Apostrophes’ apostrophe’s apostrophes!
A look at the frequent misuse of one of the most common punctuation marks
The apostrophe is a little punctuation mark that, although very useful, continues to be misused. You don’t have to go far to notice that — just go outside, that is if you live in a country where English is the native language — and you might notice it being used incorrectly on coffee shop menu boards, takeaway shop windows, restaurant menus, public notices and so on. These are examples of everyday-life places, but even some educational organisations sometimes get it wrong. Let’s have a look at a few examples of apostrophe misuse and analyse the errors.
In this photo, which I took a few years back, we can read, ‘Vehicles are parked at owners risk’. As I am typing this in Google Docs, a blue wavy line appears under the error, trying to get me to correct it, which I will do soon. What then is the error in this sentence? The sentence should read, ‘Vehicles are parked at the owners’ risk’ to show that it is the risk of the owners to park their cars there. This is a simple example of the possessive apostrophe which basically means of or belonging to.
From the context of the sentence, we can deduce that plural owners are probably meant since plural vehicles are mentioned. Normally, one owner would park one car there, therefore we can infer that more than one owner is meant. The rule here is that when we refer to plural people possessing things and the noun describing the possessors is regular in its plural form (such as clients, customers, drivers, shoppers, etc.), we place the apostrophe after the s of that plural noun but we do not add the s after the apostrophe, the way we would usually do after a singular noun. For example:
‘Our clients’ wellbeing is our priority.’
‘It is the customers’ responsibility to mind their luggage.’
‘It is the shoppers’ responsibility to sterilise their hands.’
Having said that, the sentence, ‘Vehicles are parked at owner’s risk’ would not be wrong either. This is because we don’t really know what the intention of the author of the sign was.
While I think burritos are great and the grammatical error on this window wouldn’t stop me from going in for a nice lunch into this shop, it does leave a bit of a, let’s say, bad taste in my mouth. So what is wrong here? The sign reads, ‘Lets eat burritos together’. Lets should be Let’s. But why? Lets is a third form of the verb to let (meaning to allow) in the Present Simple tense, as in she / he / it lets. We can see that it would make no sense in this sentence. We do know, however, that the author of this text is trying to encourage us to share in the experience of eating those delicious burritos, and so it is a suggestion.
Usually, when we want to suggest doing something, we put two words together, let and us, and abbreviate them using the apostrophe, which in this case replaces the letter u and makes us sound more friendly and casual than saying let us. The role of the apostrophe is not only to show possession, but also to replace some letters in order to shorten words, similar to the example of rock ’n’ roll, or rock ’n roll.
Sadly, the above example is riddled with errors. How many can you spot? There are a few examples of apostrophe misuse, and one spelling error. The spelling error is probably quite easy to notice, which is energie — unless it was done on purpose, which is a common practice among traders to make some words sound more fun, such as kool kids instead of cool kids. I don’t really agree with changing words in this way as it can make the brand seem a little cheap, but it is someone else’s business. So, LET’S now find all the misuses of the apostrophe:
muffin’s — should be muffins
blueberry’s — should be blueberries
ball’s — should be balls
We understand that the author meant to pluralise the above nouns, but unnecessarily added the apostrophes. This is a common error called the greengrocer’s apostrophe. The name comes from the frequent misuse of the apostrophe at greengrocer’s shops to pluralise names of fruit and vegetables by adding ‘s, like apple’s or pear’s. Going back to the above examples, we can also see — not like it matters much in this case as the word is pluralised the wrong way anyway — but when a singular noun ends in a consonant and the letter y, we need to replace the y with an i and then add es.
The above examples represent only some of the many different categories of the misuse of the apostrophe. Unfortunately, this error seems to be omnipresent, and it doesn’t look like it will disappear any time soon. From coffee shop menu boards to food shop windows or even public notices, it can be seen very frequently. Sometimes, it is the studious non-native learner who knows grammar better. If you are an English student, I hope this will make you feel better when you sometimes think your English isn’t good enough.
Written by Joanna Bartosz-Donohoe, founder of Anglica Language School