Plurals, possessives and the “greengrocer’s apostrophe”

1 Jul

Plurals and possessives are a cause of much confusion in English – and there are no easy-to-follow rules.

Some words simply add an “s” to denote the plural – for example, girl to girls, boy to boys, house to houses; some insert an “e” – potato to potatoes, tomato to tomatoes; others make more substantial changes. For example, scarf changes to scarves, life to lives, person to people, lady to ladies; and some nouns, such as politics, are always plural (politic is an adjective and means prudent, which people in politics often are not!).

Never, ever, put an apostrophe in decades: it’s the 1990s, not the 1990’s, unless (and in English, there always seems to be an unless) you’re using it as a possessive – and possessives are an even bigger problem.

English is, I think, the only language to use apostrophes – ‘s (for singular) or s’ (for plural) – to denote ownership. It is much more fluent to say or write “The man’s hat blew off” than “The hat of the man blew off”, but it leads to a great deal of confusion and to the common use of what has become known as “the greengrocer’s apostrophe” (greengrocers seem to be particularly prone to labelling their goods “Fresh tomatoe’s”, instead of “Fresh tomatoes”, etc).

What is the easiest way to work out where the apostrophe goes? Turn the sentence around so that the noun is at the end; the apostrophe will follow the last letter of the noun. For example, “The homework of the girl” – one girl – is “The girl’s homework”, “The homework of the girls” – more than one – is “The girls’ homework”.

We also use apostrophes to indicate an elision (one or more missing letters): I’ve (I have), I’m (I am), wasn’t (was not), etc, and it’s (it is) –  and with it’s we’re back to the confusion between possessives and plurals. It is a pronoun (like him and her) that is used to refer to an object or an animal; the plural is its, not it’s.

As you can see from the following pictures, the confusion about apostrophes is not recent. The person who owned the pie and mash shop was, undoubtedly called Clark. Strictly speaking, his shop sign should have read “Clark’s”, and the addition of the apostrophe wouldn’t have spoiled the sign. Similarly, I’m sure that the man who built the terrace in Islington, in 1824, was called Thomson…and how interesting that the stonemason added a pointless full point after the date.

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One Response to “Plurals, possessives and the “greengrocer’s apostrophe””

  1. northoneartist July 1, 2012 at 6:48 pm #

    Very interesting and informative! Thank you!

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