Avoiding apostrophe catastrophe

We sell apple’s and orange’s!

Is there a more abused punctuation mark than the apostrophe? I doubt it. It was the notorious howler above, spotted on shop signs, that gave rise to the scornful term ‘greengrocers’ apostrophes’.

But hey, let’s give grocers a break. The apostrophe is a nightmare! These days everyone screws up the curly little sod, and there’s even a book — Fucking Apostrophes, by Simon Griffin — to help people vent their rage on it while surreptitiously swotting up on its proper usage.

So how do we nail this evil chunk of jelly to the wall? Let’s look at the three main flashpoints.

1) The apostrophe (almost) never creates plurals.

• Kids stave off doctors with apples, not apple’s.
• Wannabe lawyers study for their LSATs, not their LSAT’s.
• We’re going to dinner with the Masons, not the Mason’s.

I say ‘almost’, because there are exceptions — ‘Mind your P’s and Q’s’ is one — but such breaches are so rare that this rule is almost sacrosanct.

2) The apostrophe can represent an omission, as when two words are run together.

  • There’s [there is] a hole in my bucket, dear Liza.
  • Abdul’s [Abdul is] my best friend.
  • It’d [It had] better by finished by teatime or you’ll [you will] be in trouble.

So if you’re forever confusing its and it’s, just remember that it’s is short for ‘it is’.

3) The apostrophe creates possessives.

• Charlie’s Angels; Jane’s Addiction; Fat Freddie’s Cat
• mummy’s boy; girls’ changing room; Achilles’ heel

Most people know the basics, but tend to come adrift in two messy areas: plural possessives, and nouns ending in ‘s’ or ‘z’.

Plural possessives are much easier to fathom once you know for certain whether your usage is singular or plural. Let’s return to those hapless old greengrocers who touted their ‘apple’s’. They were plural greengrocers. So we write greengrocers’ apples, with the plural noun left fully intact before we tack on the apostrophe. If, instead, we consider the fruit sold by Mrs Chaudhury in her village shop, it will be our local greengrocer’s apples, with the apostrophe coming after the singular noun.

Generally, this distinction can be trusted. For example:

The morning sun glinted off countless spiders’ webs on the dewy grass, and I praised the tiny spinners for the poetry of their engineering. Later, by the boathouse, I blundered into a spider’s web. Damn the horrible creatures!

Nouns ending in ‘s’ or ‘z’ behave differently depending on syllables and stresses, but the general rule is that you add an apostrophe + s:

  • Morticia adored the profile of Gomez’s nose.
  • Sadly, we have scratched the Joneses’ new car.

(The plural of the Jones family is the Joneses. So the plural possessive is not Jones’s or Jones’, but Joneses’.)

Exceptions are made in two instances: with Jesus and Moses . . .

  • In Jesus’ name; Moses’ staff

. . . and with polysyllabic names ending in a Greek-style long ‘–ees’:

  • I have an Achilles’ heel [though Achilles heel is also acceptable]
  • Aristophanes’ ballet for mice is seldom performed in a formal setting.

Scare quotes: be very afraid

I’m no ‘expert’, I’ll admit, but ‘I know a thing or two’, as they say; and I get a little antsy on encountering ‘writers’ who throw quote marks around literally ‘everything’ in order to sound a note of ‘irony’ or sow doubt beneath words, thereby insinuating that what ‘seems’ to be so is, in fact, ‘not’.

Scare quotes are addictive: once you’re hooked, you can’t stop using them, and they’ll poison your writing. Stay clear of them.

As Megan Garber points out in The Atlantic, scare quotes ‘do precisely the opposite of what quotation marks are supposed to do’. See what I did there? I quoted her, and the punctuation tells you that those were her precise words. Trust and transparency. By contrast, scare quotes will leave the reader floundering, wondering what on earth the writer truly means. It’s a pointless game of multi-bluff with no resolution. Greil Marcus recalls how he and his colleagues would simply remove other writers’ scare quotes, and find that ‘what remained was what the writer was actually trying to say’. They would seek permission first before removing them, and the writers would say, ‘over and over, yes. It was as if we were disarming them of a weapon they had aimed at themselves.’ To test his point, we could strip all of the scare quotes out of my (admittedly facile) opening paragraph and, yes, it would say exactly what I’d intended of it.

In summary, there is almost never a good time to add quote marks unless you are quoting someone directly.

Bear in mind, this still allows you to weaponize someone’s words against them. If a president says on record, ‘I’m a really smart guy,’ but goes on to do something unutterably stupid, then you know what to do.

Down with capitalism!

If you’re tempted to capitalize every other word to make it look serious, don’t.

Caps do have their place: use them for people, places, ships’ names, book titles, and so on, as well as some nicknames and colloquial terms (the Sun King, the South Seas). But if you are tempted to sprinkle caps everywhere, your documents will begin to look a bit like an illiterate ransom note or a presidential tweet. For instance, when an online bio tells me that Fred ‘studied Mechanics at University’, I wonder if he also ‘talked about Baseball in a Shop’, or ‘went for a Swim in a River’. Caps are usually wrong when the usage is non-specific.

It’s a whole different matter, however, if Fred studied at Exeter University, or swam in the River Po, because we’ve now added proper nouns.

So far, so obvious, perhaps – but a more confusing situation can crop up with capitalized group nouns. Here’s a common example:

Jemima is a member of the House Appropriations Committee. She normally attends the committee’s weekly meetings.

Tempting as it is to capitalise ‘committee’ in the second line, you should resist doing so, because here the word is unqualified by any proper noun/noun group. Similarly, capitalize your college’s Board of Trustees if you absolutely must, but don’t refer to ‘the Board’, or to ‘Trustees’ or ‘Members’ – these should all be lowercase.

Here are some other examples, drawn from my trusted bible, the Chicago Manual of Style:

National Labor Relations Board; the board
Census Bureau; the bureau
Chicago Board of Education; the board of education

Let’s look at some other examples.

Academic qualifications are usually lowercase when spelt out:

    • Scott has a bachelor’s degree in Greek history from the University of Oxford.
    • Sheila has a BSc* in cellular biology and a master’s in marketing.

Uppercase is appropriate in specific usage, such as a named professorship:

    • Marama is Professor Emeritus of History at the University of Aberdeen.

*Note: Abbreviated degrees can be written in various ways (Americans, for instance, usually include full stops), but you do need to be consistent. A few examples follow.

bachelor of science      B.Sc.           BSc
bachelor of arts            B.A.            BA
doctor of philosophy   Ph.D.         PhD
doctor of letters            D.Litt.        DLitt 

Vocational/company titles are capped in specific usage . . .

    • That looks painful! I’d go see Doctor Wu about it;

. . . but lowercase when we’re being generic:

    • Pete is chairperson of the board of directors;
    • Jenny is our new managing director;
    • I’m an accountant, not a doctor.

Civic, honorific, religious, military titles are, similarly, capped in specific usage:

    • I once met Princess Grace;
    • We take our orders from General Powell;

. . . but lowercase when generic:

    • Today I’m hoping to meet the queen, the pope, and at least four bishops.
    • Sue is determined to be the next prime minister.
    • The general is in a filthy mood this morning.

Names of organisations, institutions and bodies are similarly lowercase when generic, but of course capped when specific.

  • Mike works for Auckland Council. His sister is at New Zealand Post.
  • Sarah no longer works for the council; she’s now at the post office.
  • He used to hold a university position, but now is a government man.

There will, of course, be curveballs. If your department has a bespoke Quality Management System, then caps may be justified. If you’re talking about your broad professional interest in quality management systems, use lowercase.

Historic terms and periods are lowercase:

  • I was born in the sixties [or the 1960s].
  • They cling to nineteenth-century attitudes.


Capitalization is a vast topic, so I’ll be doing more on it in later posts.