common errors in English language and words in the news

I’m beginning to hate apostrophes!

Adactio / FlickrI’m turning into a grumpy old woman. Or perhaps I’ve been one for ages without noticing and I’m only just becoming aware of how grumpy I can get. I used not to bother when people got apostrophes wrong; I refused to join a society for the preservation of the apostrophe; and I gently corrected my students. But now the misuse of apostrophes is annoying me so much that I’m beginning to think they should be abolished. Let me give you some examples that I’ve seen in the last few weeks. None of the following examples should have an apostrophe – they are all perfectly good plurals.

Shopkeepers are the primary source. I’ve seen potato’s, potatoe’s and even potatos’, cabbage’s, seedless grape’s and mango’s – and all of these have come from just two greengrocer’s. A local butcher has been advertising his wares: organic chicken’s and free-range egg’s. A newsagent has a notice ‘order your paper’s here’. Another shop proudly boasted ‘debt problem’s solved’. Yet another was advertising ‘second-hand fridge freezer’s and washing machine’s’. And finally, ‘Stoves, Fires and Fireplace’s’. That one amazes me: why would you get two plurals correct and decide the third one needs an apostrophe? But it’s not just shopkeepers. I went to a bird sanctuary the other day and read ‘it’s 10,000 mile journey’. I followed a van for a couple of miles that said ‘Working with local police force’s’. And a notice by the side of a road said ‘Water Main’s Rehabilitation’ – which I think means they are repairing the water pipes.

In the time that I’ve collected these, I’ve seen only one sign that didn’t have an apostrophe when it should have had: a fast food outlet called ‘Whats Cooking’.

A few months ago Birmingham City Council decided to get rid of all apostrophes in place names, a decision I thought stupid at the time. Their reasoning was that sometimes an apostrophe has been inserted on a street sign, sometimes not; so one area has signs that say either King’s Norton or Kings Norton, another either King’s Heath or Kings Heath, one road might be either St John’s Road or St Johns Road, and so on. In order to standardize this, all new signs will be made without apostrophes. And now I think I agree with them.

If we can’t get apostrophes right, let’s do what Birmingham is doing and get rid of them completely.

Email this Post Email this Post

About the author


Gwyneth Fox


  • Some of you might recall that Lynne Truss wrote a book a few years ago about the use and misuse of punctuation in English. It’s hilarious to read and is called “Eats Shoots & Leaves”. For those who don’t know it and are interested in apostrophes and their ilk, it’s a must-read.

  • I couldn’t agree more, Gwyneth. These things have outlived their usefulness, and are – as your examples show – more trouble than they are worth. The favourite counter-argument of the linguistic purists is ‘Ah, but we need to preserve apostrophes because – without them – there will be all sorts of confusion and ambiguity’. They then concoct implausible sentences whose correct interpretation depends on the position of an apostrophe – but in the real world, it’s very rare for a sentence to be genuinely ambiguous. (And when it is, it’s probably the result of inelegant writing rather than misuse of apostrophes: ‘bad writing’ is a bigger problem than ‘bad punctuation’.)
    In the end these things become a shibboleth: a kind of test to determine what kind of person the writer is. A nice pedantic example is that the universities of Oxford and Cambridge both have a “Queens College” . In Oxford, it’s “Queen’s College” (named after one queen), but the one in Cambridge is “Queens’ College” because it’s named after two queens – their website even has a section on the apostrophe:

  • From one grumpy old lady to another – I wholeheartedly agree with your comments.
    Why can’t people get these apostrophes (apostrophe’s) right??
    I give in.

  • And aficionados of ‘The Apprentice’ may remember the 2008 fiasco of

    “Singles Day”

    or was that “Single’s Day” or “Singles’ Day”?

    Of course there’s a perfectly neat linguistic explanation, in terms of deciding whether it’s an issue of possession (apostrophe needed) or simple noun modification (not needed) – but who cares, it was great telly!

  • I was astonished to see a TV ad with a misused apostrophe the other day! Wish I could remember which ad it was – maybe itll come back to me…

  • I’m new to all this blogging/commenting stuff, but have to say that I enjoy reading both the texts and the comments. People’s illiteracy bothers me terribly, and I just can’t justify it in any way, though I hear things like – “You are the only one who cares”, “You can still understand me, right?”, etc. Call me bigoted and grumpy, but I protest against illiterate use of any language (and since English has become the lingua franca of today, it’s being used in most improbable ways more than any other language in the world, or, at least that misuse is more conspicuous). It’s one thing to play with one’s language among friends, family, peers (that’s why jargon is there for), but I think that people who speak or write publicly do have some responsibility towards their readers/listeners.
    A bigotted grumpy old woman 🙂

  • How many of us say Newton’s Laws of Motion. Scientific community now agrees now that they should be called Newton Laws of Motion. They do not belong to Newton but to the God.

  • I absolutely agree!
    I am frequently appalled ( and embarrassed) at the general standard (?!) of grammar of the online newspaper The Australian and the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) website news articles, to say nothing of the mis-placed apostrophes; frightful examples to our second language learners.
    What is so hard about learning about the possessive case and plurals?
    Pure laziness and sloppy work – aaaghhh!

    – Another Grumpy Old Gal

  • I’m afraid, that like the bowler hat and the cravat, the apostrophe is heading for extinction. . . .

  • Well, I’m with Lynne Truss on this one! In her book she states that punctuation is ” a courtesy designed to help readers to understand a story without stumbling” – (page 7).

    The general thrust of the contributions here would suggest that because we don’t seem to be able to use the apostrophe correctly, it should be abandoned. So what is next to go – the semi-colon? For those who care about these things I would recommend the style guide produced by the Economist magazine.

    As for Newton’s Laws… the comment about God assumes belief in a deity or several deities.

    To me it’s all just an excuse for not bothering to learn and use the correct punctuation in the first place! Observe the cries of examiners in the UK where students of GCSE English are using SMS text language in their written work. GR8!

  • As far as I know apostrophes are used for plurals in Dutch (see Gwyneth Fox’s examples above). Maybe someone can confirm this.
    Those in favour of apostrophes should spare a thought for those whose names contain an apostrophe in this digital age. It’s a nightmare waiting for example for officials to retrieve your name from their computers, especially if it was entered in the first place with an accent (`) or (´) and not an ( ‘ ).

  • In Dutch, apostrophe + s is only used for indicating the plural of certain nouns, i.e. those ending in a vowel (e.g. taxi > taxi’s; mango > mango’s; baby > baby’s). Other words will take and ‘s’ without apostrophe, or ‘en’ (e.g. egel > egels; hond > honden). Apostrophe + s is not used for the possessive in Dutch, which – I expect – makes the whole apostrophe thing a can of worms for Duch speakers trying to spell English correctly.

  • The Daily Telegraph has been doing lots of stories about the apostrophe this summer, and their comments pages are full of outrage over various outrageous infractions linked to the apostrophe and other perceived failings in the our (mostly) young people’s grammar and spelling. Here and here. Many of them undermine their prescriptive arguments by mis-spelling basic words or getting their own use of the apostrophe wrong (but that’s kind of what you expect on the internet, isn’t it?) and are very hung up on maintaining what they see as traditional standards of grammar. But grammar changes too, doesn’t it? The apostrophe hasn’t always been around in English: it’s a relatively recent invention. This link has got more about it

  • It’s the ones that are like
    I don’t understand why they think they need apostrophes because they end in a vowel.

  • Frank McCourt began his foreword to Lynne Truss’s bestseller with “If Lynne Truss were Catholic I’d nominate her for sainthood”, and I totally agree with him.
    I constantly observe that the spoken and written language is empoverishing everywhere. People read less and prefer easier, passive, entertainment such as watching TV . And nobody worries about it, they think you are a hair-splitter if you mention it.
    I wished it were only a question of commas and apostrophes!
    The latest one was at Barajas, the airport of Madrid.
    It was written in big letters at the entrance of well-known fast food snackbar and said “lightly snacks” for “tapas ligeras”. After reading it I took my photograph and didn´t enter.

  • A little note from Denmark. We have the kind of opposite problem that people write more and more apostrophes. We say it’s bad influence from English. People put them where they shouldn’t be, like in “Peter’s “which should only be “Peters” in Danish. Interesting…

  • Today’s blatant disregard of proper apostrophe usage is an clear indication of our society’s disintegrating language quality standard. However, if we choose to simply eradicate the apostrophe, we are also accepting a lower standard of literary competence. Despite the anguish of a plethora of apostrophe catastrophes, let us now consider to rejoice in the dear apostrophe’s existence, for it is this elegant punctuation mark which defines our expectation of language quality.

    Long live the Queen’s English, and her high-set defining mark, the apostrophe!

  • These apostrophes are the bane of our existence!!! They MUST be stopped immediately. Why would anyone want to even talk about such a stupid thing (this is the last time I will). It makes me sick that people care about such an insignificant and tiny mark. In protest of the mark, I have just pried this key from my keyboard. Unfortunately, I no longer have the quotation marks key as that resided on the place…Arrrrgg!!!!!.

    Lets get rid of all these extraneous artifacts and relics right away!!! But we should keep the period, exclamation and question marks and maybe the comma. All the others are worthless and are a waste of our time here on the planet. Consider all the time that would be saved if we do this right away!! OK… Im going to go through each and every book I take out at the library and I will be whiting-out all these silly marks. This is important people —– WAKE UP!! We have a decision to make RIGHT NOW!!!!!

    Lets hunt down and exterminate all unneeded punctuation and return the world (and this author) to sanity!

Leave a Comment