If there is one single combination of characters in the English language that is misused more than any other, it is the combination of an apostrophe and the letter s. The misuse of an apostrophe in a plural is often referred to as the greengrocer’s apostrophe due to its use in signs such as:
Apple’s £2.50 for 1kg
Although with the decline in small local shops, perhaps it should be renamed the Tesco’s apostrophe.
So is it a greengrocer’s (or Tesco’s) apostrophe when it’s used in greengrocer’s? Well no, because that is the correct use – to show that the apostrophe belongs to the greengrocer, but it IS incorrect to use it in apple’s.
Confused? It’s actually very simple. You need to remember three simple rules:
1. You DO NOT use an apostrophe with a plural word e.g. 1kg of apples for £2.50
2. You DO use an apostrophe to show ownership (or possession) e.g. Peter’s apples cost £2.50
3. You DO use an apostrophe to show a missing letter, for instance shortening the word is e.g. Peter’s going to buy some apples.
One way to remember whether or not to use an apostrophe is to consider that it has always been used to denote a missing letter. We’re all used to reading and writing words such as can’t, I’m, she’s and we’re, as I did at the start of this sentence, and we don’t have a problem with it. In all of these cases the apostrophe is showing one or more missing letters: can not, I am, she is and we are, and it’s the same when you use an apostrophe followed by an s.
Taking each of the above rules in turn, there is no letter missing in a plural word: two apples; meetings held alternate Tuesdays; three desserts for the price of two, so you don’t need an apostrophe. Easy enough.
Showing ownership with an apostrophe is called a possessive apostrophe, and is a little bit more complicated. Many years ago, people denoted ownership by adding the letters ‘es’ to a word. So, for instance, they would write King Richardes horse; my Lordes castle; this persones hovel. Somewhere along the line the ‘e’ got dropped and replaced with an apostrophe instead: King Richard’s horse; my Lord’s castle; this person’s hovel. So the apostrophe still shows a missing letter, just not one that we’re aware of using.
To avoid confusion when you’re using a possessive apostrophe with a plural word, the apostrophe goes AFTER the s. For example: the apples of two different greengrocers would become the greengrocers’ apples; the collars of two cats becomes the cats’ collars and the tusks of a herd of elephants would be the elephants’ tusks.
The third rule should by now be self explanatory.
As with anything in the English language, there are exceptions. The one that I personally have to think about every time is its. It’s has only two possible meanings – it is or it has. You don’t use a possessive apostrophe with the word it: the rat sank its teeth into the cat’s tail; likewise his, hers, yours, ours and theirs showing possession without an apostrophe.
You may be asking what the point of this information is. Well, if you write letters, produce your CV or publish a newsletter or a website you probably want to give the best impression you can to your audience. People who don’t know how to use the apostrophe correctly won’t notice if you make a mistake, however, people who DO know will notice and may assume that because you can’t be bothered to get your punctuation correct, you’re not really bothered about whatever it is you’re talking about. If in doubt, always get your documents proofread by someone who knows.