There are few things that make me want to rend my clothing and rip out my eyeballs like the overuse of apostrophes. I used to believe that people did this out of sheer ignorance, but when I was researching this blog post I discovered something quite different — and alarming.
English is awful. I think I told you that before. As it turns out, all this use of apostrophes to pluralize words actually is rooted in correct English usage (I’ll pause so you can gasp dramatically). This type of over-use, called the greengrocers’ apostrophe, was considered proper use prior to the 19th century and so it continued in secluded pockets of civilization who weren’t aware of the updates to the rules of the language.
How Greengrocers’ Apostrophes Came to Be
As early as the 16th century, when apostrophes first came into our language from French, these sneaky little marks were used to indicate areas where letters were purposefully left out in the spelling of words, as well as to stand in for letters that were not generally pronounced.
This resulted in a lot of plurals that dropped their final E’s and replaced them with an apostrophe. Even if the pluralized word shouldn’t end in “es”, but was a foreign-sounding loan word from another language, the apostrophe was often used (correctly) with an “s”. Thus, pastas became pasta’s and bananas became banana’s.
I know. It hurts me, too.
During the 18th century, changes to the use of the apostrophe were proposed to match what we expect to find in modern English. It took until the 1850s before apostrophe use even began to standardized, though. By this time, English speakers were often broken into isolated enclaves scattered across the American frontier and throughout the British Empire.
Very little news about the proper use of English came into these areas because, frankly, very little news got in at all. When you’ve got limited bandwidth, you’re probably more likely to want to know about things like the status of the Civil War or who was the new President than what suggestions some snobby shits have for the proper use of your ink.
Since delving into the frontier almost guaranteed near-time capsule style cultural preservation, the language was taught in isolation until an era of easy to access written communication came back around.
By then, some of these habits were tightly ingrained, so even though the information was out there, it was probably hard to stop writing things like “banana’s” when you meant “bananas.” Since everybody mostly understood you anyway, why bother to change?
That last bit’s my theory as to why greengrocers’ apostrophes are still around. I’m just a writer, so what the Hell do I really know?
Proper Use of the Apostrophe
Grammar Nazis, relax. I’m not about to let people off the hook here. So, here’s the deal, guys. We know the why, we know the who and we understand — but it’s time to get up to speed on this deal. I’m really serious, because I will be forced to kick a bitch if I keep seeing these greengrocers’ apostrophes.
So, for future reference:
If you’ve got a plural word (more than one thing of a thing), just use an “s” at the end. Snake becomes snakes, apple becomes apples, etc. There are plenty of exceptions to this rule, but none that result in the use of an apostrophe. UNDER NO CIRCUMSTANCES ARE YOU TO PLURALIZE WITH THE HELP OF AN APOSTROPHE.
You can use an apostrophe to indicate ownership by a single entity by adding that apostrophe and an s to the owner in the sentence. Those are Anthony’s snakes and they ate Maggie’s apples.
When you’ve got multiple owners, you can use your apostrophe as you will, as long as you’re consistent. The apples actually came from the Jones’ tree, so Maggie was turned over to the authorities’ custody.
A word that’s plural but doesn’t end in “s” can be treated like a single owner. The Children’s Division will be punishing Maggie accordingly for her crimes.
You can also use an apostrophe to indicate that you’ve got a lot of symbols for whatever reason. We’ve got an excess of &’s and E’s, can you find someone to take these things?
Or, you can use apostrophes to indicate missing letters, as in a contraction. We’ve got a basic understanding of English, can’t you tell?
I’m sure there are some other obscure uses that you’re going to email me about… so I’m just going to go ahead and tell you to go fuck yourselves now to save myself some time.
Learning About Greengrocers’ Apostrophes
I admit it, when I decided on this topic, I thought I knew all there was to know about the lowly apostrophe and that those people who overused it were deserving of a good pummeling. Now, I have to eat a little crow (or 27 blackbirds, baked in a pie) and admit that I can actually understand why a person would make this mistake.
I understand it, but please stop doing it, ok? If you’ve read this far, you definitely know better now. For the love of all things holy, stop….