The world is divided into two classes of people – those who understand how apostrophes work and those who don’t. I am one of the former. You may call me an apostrophe pedant or an apostrophe fascist. I like to style myself an apostrophe warrior. I go about the streets obliterating apostrophes that shouldn’t be there, and less often inserting them where they should be. Not that I go looking for trouble, but when I spot an apostrophe crime I can’t help myself.
This only works if the sign is written in chalk, which is often the case with streetside billboards. I have kept an album of ‘before’ and ‘after’ photos of corrected signs. I have one that helpfully adjusted drumstick’s to drumsticks in the chalkboard of a well-known Tasmanian chicken meat provider……
another that likewise improved the efforts of a local cafe to entice passing potential customers with weather information by changing shower’s to showers…..
and a third that asked customers to close the door after entering the premises to prevent the entry of wasp’s. This wasn’t a chalk-written sign, but it had a light background so I pulled out my trusty skintone concealer wand and changed wasp’s to wasps.
I admit this was not the most successful of Apostrophe Warrior’s operations. What I needed was white-out.
There’s also a photo of me at work on the front of a health food shop (see above) that had four decals on the window advertising, in order, protein shake’s, antioxidant shake’s, health shake’s and slimming shake’s. This one was also not in chalk, and it was on a dark background so I got out a texta-type biro to blank out the offending marks. This left a space between the word and its plural s, but I couldn’t help that and it wasn’t my fault, was it?
I’ve got a bigger album of apostrophic error memes gleaned from the net. People send me these because they know about my pedantic tendencies and like to amuse or maybe goad me. One was a photo of the front of a furniture warehouse advertising sofa’s, chair’s, recliner’s and bed’s. No worse than my Tasmanian example really, but the funny thing was they left out the one apostrophe they should have put in! Goodwyns Furniture should have been Goodwyn’s.
Looking through my files I found a delightful howler in a real estate ad. There was a photo of a recently renovated property, and across it a diagonal band with a slogan on it reading ‘Done with pizzas!’ Pizzas? I think they meant pizzazz. On the other hand, this must be one of the few occasions in living memory when the plural of pizza has been rendered correctly, i.e. without the apostrophe.
For the record, I will state the rule here: You don’t use the apostrophe for simple plurals. Ever. You do use it to indicate possession, as in John’s computer, the house’s roof, the country’s leader. There is only one exception to this rule, and that’s with the word its. And that’s so as not to confuse it with the contraction it’s, short for it is.
People are okay with this and other contractions like that’s, don’t, can’t, it’s and isn’t, and theydo know to put apostrophes (or inverted commas) around quotes, but they just don’t get the plural/possessive difference.
Years ago I used to pass in my daily wanderings a sign that said Video’s for Hire. Taken at face value this suggested that someone named Video needed a job, as in Video is for hire. Or it might have meant that this same Video had a space to rent, as in let’s have the party at Video’s.
Some people say we should just do away with apostrophes altogether, but if we did, how would we know which of the three meanings was intended in this example – is it the person, his premises or a quantity of videotapes that’s for hire?
Okay, that’s a bit trivial. But apostrophe ignorance can land you in court. In 2021 a NSW real estate agent sued for defamation when a former employee accused him on facebook of not paying his employees superannuation. He meant just himself – one employee – but because he left out the apostrophe, a judge said he was accusing his former boss of not paying super to ANY of his employees, and let the case go ahead.
Sadly, I can’t find out whether the boss won his defamation suit, but I daresay it was no picnic for the apostrophe-abusing former employee.
Cue portentous music and the voice of Apostrophe Warrior: Let that be a lesson to all.
This feature was first published in The New Norfolk News on 28.4.23