Thursday, August 04, 2011

Greengrocers and apostrophes: what went wrong?

Drive north out of Bath on the A46, and before you reach the all-day playground that is the M4, you’ll see a stall selling soft fruit.

At least, you can assume that’s what they’re selling. There’s a blackboard advertising their wares, but what it actually says is Strawberrie’.

At that point, whoever was doing the chalking must have run out of board. There’s a quite unnecessary apostrophe, but the final “s” is nowhere to be seen.

Or at least, it wasn’t last Sunday, when we trundled by. “Watch the road, Hugh, not the board! EEEEEEE...!”

Journey over with no further incident, there was time to waste a few minutes of reflection on that degenerate scion of English punctuation, the greengrocer’s apostrophe.

People have trouble with apostrophes: greengrocers more than most. Because even if the people selling summer fruits by the side of the A46 had squeezed a final “s” on to their board, they’d have been wrong.

The first rule of apostrophes is that they don’t go with plurals. But look at any display of fruit and veg worth its name, and you’ll see the problem. If you don’t fancy the pear’s, then choose some apple’s. How about some carrot’s with the roast tonight? And then a couple of mangoe’s for afters.

Those are the greengrocer’s apostrophes.

The second rule is that apostrophes show possession. If something owns something else, then the owner has an apostrophe and an s.

A couple of examples from the animal kingdom may be helpful here. Think of the bee’s knees, the cat’s pyjamas, the dog’s...

No, not those, cheeky.

The bee, the cat and the dog are the owners of the knees, the pyjamas and the... all right, dinner. So the three animals get an apostrophe-s.

It gets more complicated when you combine plurals and possessives. They go s-apostrophe.

So if two bees had 12 knees between them, they would be the bees’ knees. If four cats wore pyjamas, they would be the cats’ pyjamas. And as for the dogs, well, you get the general idea.

Rule three: apostrophes show that something has had a letter or two left out. “The cat’s outside” means “The cat is outside”. Simples.

Rule four. There is no such word as Its’. “Its” means “belonging to it”. “It’s” means “it is”. As in “It’s time the cat had its dinner.” You just have to learn that one.

To go back to our original roadside example: “Strawberries” is the plural of “strawberry”, so it doesn’t need an apostrophe.

The only time you’d put an apostrophe anywhere near strawberries would be if something belonged to those strawberries – for example the strawberries’ flavour, or the strawberries’ colour, or the strawberries’ tendency to get snaffled from the fridge before yours truly has a chance to sample them.

(Have you ever stared at a word for so long that it starts to look wrong even when it’s right? It’s happening right now with strawberries.)

So if you’re (shortening) in a greengrocer’s (possessive) shop and you see a sign advertising “Strawberrie’s”, you should now be able to explain confidently to them where they’ve gone wrong.

Although whether the greengrocer would thank you for the explanation is quite another matter.

No comments:

Post a Comment