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.

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