The Greengrocer's Apostrophe, and Why You Shouldn't Buy It!

For those who don’t know, greengrocer’s apostrophe is a term used in Britain (and maybe elsewhere) to describe the incorrect use of apostrophes in plurals.

Not all countries have greengrocers (and thanks to the supermarkets we don’t have as many in Britain as we used to), but they are typically small shops that specialize in selling fruit and vegetables.

Over the years greengrocers acquired a particular reputation for inserting apostrophes where they weren’t required. For some reason this happens especially with nouns ending in a vowel (as do many popular fruit and veg). So we see banana’s, apple’s, orange’s, cabbage’s, and many more.

Of course, none of these nouns requires an apostrophe in the plural. Apostrophes are generally used to show possession – e.g. John’s car – and in contractions such as shan’t to indicate that one or more letters have been missed out.

There are a very few circumstances where apostrophes can be used in plurals, and these are to avoid causing confusion. Most commonly, this occurs when pluralizing single letters. An example would be, "How many i’s are there in this sentence?" Without the apostophe this would read, "How many is are there in this sentence?" which would be pretty much guaranteed to bamboozle most readers!

Another common mistake is to insert an apostrophe when pluralizing abbreviations. This is almost invariably wrong, however. An example would be, "Members of the UK parliament are known as MPs". It is quite common to see an apostrophe inserted here (MP’s), but again this is unnecessary and incorrect in a simple plural.

Unnecessary apostrophes are also frequently seen in expressions such as the 1960s (referring to that decade). Again, as this is just a plain old plural, no apostrophe is required.

An uglier mistake is where an apostrophe followed by an ‘s’ is used after the singular form where the spelling is different in the plural. Thus you might see canopy’s (should be canopies), party’s (should be parties) and – going back to our friendly greengrocer – potato’s instead of potatoes.

In conclusion, do think very carefully before inserting an apostrophe in a simple plural – and doubly so if you happen to be a greengrocer!

* If you’re wondering why it’s greengrocer’s apostrophe and not greengrocers’ apostrophe, you may like to check out this post about the exemplar possessive I wrote some time ago.

If you have any comments about the greengrocer’s apostrophe – or classic examples you want to share – please do post them [in the comments section of the original post]!


This is a reprint from Nick Daws’ My Writing Blog.

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