Apostrophe Catastrophes – The Greengrocer’s Apostrophe and other grammar dilemmas

Posted by | July 04, 2013 | Writing and Editing | No Comments
ApostrophesOK, hands up if you've heard of The Greengrocer's Apostrophe. This is an apostrophe incorrectly used with an 'S' after it to form a plural of a word.  You'll see it not only in the greengrocer's shop but widely in the retail sector, online and in print advertising.  Here are some samples:
  • Potatoe's $4.00/kg, Apple's $2.95/kg  or Tomatoe's $5.95/kg (should simply be Potatoes, Apples or Tomatoes)
  • 1000's of DVD's on sale (should be 1000s of DVDs, or, even better, thousands of DVDs)
  • P's and Q's (yes, really. Ps and Qs is preferable)
  • Our Rate's are the best in town (should be Our rates are the best in town)
Apostrophe Man strikes again! An apostrophe does not a plural make in these cases. Apostrophes, you see, are primarily possessive little things. They denote possession as well as plural. This can be confusing until you get the hang of it. Have a look at these two sentences:
  • My brother's mates went to the car races.
  • My brothers' mates went to the car races.
In the first instance, My brother's is singular and possessive. I have one brother, and his mates went to the car races.  In the second, My brothers' is plural, and also possessive. I have more than one brother, and their mates went to the car races. The rule is: If you want to add an apostrophe+S to a single unit (My brother), the apostrophe comes before the S.  If you are talking about more than one of anything (My brothers) simply add an apostrophe after the S. Don't add another S and write My brothers's. Some more examples:
  • A year's worth of groceries
  • Three years' worth of groceries
  • Two weeks' notice (Remember the movie Two Weeks Notice a few years back? I wasn't the only one longing to change every movie poster with a marker pen and put the apostrophe in!)
Nouns or proper names that end in S can cause some confusion when you wish to add a possessive apostrophe. For example:
  • Mrs Jones' cat ate my pie.
  • James' dog chased a car.
It's becoming more common to add an extra S after the apostrophe:
  • Mrs Jones's cat ate my pie.
  • James's dog chased a car.
  • Bridget Jones's Diary
Both variations are grammatically acceptable these days, but I think the first variation is cleaner to look at. Another common misuse of possessive and plural apostrophes concerns women, men, ladies, gentlemen, girls, boys, children and babies - essentially all of us! See these examples:
  • Women's Bowling Club (not Womens' Bowling Club)
  • Men's locker room (not Mens' locker room)
  • Ladies' cloakroom (not Ladie's cloakroom)
  • Gentlemen's tailor (not Gentlemens' tailor)
  • Girls' Grammar School (not Girl's Grammar School)
  • Boys' Grammar School (not Boy's Grammar School)
  • Children's playground (not Childrens' playground)
  • Babies' toys (not babie's toys)

Having contractions?

Apostrophes can also be used to form contractions:
  • Is not = isn't
  • Was not = wasn't
  • You are - you're
When to use its and it's is a common source of confusion. Let's sort that out.
  • Its is actually the possessive form of it.  E.g. The cat licked its tail. No apostrophe. Ever.
  • It's is a contraction for It is - it's should never be used in any other way. E.g. It's ten o'clock in the morning and you're still not out of bed!
This is just skimming the surface of the wonderful world of apostrophes and their care and feeding, but I hope this has helped you avoid Apostrophe Catastrophe - if you'd like help with proofreading to ensure the greengrocer's apostrophe doesn't make an appearance, do contact me!