The Grocer's Apostrophe
My local shop should know better! A sign on the front tells you in large letters "Open everyday till midnight." I get upset at the simple grammatical mistake. Should I write to the owner and point out that the shop is open every day to sell everyday products? The other ubiquitous mistake that can be found in many supermarkets and stores is the incorrect use of the apostrophe. For example: "Juicy Apple's $2:00" or "Todays Special: Chicken Curry". A short stroll around a shopping street will reveal many examples of misplaced apostrophes - often called "the grocer's apostrophe". Of course it's not just grocers who have a habit of putting apostrophes where they shouldn't be - other examples can be found at restaurants, gas stations and pretty much anywhere there is a sign.It's become such a common problem that John Richards, a retired newspaper editor has set up the Apostrophe Preservation Society (www.apostrophe.org.uk). "How difficult is it, really, to use an apostrophe?" he asks. Sadly, it seems that people are fond of the small squiggle but don't use it correctly. A recent survey of teachers in Britain found that almost half of were unable to place the apostrophe in this sentence: "The Smiths' house is next to the small store." It really does seem to be an area where English language students are more confident and more accurate than native speakers.
But why is it so hard to get right? The apostrophe only has two real functions. In contracted verbs and pronouns it indicates that something has been left out. As in aren't and he'll. Its other use is to form singular and plural possessives --- e.g. the king's crown, the kings' duties. Compared with some of the tricky areas in English grammar, it should be a piece of cake, yet many fail to master it.
The apostrophe has a rather awkward history. It arrived from France in the 16th century. Authors found it useful to show how a word was pronounced. Thus kiss'd would show that the word kissed had one syllable rather than two. That was all very well, but when people started using the apostrophe to show possession confusion set in. The apostrophe gained a reputation for being awkward. But John Richards arguesthat you just need to treat the apostrophe with respect. He started writing to shops such as "The Modern Mans Barbers Shop". Not everyone welcomes his advice, but his campaign is making news around the English-speaking world.
Worryingly, Birmingham council in Britain has just announced that it will no longer use apostrophes on street signs. One local politician says that the council is trying to simplify life for users of satellite navigation systems. So D'Arcy Avenue is now Darcy Avenue and O'Hara Street is now Ohara Street. So there you have it - it has taken 500 years for the apostrophe to establish itself in printed English and Birmingham council is doing its best to erase history overnight. John Richards argues that punctuation-free emailing has not helped. Nor have the signs in the high street saying 'Best Orange's'. The French have the AcadémieFrançaise to defend their language, but no government body exists to stand up for the English apostrophe. Into this gap has stepped Lynne Truss, author of Eats, Shoots And Leaves - a popular book that spelled out the importance of the comma. Her new book, The Girl's Like Spaghetti does the same for the apostrophe. Ms. Truss gives lots of examples in her book - and backs them up with humorous illustrations. Here are some of the best: "Those smelly things are my brother's" (drawing of a pair of smelly socks) vs."Those smelly things are my brothers" (drawing of two young boys pouring smelly garbage on each other). Or "The dogs like my Dad" (drawing of dogs lying at the feet of a man) vs. "The dog's like my Dad" (drawing of adog and a man looking very similar). Or try this one: "We're here to help you (smiling assistants behind a desk) vs. "Were here to help you" (shut shop door with sign saying: 'Closed until Monday'). Lynne is also proud of the sentence "Look, it's behind!" (children pointing to a turtle losing a turtle race) and "Look, its behind!" (children laughing and pointing at a horse's rear end).
Of course Lynne Truss worries that her book will have all of us walking around with sticky tape and pens - carefully adding apostrophes to some store signs. But more importantly, she strongly believes she is defending 500 years of printed English. She doesn't want the apostrophe to become a thing of the past simply due to our laziness.
And I leave you with one final example from Lynne's book - which just happens to be next to my mother-in-law's house, so I have seen the original sign. There is a small store near Taunton with a sign that reads 'Carrott's Vegetables and Plants'. I had long thought it was the perfect example of the (green)grocer's apostrophe (with a bit of bad spelling thrown in). Imagine my surprise when I discovered that the owner is actually called Mr. Carrott!
Note: 'The Girl's Like Spaghetti: Why, you can't manage without apostrophes!' by Lynne Truss (Profile)