This sign was in the produce section of the local supermarket earlier this week. No doubt you have seen signs just like it over the years:
The use of an apostrophe and an "s" to make a word plural is a classic grammatical blunder. It’s so common in retail food sales that the error is called the greengrocer’s apostrophe. No, really, that’s what it’s called. Google it. We’ll wait here until you get back.
Misunderstanding the relationship between plural and possessive forms of a word is a significant error. Many people who are not otherwise sticklers for grammatical precision will hoot in scorn if they find such a mistake on your website. Even people who are not strong readers may be uneasy when they see words pluralized by apostrophes; they cannot define the mistake, but they recognize that something is wrong.
We don’t care much about a shopkeeper’s grammar skills, but the story is different when your business is providing legal advice, medical care, or another professional service. Conflating plural words and possessive words is an easy way to puncture the credibility of your website postings. Potential clients and customers will flee your website, because sloppy writing convinces them you cannot be trusted to handle their problems with precision and thoroughness.
Time for a review: plural nouns and possessive nouns
The reason it’s so easy to mix up plural and possessive forms is that they often sound the same: fathers and father’s, courtrooms and courtrooms’, and so on. Even as you read the words silently right now, you’re thinking about their similar pronunciation and mentally vocalizing them.
For many people, the confusion between writing plural and possessive forms takes root shortly after beginning to learn to read, and it’s hard to overcome later in life. Hard, but not impossible. Let’s see if we can clear up the muddle, okay?
Apostrophes and plural words
The general rule here is that apostrophes are not used to make a plural form from singular nouns or pronouns. Apostrophes mark the use of the possessive case or the omission of letters.
There are two exceptions:
- Apostrophe + s is used to make single letters plural. Examples: Mind your p’s and q’s. Make sure to dot your i’s and cross your t’s.
- Apostrophe + s can be used with a few short words where affixing an -s or -es would be mistaken for another word rather than a plural. Example: Follow this list of do’s and don’ts when babysitting. Note that the word “don’t” doesn’t need special handling, but the word “do” cannot be pluralized as “dos” or “does” without confusion, and so it requires an apostrophe.
Numbers are not an exception to the rule. Duran Duran was the best band of the 1980s is a sentence that correctly shows you do not need an apostrophe for a plural year.
Possessives and plurals
It’s amazing how many people who otherwise excel at spelling get into a tizzy over plural possessive words. And yet, there is a simple rule that covers all possessive forms. If a word is both plural and it ends in -s, make the possessive form by adding an apostrophe to the end (s’); otherwise, add the apostrophe before the -s (’s).
Everyone gets the simplest cases right: a boy’s baseball glove (because “boy” is singular) and the boys’ baseball team (where “boys” is plural and ends in -s). We add apostrophe + s for both the child’s nightlight (“child” is singular) and the children’s bedroom (even though “children” is plural, it does not end in -s).
But consider the sentence The governess’s day off is every second Tuesday. Yes, that’s correct! The word “governess” is singular, so, even though it ends in -s, we add apostrophe + s to make it possessive. The sentence The union president addressed the governesses’ meeting is also correct, because “governesses” is a plural word that ends in -s and so only requires a final apostrophe for the possessive form.
Finally, we need to spend a moment to talk about possessive pronouns. These are discrete words that never require apostrophes: his, hers, theirs, ours, yours, its, and whose. Yes, there is a word it’s, but it doesn’t function as a possessive form meaning “of it.” It only works as a contraction for it is (Example: “It’s apparent you are not fitting into the team here, Ralph,” said the head of the HR department.) or for it has (Example: It’s come to my attention that too many employees are treating our casual Fridays as “wear your pajamas to work day.”)
You can profit from your greengrocer’s confusion
Will all the people browsing your website be able to tell whether you are using plurals properly? Of course not. And that’s a good thing! The proper use of grammar and spelling should be invisible on your website.
The customers or clients you most want to attract, though, are the very people who will notice errors. Each mistake will erode their confidence in your abilities just a little bit more. If you find that your preferred clients don’t seem to be contacting you as often as they once did, and you are making do with B-list customers (or worse), have a friend with excellent grammar skills look at the pages you have published. A poorly written site can do irreparable harm to your business, firm, or practice.
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