Tuesday, May 29, 2012

The Plural Apostrophe

I ended the last post with my observation that  all changes to language are fine and acceptable – except for the ones I don’t like. This provides a useful introduction to discuss some of my own pet language peeves. 

I'll start with my favorite "love to hate" punctuation error, the  "plural apostrophe". In England it is sometimes called the "greengrocer's apostrophe" from the habit of grocery store managers (or at least their sign-writers) who write signs like "Cucumber's $1.00" and "Banana's $1.50/lb".

The rule is so simple ("apostrophe-s" is used to show possessive) that I simply can't understand how so many people get the idea that all plurals ending in "s" need an apostrophe. Richard Lederer and John Shore in the apostrophe chapter of Comma Sense discuss the misuse of apostrophes in house signs and mailboxes. Mailboxes commonly have people's names like "The Smith's" and "William's". The second example is doubly in error because, since the mailbox presumably belongs to a family with surname Williams, the apostrophe, which shouldn't be there to start with, is in the wrong place. But at least Williams looks like a plural word. Some go beyond the plural apostrophe and feel that no word ending in "s" should be allowed to go apostrophe-less. To continue the mailbox example, we sometimes even get "Jone's". Aaaarrrrgggghhh!!!

Now here's an interesting example of my own: 
a) I am going to Smiths.
b) I am going to Smiths'.
c) I am going to Smith's.

This sentence leaves out some words that are implied or meant to be understood. Each of these sentences could be correct, depending on the words left out. Here are the full sentences with explanations:
a) I am going to visit the Smiths. (a family with surname Smith)
b) I am going to the Smiths' house. (the house belongs to a family named Smith)
c) I am going to Smith's house. (the house belongs to a guy named or nicknamed Smith)

To give the plural apostrophe writers a bit of a break, there are examples when an apostrophe-s  is used to show plural. However, these situations are extremely rare and can't have spawned the ubiquitous plural apostrophes (can they?). Anyway, here they are:
- the plural of letters and numbers: "Mind your p's and q's" and "How many 3's are in your phone number?" Apostrophes, however, are not needed for the plural of dates or acronyms e.g. 1900s and DVDs.
- the plural of some short words like do. Dos, I suppose, could be confused with DOS (and I'm old enough to remember using it before Windows) so do's it is.

There is another excuse we could give for plural apostrophe writers. According to Lynne Truss, prior to the 19th century apostrophes were used, quite correctly, to show the plural of foreign words ending in a vowel. She gives the examples of words like folio's, pasta's and - yes - banana's. However I doubt that the average grocery store owner knows this fact. Hey, I own a health food store and I didn't know this before.

The confusion between the words its and it's is such a common problem that it's only right to give this error its own paragraph. Here the apostrophe is used only for the contraction of "it is". The possessive pronoun its does not need an apostrophe any more than the other possessive personal pronouns like his, hers, ours, yours and theirs. Simple, right? Now to confuse you again, the possessive of indefinite pronouns like anyone and everybody do require an apostrophe: "It's anyone's guess why everybody's use of the apostrophe is so mixed up".

I invite you to share in the comments some humorous examples of the misuse of apostrophes that you have observed.


  1. I know this will sound odd, but while I've understood the it's/its rule as long as I can remember, I always want to use it's for possessive with pets and animals. I don't know why. Perhaps it's a subconcious impulse to differentiate between animate and inanimate its. For instance, I would never say, that car has lost it's gas cap, but I do want to say, Fido has lost it's doggie toy.

  2. You have hit one of my favourite beefs with the apostrophe misusage.

    I do seem to remember some of the big companies getting into trouble with Quebec's language police because they weren't allowed to put apostrophes on the signs such as McDonald's or Eaton's. I guess I wouldn't go quite that far.

  3. WalMart used to have a sign at their customer service desk that said "Tell us how we are doing Canada". I suspect that WalMart is doing Canada like they have done everyplace they have ever been. The sad part is that I have pointed this sentence out to people who have no idea what I am talking about and look at me like I am missing a few bricks from the load.

  4. Thanks for your comments Wade and Elaine. BF - that's a good example of a comma changing the meaning of a sentence. Any examples of misplaced apostrophes changing the meaning of a sentence?
    Got an email today ending with "Regard's, Philip" but I don't expect correct punctuation (or any for that matter) in emails. I often leave out the subject "I" in sentences (like the previous one) and use a hard return instead of a period. But adding punctuation where it's not needed seems, well, just wrong.

  5. Found this T-shirt ad for the Apostrophe Protection Society.
    A comment below reported a press release issued by some company, back in the earlier days of the Internet, announcing "XXX Company Launche's It's Web Sight"

  6. Just ran across another musing on the misuse of "literally".