What is the greengrocer’s apostrophe?
Whilst battling through the Saturday afternoon crush in a local department store, I was confronted by the ghastly sight of a sign bearing a misused apostrophe – a little ‘eek’ escaped my lips, and it almost put me off my bargain-hunting mission:
What made it screamingly worse was that the signwriter had got the first apostrophe (men’s) exactly right, but then randomly added an incorrect one to the simple plural form, pant’s! Why?? Because the miscreant thought that it made a pleasing visual balance?
Judging by your emails, I struck a chord with many of you when I posted about my ‘cliche-phobia’ last year. Do you feel equally bothered by what seems to be a growing tendency to sprinkle apostrophes hither and thither, with complete ignorance of any guiding principles?
Why is it sometimes called the greengrocer’s apostrophe?
The mistaken use of an apostrophe, especially its spurious insertion before the final ‘s’ of an ordinary plural form (as was the case with pant’s) is often called a greengrocer’s (or a grocer’s) apostrophe. This description stems from the fact that greengrocers were regarded as being particularly prone to this error when pricing their produce – we’ve probably all winced at signs that say ‘apple’s 80p per pound’. However, it’s unfair to single out one type of retailer, or even retailers in general, for such mistakes – unfortunately they crop up wherever writing is to be found.
Resisting the plague of ‘apostroflies’
The increasing appearance of the randomly scattered apostrophe was amusingly compared to an insect by the Readers’ Editor of the Guardian in 2002:
The apostrophe, it sometimes seems, is like an insect – an apostrofly – over the dining table, alighting where it will.
Belief in the correct use of apostrophes is not just the pedantic stance of grammatical ‘sticklers’: apart from producing meaningless words like pant’s in the first example above, the placement of the apostrophe can actually change the meaning of a word or sentence.
Here are three sentences, which all have a different meaning, depending on where the apostrophe has been inserted:
Her colleague’s son’s friends went snowboarding last winter.
[Her colleague has one son; his friends went snowboarding]
Her colleague’s sons’ friends went snowboarding last winter.
[Her colleague has more than one son; their friends went snowboarding]
Her colleagues’ sons’ friends went snowboarding last winter.
[Several of her colleagues have sons; their friends went snowboarding]
It’s easy when you know how…
As the above picture shows, the correct use of it’s and its is a particularly knotty apostrophal issue. Why is the sign wrong? Because the spelling it’s, with an apostrophe, is short for it is or it has, the apostrophe indicating omission of a letter or letters. So ‘Recruitment at it’s best’ actually would mean ‘Recruitment at it is best’ or ‘Recruitment at it has best’ – if you unpick it, you can see that it makes no sense whatsoever with the apostrophized spelling.
We’re confident that our well-informed readers would never allow the apostrofly to plague their writing, but in case there are those of you who need to brush up on your knowledge, here’s some straightforward advice.
Finally, if you can’t survive without a daily dose of apostrophe catastrophes, check out these links – they’re just of few of the many blogs, websites, and Facebook pages devoted to this important little punctuation mark: