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The Tadpole's Tale

Andrew John – All Rights Reserved


You would think something as small as an apostrophe—that thing that looks like a tadpole and often sits between a word and the letter s—could not cause as many problems as it does. But it does.

You see it used when it shouldn’t be used; you see it not used when it should be there. You rarely see it used correctly on store signs, hence the term you sometimes hear, "greengrocer’s apostrophe."

The apostrophe’s main use is as I used it at the beginning of this sentence. It signals possession. The construction in which it is used is called the possessive, or sometimes genitive (in grammatical terms both words mean the same). So let us take a look at this use of it first.

Most of us know that, in a simple case of a possessive, it comes before the s in such words phrases as "the girl’s hat" and "the car’s hood." What if you have two or more men or two or more cars? Well, it’s easy: you just pluralize the words by adding an s and put the apostrophe after it: "the girls’ hats"; "the cars’ hoods."

So far, so good.

But what if the plural of a word is not formed by the addition of an s? The plural of "woman", for instance is not "womans", but "women"; and the plural of "sheep" is just like the singular. Well, it’s not as complicated as it sounds. You simply do what you did for the singular: add the apostrophe and the s: "the women’s hats"; "the sheep’s heads"; "the children’s school," "the men’s coats." If you can remember that in the main you put the apostrophe before the s, and that the exception is when the s forms the plural, you won’t go far wrong.

Now you’ll have seen the apostrophe creeping into other words in this article already—words that clearly are not possessives. Another use for the apostrophe is to indicate missing letters: "it’s" is short for "it is" or "it has"; "hasn’t" is short for "it has not"; "the car’s out of gas" is short for "the car is out of gas"; "let’s go" is short for "let us go."

You may have come across the phrase "the greengrocer’s apostrophe"—I mentioned it briefly above. The greengrocer’s apostrophe is used a lot—and incorrectly—in phrases such as "fresh pea’s" and "baby carrot’s." I find myself boiling with anger and mentally asking, "Fresh pea’s what? What is possessed or owned by that fresh pea?" It’s not only these admirable sellers of fruit and fresh vegetables who use them, of course, as you may find when you see that "video’s" are for rent or you can buy "CD’s" here, but the term "greengrocer’s apostrophe"—which I believe began in the UK—is now to be found in articles such as this and books on grammar and punctuation.

You will have noticed the example above of "CD’s." Some people who otherwise use the apostrophe in an acceptable way will nonetheless put it in such abbreviations: "SUV’s" or "PA’s" (for public-address systems), for instance. Unless you’re saying "the CD’s case," "my SUV’s tires," or "the PA’s gone on the fritz," leave the apostrophe out of it, as most careful writers these days do.

It’s interesting to note that the use of the apostrophe in plurals has not always been frowned upon. From the seventeenth century it was to be found in plurals of words that ended with vowels: opera’s, toga’s, and, yes, I guess our friend pea’s. But there is clearly no need for it, because the plural works very nicely with just an s.

It eventually came to be frowned upon by grammarians, but what we now consider its erroneous use may, according to some writers on grammar, be the reason for its survival. My own view is that it is not. (Do you remember back to the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries? I certainly don’t!) We all learned how to use the apostrophe at school. I guess some people simply forgot and, because they don’t write much and have little need to know grammar and punctuation, when they’re reading they simply see that an added s makes a plural, then see that an added s also makes a possessive, and, without thinking about it, see them as just the same construction. So both get blessed with an apostrophe.

I don’t know whether an errant apostrophe or the lack of one that should be there is the more annoying. I see store after store, company after company, with names such as Smiths, Woolworths, or Wilsons. If there are two or three people called Smith, Woolworth and Wilson and you’re saying so by using the plural, then OK: here are three Joe Smiths. But, if Joe Smith wants to show that this is Joe Smith’s hardware store and paints a sign to tell us so, why on earth doesn’t Joe Smith say so instead of making us think there are more Smiths than one? The same goes for F. W. Woolworth and Betty Wilson, who runs the little store on the corner of the block. That is, or should be, Wilson’s.

These businesses belong to the people after whom they’re named, but for some reason best known to them they don’t put the apostrophe before the s. However, you can bet that, if one of them is selling greengrocery, he or she will have that sign on the sidewalk saying "fresh pea’s" and "new potato’s."

Now I did say that it’s hard to think that this little tadpole could cause so many problems. We’ve seen that it can. There’s one more use of the apostrophe, though, that we should look at before I close.

Many writers still make an exception for single letters and numbers: "four number 2’s" and "there are two t’s in butter." There’s a good reason for the latter use: if you get a plural of a vowel, you might misread it: for instance, as meant as the plural of the letter a could be read as the conjunction as; is meant as two occurrences of the letter i could be read as the verb is. You can get around this by italicizing the letter you’re dealing with, and having the following s as roman, so you’d get as. Looks ungainly, though, doesn’t it? However, with these borderline cases, I’d advise choosing your style and sticking to it—and no one’s going to quibble about your using an apostrophe for the sake of clarity. Be consistent, though. And, if your intended publisher has a style preference, use that.

A final word of warning where the apostrophe is concerned: whose is a possessive, to be found in "Whose is this coat?" and "Whose turn is it?"; whereas who’s is a shortening of "who is" or "who has" and is to be found in "Who’s on next?" and "Who’s left the engine running?" Don’t mix them. Beware also of it’s and its. The former is short for "it is" or "it has." The apostrophe is there to indicate a missing letter or letters. The latter is the possessive: "The automobile was without its wheels"; "The sun has got its hat on and it’s coming out to play" (that latter example shows the use of both). Then there’s something called the absolute possessive: hers and theirs, for instance. They don’t take an apostrophe, either: "The coat was hers"; "The glory was theirs, all theirs"; "The fault is ours."

If you can just remember that these last three don’t appear in the language at all with apostrophes before their final s, you’ll always use the correct forms. In fact, if you use a word processor with a spellchecker that, like Microsoft Word, flags spelling errors, you’ll see that, if you try to spell any of these three with an apostrophe, you’ll be alerted.


You’ll find more grammar tips in the book I’ve produced with Stephen Blake (http://www.youcanwritebooks.com/). It’s about how easy it is to get published and break through the brick wall of rejection—and it does have some writing and research tips, too. You’ll find it useful. We’re both published authors (our fourteen or so print titles are listed on the website) and professional freelance editors, so we know what we’re talking about, and for just a few dollars you could be on the way to being a published author before you know it.



         Last updated: February 19, 2007