There’s no escaping it. It’s here right now in a street near you
It’s the misplaced apostrophe, widely called the grocer’s apostrophe.
Getting it wrong
Its name is a touch unfair, as grocers are neither better nor worse at grammar than anyone else trying to earn a modest living. But it’s a grocer’s lot in life to be constantly rewriting his labels as the price of fruit and veg fluctuates. And so we get:
Brussels’ sprouts: £1.50/kg
In truth, the worst offenders are pubs and restaurants, thanks to the trend for writing menu highlights and witticisms on pavement blackboards (and this doesn’t only happen in urban hipster enclaves). Sometimes there’s so much writing they need two blackboards.
Just as crime rises as a city’s population expands, so it is with words: the more there are, the more the chances of mistakes occurring.
So we have offences such as:
Its summer! Try our salad’s
Salmon with new potatoe’s
Getting it right
Let’s assume that you too have been guilty of getting it all wrong. How can you do better in future?
To start with you need to know that we use the apostrophe in two very different circumstances.
Firstly, contraction. It stands in for missing letters. To make ‘It is summer’ shorter, we take out an ‘i’ which is why our specials board above should read ‘It’s summer!’
It’s no different to ‘do not’ becoming ‘don’t’, or all those negatives of other verbs like ‘should’ or ‘could’ (althought ‘will not’/’won’t’ is a strange one).
The reason for the errors in our grocer examples – the unnecessary apostrophes – is less obvious, but still quite simple to grasp once you know it. He or she has forgotten that the plural of apple is just apples.
Sprouts have a connection with the capital of Belgium, which is why they are Brussels sprouts. They are in no more need of an apostrophe than Worcestershire sauce (Worcestershire’s sauce would be a bit of mouthful, pronunciation-wise).
Now to our second circumstance – possession, or ownership. If the house belongs to the man we say ‘the man’s house’. If the noun is in the plural, and that plural ends in an ‘s’, (some plurals, like ‘children’, don’t end in ‘s’) we shift the apostrophe from before to after that ‘s’. Hence the boy’s treehouse becomes the boys’ treehouse.
In fact, even this possessive use is a kind of contraction. At least, it is if you go back to Old English, where they used an -es ending to indicate possession: the boyes treehouse. You could think of the apostrophe as standing in for the ‘e’.
So there you have it, my quick guide to the apostrophe, whose abuse causes such pain to the grammarian.
Which leads me to wonder this: is there really such thing as a grammarian? It doesn’t sound like a real job. But maybe we’ll deal with that matter another day.