Apr 052012

When you have a baby, everyone has an opinion about the best way to look after it.

Your mother will tell you how she did it in her day. Your mother-in-law will tell you something else. The midwife will give you the current thinking (which contradicts everything else you’ve heard) and your friends will do something never advised in the baby books.

And all this leaves you, the new parents, totally confused. What do you do? How do you decide what’s right and what’s not?

Whenever there’s conflicting information we get confused. That’s why the Grocer’s Apostrophe has caused confusion for writers down the generations. It’s very common but never appears in English Usage books.

 What is the Grocer’s Apostrophe?

The Grocer's Apostrophe

The Grocer’s Apostrophe is the little, suspended comma that mysteriously appears on signs, typically in green grocers’ shops. It shows up when vegetables go plural. One apple; many apple’s.

It was named for the greengrocers who brought it into common usage. You’ll find plenty of examples of the Grocer’s Apostrophe along the racks of beautiful fruit and vegetables. Look out for: potato’s, tomatoe’s, cauli’s, carrot’s, banana’s and more.

So what’s wrong with it?

Why is it incorrect (what is an apostrophe anyway)?

Technically it is the wrong use of an apostrophe. Strictly speaking, an apostrophe has only 2 uses:

1) To show missing letters

2) To show possession

Let’s take a look at those two examples:

 1) To show missing letters

In spoken and written English we often run two words together. So did not becomes didn’t, he will becomes, he’ll. The apostrophe tells us there is one or more missing letters.

Didn’t (the apostrophe marks the missing ‘o’)

He’ll (the apostrophe marks the missing ‘wi’)

That brings us to the second use of the apostrophe.

 2) To show possession

You can use an apostrophe as shorthand for ‘belong to’. Instead of, The coat belongs to Jack, we can say, [i]Jack’s coat.

You never need an apostrophe just to show the word is a plural.

So by adding apostrophes to plurals, grocers are accidentally making their vegetables possessive. And possessive vegetables are something we don’t need!

Grocer’s Apostrophes pop up in all sorts of writing, not just on signboards. How did this catch on so widely?

How has it confused generations?

It is a universal truth that when unsure, we tend to look over our shoulder. What is our neighbour doing? We learnt this in school. If in doubt, copy your neighbour. Yes it was frowned on, sometimes got us in trouble, but it beat handing in a blank page.

Seeing the Grocer’s Apostrophe scattered liberally around sign boards up and down the high street, is it any wonder that it has crept into annual reports, sales copy and articles?

The question is, does it matter?

Who cares about apostrophes these days?

Grammarians get very upset about the Grocer’s Apostrophe. They cry foul and lament the decline of language and standards in public life.

But language is about communication.

I’ve grown up with the Grocer’s Apostrophe. It hasn’t impeded my vegetable buying efforts. In fact I feel quite nostalgic about it. So I say let it stand……but only in the green grocers’.

I don’t recommend using the Grocer’s Apostrophe in your sales copy or article writing. Iit gives conflicting messages. They confuse people. Confusion is best avoided when talking to customers (as it is when looking after babies!).


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About Juliet Fay

Juliet Fay is a coach, trainer and writer offering personal and marketing coaching for individuals and businesses looking for positive change in their life and work. She is also developing change programmes for social care workers. http://www.onlinesalesmessages.com/subscribe-juliet-enews/

  3 Responses to “How the Grocer’s Apostrophe led to generations of confused writers”

  1. Actually, the old rule was that foreign objects in the plural warranted an apostrophe, hence the grocer’s use of them! 😉

  2. Great article!
    One thing that could be worth adding is, the often confused, exception:

    it’s vs. its

    You mention “The coat belongs to Jack” > “Jack’s coat”
    However, “The coat belongs to it” > “Its coat”

    Because, of course, “it’s” is exclusively used in the missing-letter situation, explained above.

  3. You begin by saying “technically it is the wrong use of an apostrophe” which suggests that it is OK really (unless being pedantic). The grocer’s apostrophe is more than a ‘technical’ misuse – it’s a definite grammatical error and is never OK – not even for grocers. Incidentally, it might be more accurate to call it a Grocers’ Apostrophe unless the offence is only ever committed by one grocer.

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