

    It seems the pairs typically written
    "hornet's nests" / "hornets' nests"
    "doctor's offices" / "doctors' offices"
    are contrastive in that the left-hand cases are single prosodic units which mean "hornetnest-PL", etc., not "hornet-PL POSS nest-PL", etc. So the orthographical separation seems worth maintaining :P plurality of the hornets, etc., feels immaterial in the left-hand cases, perhaps justifying the choice "'s"?

  10. AntC said,

    December 7, 2022 @ 7:55 pm

    wp consistently uses "bird's nest soup". Only one bird per nest seems unlikely.

    An Entomologist's academic paper might talk of 'the hornet nest' in general as an abstraction from any particular nest belonging to any particular hornet(s).

    … because it's a home that belongs (genitive) to a colony of hornets (plural).

    Grammatical genitives are used for a lot more than belonging to. And anyway by what right does the nest 'belong to' the hornet(s)? They're squatters in the tree. What sort of nest is in that tree? A hornet nest. That tree's hornet nest is being raided by killer bees.

    My local 'Farmers Market' facebook page spells it without apostrophe.

  11. martin schwartz said,

    December 7, 2022 @ 8:53 pm

    Natives of Port Manteau would simply call it a "hornest".
    And in view of the etymology of wasp etc. shown by
    Zoroastrian Middle Persian wabz, Balochi gwabz < *webh-s-,
    fans of the series "exaltation of larks" can speak of "a weave of wasps". I see that the online Balochi Dictionary–Webonary
    also gives Bal. gwamz.

  12. Steve Morrison said,

    December 7, 2022 @ 9:24 pm

    Then there’s the U. S. holiday “Veterans Day” which is officially spelled without an apostrophe.

  13. SS said,

    December 7, 2022 @ 9:46 pm

    The version of this spelling dilemma that I come across every so often is "attorney's fees" v. "attorneys' fees" v. "attorney fees." The US is not a loser pays legal system, but litigants still can try in some situations to get the other party (or sometimes the government) to pay their attorney's/attorneys'/attorney fees. In my experience, none of the spellings is dominant and I don't have an absolute favorite in the race so I will defer to an authoritative usage. Black's Law Dictionary has the primary entry at attorney's fees, but with both of the variants listed. I don't think "attorneys fees" (sans apostrophe) is used very frequently, but I could be wrong.

  14. Mark S. said,

    December 7, 2022 @ 10:11 pm

    Google Ngram results of comparing hornets nest, hornet nest, hornets' nest, and hornet's nest since 1700.

  15. RfP said,

    December 7, 2022 @ 11:10 pm

    Not being (in any way, shape or form) a linguist, yet having somehow developed an intense interest in this distinction, I have been reading The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language, trying to understand how these contesting patterns of usage might have come about.

    It seems to me that one area to look into is the distinction between count and non-count (AKA “mass”) nouns, since only count nouns distinguish between singular and plural. It also seems that there’s something about this that revolves around the patterns of usage for “genitives” and “attributives” [whose nature I think I understand, but…].

    For example, as I mentioned above, a minefield contains mines. Similarly, a bookstore sells books and an app store sells apps. So there are cases where genitives/attributives (I guess?) for count nouns can be singular in a way that is similar to the way they function for non-count nouns.

    In discussing a class of plural-only nouns known as bipartites (“words denoting objects made up of two like parts [such as] names of articles of clothing [think trousers], tools [tweezers], and optical aids [spectacles]”), Huddleston and Pullum mention in a footnote on page 342 that “The uninflected base [of these plural-only nouns] is also found in compounds or as an attributive modifier: a trouser-press, changes in forcep design.

    It seems to me that a hornet’s nest [and with apologies to Stephen Hart, the Wikipedia article on Hornets (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hornet) states that “Hornets (insects in the genus Vespa) are the largest of the eusocial wasps…”], and at least on alternate Tuesdays an ant’s nest—which might be referred to as an ant nest the rest of the time—and many other, similar nominals (?) such as “attorney’s fees,” have a long tradition of being referred to in more than just the way that logic would seem to dictate, to the extent that Merriam-Webster (and also, I now see, Google Books Ngram Viewer) contradicts both the OED and the American Heritage Dictionary on this seemingly simple point.

    I do wish I had studied grammar in college!

  16. Chas Belov said,

    December 8, 2022 @ 12:32 am

    I tried to think what I would have written, only to realize I've never written this particular phrase in my many years of existence.

    Google Ngrams ranking of the four variations gives the nod to hornet's nest (apostrophe before the s), with hornets' nest (apostrophe after the s) not ridiculously far behind.

    With plural nests the top places swap, and the apostrophe moves after the s for first place. However, the plural nests appears to occur at about one-twentieth the rate of nest.

  17. Martin said,

    December 8, 2022 @ 3:31 am

    I think there are two things going on in the above comments.

    One is a recognition that noun phrases qualifying other nouns are almost always singular. So you get an egg box not eggs box, a trouser press not a trousers press, bird's nest soup not birds' nests soup even if more than one nest is used… and attorney fees not attorneys fees?

    But this is modified by a sense that the first noun belongs to the second… then you get the possessive version. This really has to be used in these senses… so for example my university created a post that they called a 'Vice-Chancellor Research Fellow', but to me that *excludes* the possessive sense that was clearly intended and suggests a fellow who researches vice-chancellors: a 'Vice-Chancellor's Research Fellow' is what they wanted to create. Similarly it's the Queen's Regiment not the Queen Regiment…

    In hornet nest / hornet's nest it turns on whether you think the nest belongs to the hornets or just contains them. I'd have no problem in saying 'this is my box that I keep hornets in: this is my hornet box'. But I think the nest belongs to the hornets so it's a hornets' nest.

    In attorney('s) fees are they fees that belong to the attorney (possessive) or are they fees that you have to pay to an attorney / for attorney services (singular)? Traditionally I think the former, but the latter doesn't seem wrong, it just conveys a different analysis of the situation. To me, anyway.

  18. maidhc said,

    December 8, 2022 @ 5:00 am

    I would probably say hornets' nest, but I am fine with hornet nest too, along the lines of ant colony, wolf pack, snail shell, salmon run, mouse hole, buffalo herd, trout stream, etc.

    I don't have any background in linguistics, but in my mental model of English grammar, formed no doubt by my early education, I think of it as an example of how English allows a noun to perform the function of an adjective, e.g. Christmas present. I think this might be a Germanic thing? As Martin says above, the first one is normally singular. In other languages that I know, you can't shove two nouns together without one being in the genitive case.

    I mention the fact the the authorities who govern place names, at least in the US and Canada, have resolved to remove apostrophes. So Pikes Peak and Crows Nest Pass. The explanation is that apostrophes imply that someone owns a geographical feature, but the government should define that it belongs to all of us. Maybe this has an influence? I think that the geographical question was discussed here previously

  19. Lasius said,

    December 8, 2022 @ 5:13 am

    What is interesting to me is that the nest in the video cleary isn't a hornets' nest at all, but seems to belong to a Dolichovespula species. Hornets construct their nests in cavities and there are no hornets native to the US anyway.

  20. AntC said,

    December 8, 2022 @ 6:07 am

    "Wasps native to North America in the genus Dolichovespula are commonly referred to as hornets (e.g., baldfaced hornets), but are actually yellowjackets.", says wp at 'Hornet'.

    "The common European hornet was accidentally introduced to eastern North America about the middle of the 19th century and has lived there since at about the same latitudes as in Europe. However, it has never been found in western North America."

    I suspect you're not going to enquire as to the correct for of address when the critters are stinging you.

  21. Julian said,

    December 8, 2022 @ 6:38 am

    I look forward to the day when English ditches possessive apostrophes completely.
    They're a pain in the neck, and they're very rarely needed to disambiguate. German does fine without them. So can we.

  22. Taylor, Philip said,

    December 8, 2022 @ 7:51 am

    I concede. There are solitary hornets. And they too build nests. So a solitary hornet's nest is a hornet's nest, while a eusocial hornet's nest is a hornets' nest. The defence pleads prior ignorance of the fact that solitary hornets exist.

  23. Taylor, Philip said,

    December 8, 2022 @ 7:57 am

    " German does fine without [possessive apostrophes]. So can we". So does French — but do you really want to spend the rest of your life (and doom all generations to come) to speaking of "the friend of my mother" or "the pen of my aunt" ? And would you really like to re-cast "my dog's half-brother's mother's daughter's puppies' vaccinations" without possessive apostophes ?

  24. Philip Anderson said,

    December 8, 2022 @ 8:09 am

    In a compound (or hyphenated, word, the first element is almost always singular in English, as in minefield or bookshop. Even if the singular isn’t used by itself, as in trouser-press.

    If there are separate words, the relationship may be apposition or possession, and which is not always obvious (or it may be obvious but people just disagree). But I would expect to find hornets in a hornets’ nest, whereas a dogkennel might be empty. Spectacle case sounds better to me, but personally I have a glasses case, which is definitely not a glass case (that might be a drinks’ cabinet).

  25. Philip Anderson said,

    December 8, 2022 @ 8:22 am

    But stirring up a (solitary) hornet’s nest, literally or metaphorically, would be much less dangerous than stirring up a hornets’ nest.

    @Philip Taylor
    I think Julian was merely suggesting the abolition of the written apostrophe; after all, we don’t use it in speech but don’t really suffer from the consequent ambiguity. There are other ways to distinguish between Queen’s College (Oxon) and Queens’ College (Cantab). And “it’s” does not have a possessive apostrophe, even though it looks like it.

  26. V said,

    December 8, 2022 @ 9:29 am

    It is obviously "hortets' nest" to me. A nest that hornets inhabit.

  27. Coby said,

    December 8, 2022 @ 11:48 am

    "German does fine without them" because of the many possible plural formations in German, an -s suffix is probably the rarest.
    Whether to put the possessive s in a compound noun differs between Germany and Austria on the one hand and Switzerland on the other: Schiffahrtsgessellschaft vs. Schiffahrtgessellschaft.
    Whether or not to pluralize in English differs across the Atlantic, but not consistently: UK "drugs dealer" vs. US "drug dealer" but UK "sport section" vs. US "sports section".

  28. Jerry Packard said,

    December 8, 2022 @ 1:22 pm

    I am fine with all hornet/hornets/hornet’s/hornets’ possibilities. The hornet/hornets is simply a genitive marked by position. What really bugs me is the increasing frequency of ‘s used to mark the plural. My speech-to-text generator yesterday gave me “Just finished playing with the scallywag’s. One point for me.”

  29. Levantine said,

    December 8, 2022 @ 2:57 pm

    I am British and have never encountered “drugs dealer” before.

  30. Michael Watts said,

    December 8, 2022 @ 3:58 pm

    The defence pleads prior ignorance of the fact that solitary hornets exist.

    I wouldn't worry about it. The metaphor unambiguously refers to a nest that contains many hornets. That's what makes the situation such a problem.

    I would think of "hornet nest" as being incorrect, but I would accept either "hornet's nest" or "hornets' nest". If I had to come up with a "correct" answer, I would select "hornets' nest".

    And would you really like to re-cast "my dog's half-brother's mother's daughter's puppies' vaccinations" without possessive apostophes ?

    Doesn't really matter; that kind of usage cannot occur outside of jokes.

  31. Andrew Usher said,

    December 8, 2022 @ 10:32 pm

    Hornets' nest, surely, for the genitive construction. There's no ambiguity in the rules of English there. However I think I prefer 'hornet nest' for the literal use, but the metaphorical has to have the /s/.

    k_over_hbarc at yahoo.com

  32. Francois Lang said,

    December 9, 2022 @ 8:18 am

    @ Lasius
    According to Wikipedia

    Dolichovespula maculata is a species of wasp in the genus Dolichovespula and a member of the eusocial, cosmopolitan family Vespidae. It is known by many colloquial names, primarily bald-faced hornet, but also including bald-faced aerial yellowjacket, bald-faced wasp, bald hornet, white-faced hornet, blackjacket, white-tailed hornet, spruce wasp, and bull wasp. Technically a species of yellowjacket wasp, it is not one of the true hornets, which are in the genus Vespa

  33. Viseguy said,

    December 9, 2022 @ 7:28 pm

    Thesis: Many hornets (not one) inhabit a nest, so "hornets' nest" wins — not to mention that stirring a single hornet makes for a much weaker idiom than stirring a nest of them.

    Antithesis: A "hornet's nest" is effectively the same as a "hornets' nest", because the former is virtually certain to be a nest for other hornets as well. So there!

    Synthesis: This is an example of what I call the vexatious apostrophe. With "a hornets' nest", you have the singular "a" bumping up against the plural "hornets'" in a way that doesn't happen with "a nest of hornets". What's more, "a nest of hornets" itself embeds a certain ambiguity. Is it a nest belonging to hornets, or a nest consisting of hornets? When the context is the popular idiom, I favor consisting of.

    Bottom line: Abolish the vexatious apostrophe! Adjectify the noun, and make a nest consisting of hornets a "hornets nest".

  34. Dara Connolly said,

    December 10, 2022 @ 5:17 pm

    I'm not persuaded by the commenters who apply logic to conclude that the only correct answer is "hornets' nest". How can they explain singular possessive usages such as "It's a rich man's world", the long-standing Radio 4 programme "Woman's Hour" or "child's play", none of which refers to a singular man, woman or child.

  35. George Hegarty said,

    December 11, 2022 @ 9:19 am

    @Philip Anderson

    'Glasses case' is indeed a very interesting exception to the general rule. It probably deserves a discussion all of its own. I assume – as you imply – that it's to avoid confusion and I'm trying to think of other examples but coming up short. A not very realistic hypothetical could involve a golfer who has a bag only used for irons: would it be an 'iron bag' or an 'irons bag'?

  36. Taylor, Philip said,

    December 11, 2022 @ 10:22 am

    Is "glasses case" really an exception to a more general rule ? Is it not in the same class as a "fish tank" ? Similar (but not identical) are a "bowls club", a "darts match", and so on …

  37. Robert Coren said,

    December 11, 2022 @ 11:02 am

    "Glasses case" is kind of a special case (sorry) because "glasses" in the sense of "spectacles" is different from the plural of the word that means a vessel from which one drinks. I think Philip Taylor's comparison to "fish tank" is accurate.

  38. wanda said,

    December 11, 2022 @ 1:44 pm

    I'm pretty sure a "farmer market" would be a place where you could buy and sell farmers, which is illegal.

  39. Taylor, Philip said,

    December 11, 2022 @ 2:45 pm

    Not so sure about that, Wanda — it is, after all, a cattle market at which cattle are bought and sold, not a cow market … So by analogy, a market at which farmers could be bought and sold (whether or not illegal) would be a farmers market, whilst a market at which farmers could sell their produce would be a farmers' market …

  40. George said,

    December 12, 2022 @ 4:58 pm

    @Taylor, Philip

    But 'bowls' and 'darts' in those instances are singular, not plural. Darts is a game, bowls is a game but my glasses are sitting on my nose.

  41. George said,

    December 12, 2022 @ 5:00 pm

    … and I don't see why 'fish' in 'fish tank' should be assumed to be anything other than the singular we find in 'bear cage' or 'rabbit hutch'.

  42. Robert Coren said,

    December 13, 2022 @ 10:14 am

    @George: "Fish" is an accepted plural form. Although "fishes" exists, it sounds strange to me to ask "How many fishes did you catch?"

  43. George said,

    December 13, 2022 @ 11:31 am

    @Robert Core

    I'm a native English speaker, so I know 'fish' can be plural. But I don't see why it should be assumed to be plural in 'fish tank'. There are often, if not alway, several cows in a cow shed, several chickens in a chicken coop, etc.

  44. George said,

    December 13, 2022 @ 11:32 am

    Sorry for the typos

  45. Terry K. said,

    December 13, 2022 @ 1:52 pm

    Glasses, in "glasses case" is not plural. It's a non-count noun. One pair of glasses. Two pair(s) of glasses.

    And if we were to somehow want to talk about a case for putting drinking glasses, "glasses case" would differentiate it from a case made of glass, which is what a "glass case" would be, I imagine to most listeners/readers, and certainly to my mind.

  46. Taylor, Philip said,

    December 13, 2022 @ 3:13 pm

    Well, I'm not sure I agree (that "glasses" is not plural in the phrase "glasses case"). The very fact that we speak of a pair of glasses means that there are two glasses, which taken together form a pair. Leaving aside game birds, where different rules apply, one always speaks of a pair of <plural noun>, as in "pair of collared doves", "pair of ear-rings", "pair of kings" (in cards), and so on. So I would respectfully argue that "glasses" in "pair of glasses" is plural, and therefore "glasses" in "glasses case" (= "case for a pair of glasses") is also plural.

  47. Terry K. said,

    December 16, 2022 @ 11:39 am

    We also say pair of pants.

    You can have one dove, one earring, one king, etc. Or two, or three. You can't have one pant, two pants, or one glass, two glasses, in the "pair of glasses" and "pair of pants" meanings of glasses and pants. (You can count how many times your dog pants, or how many drinking vessels are on the table, but those are different meanings of pants and glasses.)

  48. RfP said,

    December 16, 2022 @ 6:58 pm

    @Terry K.

    As I mentioned above, Huddleston and Pullum discuss glasses in The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language as part of a “quite large class of plural-only nouns [which] consists of words denoting objects made up of two like parts: we refer to these as bipartites. They include names of articles of clothing [think trousers], tools [tweezers], and optical aids [spectacles]…”

    I think their characterization makes a lot of sense.

  49. Robert Coren said,

    December 17, 2022 @ 10:29 am

    Sellers of trousers, somewhat oddly, use the singular "pant" in advertising for what is clearly intended to be a pair of pants.

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