The Grocer’s Apostrophe
If the use of apostrophes has you scratching your head, you’ve come to the right place.
First, let’s start this subtraction problem with some simple addition. There are three situations when you do need an apostrophe:
- Omission. To indicate that one or more letters are missing. For example: “Doesn’t” instead of “does not,” “hasn’t” instead of “has not.”
- Possession. To indicate that something belongs to somebody (loosely, since it could be a somebody that belongs to something). For example: ProofreadNOW.com’s amazing proofreaders, the U.S.S. Theodore Roosevelt’s crew, the dog’s enormous nose.
- Plurality. To indicate the plural of letters or figures. For example: Mind your p’s and q’s. Plot those x’s and y’s. On the contrary: There were no ifs or buts. Beware the dos and don’ts. In letter puzzles, s’s are used more than other consonants and e’s are featured more than other vowels. As noted elsewhere on our site, some people do not consider the third use as correct.*)
All of this brings us to the times when you don’t need an apostrophe. Misplaced apostrophes are often called “grocer’s apostrophes.” This is the mistake of putting an apostrophe before the “s” of a plural word, which is the most common apostrophe error.
Most of the time, English plural words are formed by adding an “s” to the end of the word (hot dogs, Cokes, bananas, wheels, etc.). Sometimes “es” is added and/or a letter changes before the “s” or “es” is added, depending upon the last letter of the word in question (dish/dishes, cherry/cherries, hero/heroes, calf/calves, knife/knives, etc.). If a word is irregular, no “s” is added (feet, teeth, children, etc.). We’ll write more about that in a separate blog post in the future.
For now, know that regardless of the spelling, adding an apostrophe to a plural word just because it’s plural is almost always a big no-no. So take a moment to retrain your brain: If you are speaking or writing about something that is plural without possession, keep an apostrophe far from it. Give this rule some sass to make it memorable — something like, “More than one, apostrophes are dumb, unless they belong, then they’re not wrong.”
The crux of the issue is perhaps simple confusion, an overzealous fastidiousness (“I’ll put an apostrophe here just in case, like a grammatical life jacket.”), or maybe that people are misattributing a plural as possessive. But a misplaced apostrophe wreaks havoc on the look and implied meaning of words/sentences. It’s not “Just Say No to Drug’s.” It’s “Just Say No to Drugs.” It’s not “Gift’s for Teacher’s” (a part of us died inside when we wrote that last one), it’s “Gifts for Teachers.” The McGillicuttys live there; the Joneses live here. Long URLs are impossible to remember; just cut and paste them. The three Rs are reading, writing, and arithmetic (or reduce, reuse, and recycle, depending on whom you ask).
One simple way to avoid the head scratching: Ask yourself: “Is this only talking about more than one or is it (also) describing something that belongs to something else?”
There’s a little more to the apostrophe story, so we’ve added a bunch of handy links to related blog posts to flesh out your understanding, complete with fantastic examples, written by several of our amazing ProofreadNOW.com staff. Give the links (see, no apostrophe!) a quick clicky-click and smash your apostrophe confusion for good!
To sum up: Happy New Year and don’t add “’s” in plural non-possessive constructions. Just add “s.”**
*We abide by clients’ in-house style guides and the latest edition of the aforementioned CMOS when a style guide is not provided.
**The entire blog post in two sentences. Incredible.
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