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The Greengrocer’s Lament: A grammarian on the problematic apostrophe

How to use the problematic apostrophe.

The poor greengrocer, now almost extinct, was traditionally targeted for getting apostrophes wrong, as in “Apple’s For Sale”. They should have heeded G.V. Carey in his nice little book on punctuation, Mind The Stop: “If in doubt, leave it out.” One has to have sympathy for greengrocers, though, and everyone else, when major retail chains are so blasé about the insertion, positioning and spacing of apostrophes, such as Beds ‘R’ Us and Pak’nSave. Punctuation as decoration.

Apostrophes have three distinct functions: to indicate possession, to indicate omission, and disambiguation (to make the meaning clear). You’re probably most familiar with possession: Pablo’s bike, the cat’s tail. It gets trickier when a name ends with an s. Of course, one should follow the same rule and talk about Ross’s bike, but for some reason newspapers, in particular, have traditionally felt it preferable to take off the final s and have Ross’ bike. You don’t actually say it like that – you still say Ross’s bike. So, really, what’s the point? And then there are the theologically and classically minded, who feel that to talk about Moses’s tablets and Jesus’s disciples is just too many zizzes: hence Moses’ and Jesus’, with no final s (pronounced or otherwise).

The apostrophe comes after the s with plurals (the horses’ tails), but plural names ending in s add another layer and seem to throw people off. But again, it’s all very logical:

I collected Roger Jones’s mother from the airport.

She was accompanied by a tribe of young Joneses.

The Joneses’ luggage arrived later.

Where’s the problem? The only oddity is adding the es to form the plural. Everything else is bog standard. And adding the es should be pretty familiar: one bus, two buses, the buses’ headlights. Same thing.

Non-s plurals are a minor wrinkle, but worth mentioning. If you’ve ever seen Mens wear, or Menswear, you know what I mean. Full marks for following Carey’s “leave it out” advice, but the result is awful in either version. If you have a non-s plural, treat the possessive plural as a singular: man, man’s, men, men’s; woman, woman’s, women, women’s.

Omission causes far more problems than it should. Here, apostrophes are used to indicate one or more missing letters. Thus, fish and chips becomes fish ’n’ chips. The trouble is, Microsoft Word wants to make that first apostrophe an opening quote mark, which is just one example of software altering the language. It is probably why the R in Beds ‘R’ Us is in quote marks, rather than having two apostrophes. Can’t and haven’t and we’d and isn’t are (hopefully) fairly clear – although forms like we’d can stand for either we had or we would, and won’t is a bit of a weird one (a colloquial contraction of the archaic woll not.)

People most often trip up when there is confusion between the first and second uses: possession and omission. If you’re a secret its/it’s or who’s/whose confuser, here’s a handy pattern: his, hers, theirs, ours, whose, its. The possessive pronouns have no apostrophe. So, it’s stands for it is and who’s for who is.

Then there’s disambiguation – a usage that should be secretly passed on in dimly lit, grimy basements on scraps of paper and never revealed to the hoi polloi. The problem arises in examples like this: “When it comes to vowels, I have more trouble with as and is than with us and os.” Perfect grammar, but English has lost its way.

Enter the disambiguating apostrophe: “When it comes to vowels, I have more trouble with a’s and i’s than with u’s and o’s.” This harmless expedient has spread like a virus to emerge as the nouveau greengrocer’s apostrophe, where an apostrophe is thrown in with just about any plural: apple’s, road’s, elephant’s, meeting’s, you name it.

And no, you don’t need a disambiguating apostrophe with 1990s, or CDs, or SUVs. Stick to using it with single-character plurals (“mind your p’s and q’s”) and you won’t go far wrong... although I wouldn’t want to be too strict about the do’s and don’ts of apostrophising. 

This article was first published in the August 2018 issue of North & South.