June 25

Apostrophes, now! 

Let’s talk about the misuse of punctuation that annoys grammar pedants the most: the greengrocer’s apostrophe. There’s no debate: an apostrophe does not indicate a plural. But on shop blackboards (or whiteboards) this basic error doesn’t annoy me as much as it does the average stickler. Next to the coffee stand at my train station is a chalk offer of “beverage’s”. I know what it means, so does everybody else. It’s not right, but it’s easily rectified. On signs or laminated menus, however, it seems more serious. And sometimes, the writer’s confusion renders astonishing results:

So, let’s brush up on a few don’ts:

  • Simply add an “‘s” to form the possessive of singular nouns, regardless of the final consonant. So it’s: “the cat’s pyjamas”, “the house’s door”, “Bridget Jones’s Diary”.
  • But the possessives of pronouns do not require an apostrophe: its, hers, yours. Keep a clear distinction between “it’s” (as in “It’s a Wonderful Life”) and “its” (as in “don’t judge a book by its cover”).
  • With plural nouns not ending in “s”, add “‘s”: “men’s health”, “children’s charities”, “other people’s money”.
  • But if a plural noun ends in s, add an apostrophe: “the employees’ chairs”, “the Germans’ Messerschmitts”.

Of course, there are exceptions, particularly when it comes to proper nouns. For example: why“Regent’s Park”, but “Earls Court”? Organisations sometimes discard their apostrophe simply because they can, like Harrods. Unfortunately, there is little rhyme or reason to these exceptions, but it never hurts to keep the basics in mind.

Duncan Black, 25 June 2013