LINGUIST List 7.1626

Mon Nov 18 1996

Sum: Yet more greengrocers' apostrophes...

Editor for this issue: Susan Robinson <>


  1. Jonathan Swift, Sum: Yet more greengrocers' apostrophes...

Message 1: Sum: Yet more greengrocers' apostrophes...

Date: Thu, 14 Nov 1996 11:27:30 GMT
From: Jonathan Swift <>
Subject: Sum: Yet more greengrocers' apostrophes...

Anecdotal evidence and theorising on the above from discussion
generated in August 1996.

Thanks first to all who responded - since this is obviously a very popular
subject, apologies now for any I may have missed out and my delay in
collating responses. If i've left you out, drop me a line and I'll make good
the omission. The respondents were: Mike Picone, John E. Koontz, M. Lynne
Murphy, John Konopak, Tamara Al-Kasey, Nancy Frischberg, Mai Kuha, Laura
Walsh Dickey, Paul Foulkes, Uta Lenk, Penny Lee, Eric Bakovic, Melanie
Misanchuk, Laurie Bauer, Sara Wada, Tom Chase.

My original question referred to the use of apostrophe s ("the greengrocer's

"This is becoming more and more prevalent in the UK. My local pub lists
_pizza's_ on the lunchtime menu, but further down in the same menu it lists
_specialities of the house_. I don't think the _'s_ has anything to do with
the foreign nature of the word _pizza_ but is based on the fact that UK
English users these days seem to be unsure of _'s_ as a plural sign. Is
there a drift going on towards _'s_ as a plural signifier in English?"

All respondents realise that this feature exists - where there is
disagreement, perhaps, is in the causes of it. I'll let you make your own
minds up.

John Koontz wrote:
"I'd characterize this phenomenon, which occurs in the US, too, as simple
lack of understanding of the English orthography. As the joke goes,
"Apostrophe is a punctuation mark placed adjacent to an s." The apostrophe
has no reality in spoken English; it's simply an orthographic concomittant
of -s as a possessive (except in possessive pronouns!) and some contractions
(representations of enclises in fast speech). The same sort of lack of
familiarity with the orthography results in a general decline in spelling
abilities. Arbitrary factors get lost. You could attribute it all to a
lack of education, or lack of a certain kind of education. The latter comes
closer to the mark, I think. The problem probably isn't lack of literacy,
it's more widespread practice of literacy. The same sort of thing afflicts
Omahas trying to use the "traditional" orthography (never really taught to
anyone). Where to put the raised n-s* that mark nasal vowels?
(* Commonly and, I think, legitimately written n's.)"

I think this is probably the most lucid description of the phenomenon I
received. All respondents had anecdotal evidence that this phenemenon
exists, but like me, few were able to give a good reason for it. Lynne
Murphy broadened the discussion with her reference to the _its/it's_ debate,
as follows:

"in south africa as well (and less in the u.s.) i notice _'s_ being
used as a plural marker, but my intuition is that it is only used on
vowel-final words, especially those ending in 'o', e.g.--_potato's_.
the '...o's' phenomenon i've attributed to people's discomfort with
the rule about adding -es instead of -s to form a plural (_potatoes_).
this rule annoys me personally when people try to apply it to foreign
words, e.g., _tacoes_--so i assumed that people don't know what to
with words ending in 'o'. _pizza's_ doesn't fall into that pattern,
but it does end with a vowel. i don't see "plural" _'s_ with
consonants -- e.g., *dachshund's (pl.).
another e.g. that comes from the u.s. and britain (s.a. too, but they
don't use the word much here) is _bi's_ (pl.). [_bi_ being a term
for 'bisexual'.] drives me crazy that people use the apostrophe
there, but they seem to be uncomfortable with _bis_ because it looks
like it should be pronounced [bIs] (rhymes with _piss_). however, in
a discussion on the bisexual theory list a couple of years ago (while
i was researching patterns of use of _bi_), many bi activists claimed
to find _bi's_ annoying/offensive, while others maintained that _bis_
looked too weird. the non-bi press steadily uses _bi's_. what they
do for the plural possessive, i have no idea.
(i'm also annoyed by apostrophes in the names of decades, e.g. _the
1930's_, but as you can tell, i'm easily annoyed! too many years
doing copy editing has left me with some firm opinions on
i wonder if 's/-s confusion can also be linked to _its/it's_
confusion. i've been really shocked at the prevalence of _it's_ as a
possessive in south africa (i'm an american who's been here 3 years).
not only do the majority of my native english-speaking students use
_it's_ as a possessive, but it regularly seems to make it past copy
editors--i see it in major newspapers, on the side of the kellogg's
rice krispies box, in a glossy magazine advert for basf audiotape
(not to mention the occasional university memo). granted, _it's/its_
confusion is not a plurality issue (although a student today reported
that _it_ is the 3rd person plural!), but there is a lot of
insecurity about -s morphemes and apostrophes in general. it's the
kind of things spell-checkers can't solve, so i expect it to get
worse and eventually mutate."

She's right about insecurity in the use of -s morphemes, the evidence bears
it out. Quite why such an uncertainty exists is not clear (but see John
Koontz' response above).

I received a good deal of anecdotal evidence, and was extremely impressed
by, firstly, the observant nature of the respondents, and secondly, by the
marvellous mangling of the "rules" which everyday speakers manage. In an
example from Melanie Misanchuk (which bears striking resemblance to
something I saw in a London pub quite recently):

"Yes, I've noticed a proliferation of apostrophes used to mark the
plural, and I think, contrary to your theory, that the root can
lie in foreign terms, and other non-standard plurals. However, I
will add that I have noticed that the majority of misuses occur
not necessarily in foreign terms, but almost always in words
ending with a vowel, as your example does. When
people encouter words which end in a vowel which may not follow
the regular pluralization rules, especially if they're
borrowings, they panic. And perhaps they didn't listen well in
school. Or they see so much misuse around them.
 I have also seen "taco's" a number of times, and I
must say that I think the problem is worsening. I once saw, on
a handwritten sign in a washroom, "Plea's flush the toilet".
Now *that's* serious.
Apostrophes are also doing strange things in my area of study,
comtemporary French. There is some pluralization using 's, but
there is more quasi-correct possessive use of it, and other more
fanciful things. Most linguists
credit the growth of apostrophe use in French to an English
influence, even where the apostrophe is used in a very French
way, that is to replace missing letters (usually vowels):
(traditional use: aujourd'hui, s'il, qu'on, etc.; new use:
modern' magasin, pas'-temps, and the curious French creation
pin's, meaning a trading pin or badge.)"

_plea's flush the toilet_! I maintain that some thought had to go into that
particular effort. It surely would have been much simpler to write
_please..._ wouldn't it? What rule was the author following when s/he wrote
that? Can it be put down to lack of education, confusion about the uses of
_'s_, or is the reason more profound than that? Perhaps the author was
attempting to produce *correct* English by using what s/he perceived as
*high-brow* literary orthography, and over-correcting in the process of
doing that? I still don't have answers to that central question - the
reason, as usual, probably depends on the individual.

Melanie interestingly raised the question of _'s_ usage in French. I have
first hand experience of this, as does Mike Picone, who wrote:

"The use of the apostrophe in French in conjunction with borrowings and
pseudo-borrowings has taken many an interesting turn. I bring up many
examples of this in my new book (Anglicisms, Neologisms and Dynamic
French) which will appear October/November (John Benjamins). More than
showing possession (which, of course, is not transparent to all French
people anyhow, as your example shows), it is often used as a pronunciation
aid or to add a touch of anglified exotism or both. For example, those
little enameled souvenir badges that became all the rage in France, are
universally marketed as _pin's_ (both singular and plural). The
apostrophe in this case marks the fact that this is an exotism that
maintains its nasal consonant and final s. One often sees _jean's_
spelled the same way in commercial names. Once at the Carrefour
hypermarket, I came across something that looked like American style
hamburger buns called _Texas Bun's_. In other cases the apostrophe
accompanies the abbreviation and/or conjunction of streamlined elements:
Sold'Meubles (discount furniture store), Sup'air (vacuum cleaner, with
intentional homophony with _super_), etc.

The multiple uses of the apostrophe in contemporary French may help
explain why someone botched the title you are referring to. I've seen
other mistranslations of movie and book titles, but none as odd as the
example you provided. Usually the mistranslation is due to the presence
of a false cognate. One example that comes to mind is the British movie
"Chariots of Fire", which ended up in French as the calque "Les chariots
de feu," even though ignoble Fr. _chariot_ 'cart, wagon' has never been the
equivalent of the Eng. _chariot_. It would be interesting in this case to
look at a French translation of the poem from which the title was
purportedly extracted to see how well the translation was handled. I assume
that the original inspiration of the phrase was Biblical (Elijah's fiery
chariot, 2 Kings 2:11). There French versions have _char de feu_, as one
would have expected."

He then provided more thoughts on, and documentary evidence of, this

"In the case of French, plurality often takes
a back seat to other considerations since plurality is more saliently
marked by the preceding determiner. But of course this would be less true
in commercial names where typically there is no determiner. Still, I think
the _'s_ is more of a marker of the Anglo-exotic and a way of short-circuiting
French word-final pronunciation rules than anything else. This last claim is
backed up by the liberal use of the apostrophe in s-less contexts
where the intent is to override traditional word-formation constraints. To
add a few more examples to the ones I already sent: Chick'O'K' (fashion
boutique), Demak'up (cosmetic), Master Chauff' (heating), Go'west (fashion
boutique), Styl'Center (fashion), Aerobic'Shop (sporting equip),
Stef'any (boutique), Magic'Soldes, Modern'Cars, Dress' Shop Service, etc."

Which shows that, for whatever reason, the French are as unsure as we are.
However, they at least have the excuse that _'s_ is foreign to them!

Uta Lenk continued the foreign language theme with a theory on the evolving
practice of using _'s_ in German thus:

"I have noticed the same tendency in some German contexts - which I, however,
have attributed to the increase of English all around and an ensuing
misinterpretation of the Genitive 's.
German does not usually write the Genitive (nor the Plural, if it comes
with an s-Form) with an apostrophe, only when the
final consonant is itself an s is the Genitive supposed to be indicated
through an ' *without* the following s: Hans' Haus.
Now many shop signs read "Stephan's Goldschmiede" (or something like that).
But the plural form - which I first noticed as CD's - is increasing, too,
especially on signs in stores which announce cheap "Pulli's" (pullovers) or
the like.
Just as a note from another language..."

Tamara Al-Kasey theorised that the *correct* _specialities_ in my original
example is probably caused by the necessity to change spelling to form the

"Anecdotally speaking, the apostrophe before the plural is one of my
favorite "bloopers" Here around Pittsburgh (and before in
Massachusetts) I see it most often on menu's and in grocery store's (I
have also seen it on fliers around the universities, presumably the work
of students, and printed on mass printed items) I have even seen the
apostrophe in a verb (once) something like "he say's"
My guess as to why your subject did not put it in "specialties" is
because of the spelling change that called hi's attention to the s being
a part of the word and causing the spelling change."

Nancy Frishberg kindly pointed out the already-existing discussion about
this at the Linguist, which I found useful, while Mai Kuha provided me with
this evidence:

"While in Ohio and Indiana, I have also seen the plurals ladie's and

Laura Walsh Dickey offered these observations, and also a theory (point 3 on
her list) about provenance:

"(1) I have seen the same trend in American English. It seems to be on
the rise.
(2) I notice it more with vowel-final words (but I haven't been taking
(3) This seems to be related to an older trend to use an apostrophe s
after years and words, letters, or numbers as objects: "the 1920's", "in
the 80's", "the number of t's in that sentence".
(4) In Dutch, plurals can have either a -en or -s ending. If the noun
ends in a vowel, the plural is 's. This standard spelling is done to mark
the quality of the vowel (vowels in open syllables have different quality
and length from vowels in closed syllables). The apostrophe tells you
that you should treat the vowel as if it were in an open syllable."

Laura also provided the following Web site URL for reference:

Laurie Bauer had some very useful suggestions for further reading:

"This has a long history, and the phenomenon you refer to is sometimes
called the greengrocer's apostrophe (thus in The Oxford Companion to the
English Language, for instance) because of the prevalence of notices like
'plum's' in greengrocers' windows.
The history is interesting, and I'd recommend the Oxford Companion article
on Apostrophe, and the article by Greta D. Little in English Today for
1986. (Vol 8, pp. 15-17).
In Watching English Change (Longman, 1994, p. 133) I suggested that the
apostrophe seemed to me to be used for plurals esp. after vowel letters
other than <e>. Some of the reason for that can be seen in the history,

Paul Foulkes was also able to shed light on the history:

"I expect you may receive some replies which will point you in the
direction of academic studies on this rather than anecdotal evidence,
but here's my twopennyworth.

I understand that the possessive 's came into being in the first
instance with words of foreign origin, so as to demonstrate that the
word did not end in s. Otherwise, possession was indicated by s but
no apostroiphe, as in modern German.

I think that the use of plural apostrophe is connected with lack of
apostrophe in possessives, and if plural ' IS on the increase it may
well be due to confusion over where to use which, as a result of so
many companies like Barclays, Walkers and so on NOT using the
possessive apostrophe when they "should".

As for the "greengrocer's apostrophe", it is of course often cited as one
of the principal pieces of evidence that standards of English and
schooling in general are severely on the decline these days...etc.
But I have read (frequently, but I can't remember where, sorry) that
this use has always been prominent, and in fact there's no evidence
other than anecdote and popular belief that the phenomenon is
spreading. That said, misuse of ' is one of the few things that really
irritates me (I'm a professional linguist and therefore supposed to
avoid prescriptivism at all costs), and I have collected a few real
gems. Try the following, all of which I am sure would not be found
until recently (and which therefore DO suggest the confusion is
growing worse):

MEAN'T - in one of the info snippets flashed up during the ITV chart

VARIOU'S FILLINGS - for sandwiches and spuds in a Whitley Bay cafe

DELICIOU'S - fruit in Newcastle market

What's worse, no matter how impeccable my usage of ' or not used to
be, I keep finding error's in my own writing's. Its horrendou's."

Penny Lee would rather the whole problem was avoided entirely:

"It's very common for people seem to be unsure in Australia. (Is
there a drift going on towards the adoption of this as a plural
signifier?) goodness knows. I find that when I'm writing or typing at
speed though I often throw the apostrophe in automatically when it
shouldn't be there and have to take it out later even though I know
when it's supposed to be there and when it isn't. It certainly is a
bother trying to remember. I'd rather they were both dropped."

Which solution would be practical, but would make life a little less
interesting for those of us who enjoy this sort of thing!

Eric Bakovic responded to the original question thus:

"Most definitely, and in the US, too. I've seen hot dog vendors with
signs advertising "Hot Dog's", for instance, and I've seen many other
instances (on students' homeworks, for instance). My personal
suspicion has always been that this confusion somehow derives from the
large number of restaurants and shops with possessive names such as
"Denny's". That's not the best example, since it's not easily
confused with a plural, but there are others I can't think of at the
moment that could be. Another possible explanation is that you often
see tacky signs on people's houses that say, e.g., "The Smith's" or
"The Smiths", meaning either "The Smith's Home" or "The Smiths live
here", presumably. The people who own these signs may know what
they're doing when they choose to use the apostrophe or not, but it
might have led to confusion by others.

On a slightly different topic: here in the US, there are lots of signs
and menus and the like that use double quotation marks to indicate
emphasis of some sort (what you might use italics for). One often
finds cases such as:

Employees "must" wash their hands before returning to work.

Does this happen much in the UK?"

In response to the final point, it certainly does! A certain maker of
potato crisps here in the UK uses _"_ to the point of silliness
viz. _"More" than just a "crisp"!_ Presumably you're meant to shout
the words within the quotation marks.

Sarah Wada provided this example, but is baffled as to reasons why:

"I saw an interesting sign for a health club the other day (in Tahoe,
California, USA): _Enjoy our weights, bikes, treadmills, and
jacuzzi's_ I don't know what it all means. I have observed a lot of
apostrophe s plurals lately, but I have no explanation."

This usage presumably falls into the "can't follow a final vowel with
_s_ to denote plural" category noted by Lynne Murphy above. "It just
doesn't look right" was how a friend explained it to me when faced
with it, and she's right, it does look odd. It still doesn't explain
_formulas_, though. How long does a word have to be current in a
language before it is assimilated?

Finally, Tom Chase sounds the death knell for _'s_:

"The apostrophe was introduced into English orthography rather late,
and seems to be dying out. The number of writers who can use it
confidently and correctly is declining; through the media of
advertising, signage, and so on we are constantly exposed to
"incorrect" uses (e.g., "Simpsons" rather than "Simpson's" in a
department store chain founded by Robert Simpson). Since its
usefulness in making distinctions is limited (in other words, we
almost always know what is meant even if the apostrophe is incorrectly
present or absent) and applies only in written rather than spoken
language, I wouldn't (!) be surprised if it were to disappear within
two or three generations."

On that sombre note, I'll sum up:

English is not alone in admitting of variants in the usage of
_'s_. French and German also suffer. There is a likelihood that
factors such as education, over-correction due to concern about
*correct* usage, history, *foreign-ness* of words and the fact that
certain words _don't look right_ without the _'s_ all play a
part. Personally, this process of change pretty much sums up for me
why I love languages so much - wouldn't the world be a much duller
place without the humble _'s_?

Jonathan Swift Sales Executive Abbey Information Systems 1 Paper Mews
330 High Street Dorking RH4 2TU

Tel: 01306 745 600 Fax: 01306 745 602 Mobile: 0468 667 483
Mail to author|Respond to list|Read more issues|LINGUIST home page|Top of issue