© Andrew John All Rights
You would think something as small as an
apostrophethat thing that looks like a tadpole and
often sits between a word and the letter scould
not cause as many problems as it does. But it does.
You see it used when it shouldnt 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, "greengrocers
The apostrophes 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 girls hat" and "the
cars hood." What if you have two or more men
or two or more cars? Well, its 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, its not as
complicated as it sounds. You simply do what you did for
the singular: add the apostrophe and the s:
"the womens hats"; "the sheeps
heads"; "the childrens school,"
"the mens 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 wont go far wrong.
Now youll have seen the apostrophe creeping into
other words in this article alreadywords that
clearly are not possessives. Another use for the
apostrophe is to indicate missing letters:
"its" is short for "it is" or
"it has"; "hasnt" is short for
"it has not"; "the cars out of
gas" is short for "the car is out of gas";
"lets go" is short for "let us
You may have come across the phrase "the
greengrocers apostrophe"I mentioned it
briefly above. The greengrocers apostrophe is used
a lotand incorrectlyin phrases such as
"fresh peas" and "baby
carrots." I find myself boiling with anger and
mentally asking, "Fresh peas what? What
is possessed or owned by that fresh pea?" Its
not only these admirable sellers of fruit and fresh
vegetables who use them, of course, as you may find when
you see that "videos" are for rent or you
can buy "CDs" here, but the term
"greengrocers apostrophe"which I
believe began in the UKis now to be found in
articles such as this and books on grammar and
You will have noticed the example above of
"CDs." Some people who otherwise use the
apostrophe in an acceptable way will nonetheless put it
in such abbreviations: "SUVs" or
"PAs" (for public-address systems), for
instance. Unless youre saying "the CDs
case," "my SUVs tires," or "the
PAs gone on the fritz," leave the apostrophe
out of it, as most careful writers these days do.
Its 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: operas,
togas, and, yes, I guess our friend peas.
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 dont!) We all learned how to
use the apostrophe at school. I guess some people simply
forgot and, because they dont write much and have
little need to know grammar and punctuation, when
theyre 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 dont 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 youre saying so by using the plural,
then OK: here are three Joe Smiths. But, if Joe Smith
wants to show that this is Joe Smiths hardware
store and paints a sign to tell us so, why on earth
doesnt 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,
These businesses belong to the people after whom
theyre named, but for some reason best known to
them they dont 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 peas" and
Now I did say that its hard to think that this
little tadpole could cause so many problems. Weve
seen that it can. Theres one more use of the
apostrophe, though, that we should look at before I
Many writers still make an exception for single
letters and numbers: "four number 2s" and
"there are two ts in butter."
Theres 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 youre dealing with, and having the
following s as roman, so youd get as.
Looks ungainly, though, doesnt it? However, with
these borderline cases, Id advise choosing your
style and sticking to itand no ones 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 whos is a shortening of
"who is" or "who has" and is to be
found in "Whos on next?" and
"Whos left the engine running?"
Dont mix them. Beware also of its 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 its coming out
to play" (that latter example shows the use of
both). Then theres something called the absolute
possessive: hers and theirs, for
instance. They dont 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
dont appear in the language at all with apostrophes
before their final s, youll always use the
correct forms. In fact, if you use a word processor with
a spellchecker that, like Microsoft Word, flags spelling
errors, youll see that, if you try to spell any of
these three with an apostrophe, youll be alerted.