Grammar 101: The greengrocer’s apostrophe

Now, don’t get me wrong; this is not a dig at greengrocers.

Those hard-working people know lots more about fruit and veg than I do, so I don’t actually mind if they occasionally put an apostrophe in the wrong spot.

Writing is not their area of expertise, just as knowing when white sweet potato is in season isn’t my core business.

However, in my work as a content specialist, I often find that people don’t understand when apostrophes should be used.

When to use apostrophes to show possession

So, let’s start at the beginning. Apostrophes are a way to indicate possession, that is, what belongs to whom.  For example:

  • ‘He was sitting in Peter’s chair’

is a way of saying:

  • ‘He was sitting in the chair that belongs to Peter.’

Not only does the apostrophe in “Peter’s” indicate possession, it makes the sentence simpler.

When to use apostrophes to show shortened forms

Apostrophes also indicate contractions and omissions, that is, where words and letters have been left out to make a shortened form. For example:

  • It’s my turn to choose the movie

This is a contraction of :

  • It is my turn to choose the movie.

Similarly, if you were to say:

  • Let’s eat pasta for dinner

This would be a contraction of:

  • Let us eat pasta for dinner.

Another example is:

  • ‘Tis a lovely day!

which is a slightly old-fashioned, if poetic, way of saying:

  • It is a lovely day!

There are many other examples of contractions and omissions, but the most common include: don’t (do not), can’t (cannot), won’t (will not), shouldn’t (should not), wouldn’t (would not), would’ve (would have), haven’t (have not), and should’ve (should have).

When to use apostrophes to show unusual plurals

One thing to remember in all of this is that an apostrophe is almost never used to indicate a plural. Which brings us back to the greengrocer’s apostrophe again.

It’s never correct to write:

  • Banana’s $4.99 / k

What should really be written is:

  • Bananas $4.99 / k

The only time it is acceptable to use an apostrophe to indicate a plural is in unusual plurals that are also in lower case. For example:

  • Mind your p’s and q’s
  • Remember to dot your i’s and cross your t’s.

Getting this right is not a matter of being pedantic, it’s about clarity. When I see “Banana’s $4.99 / k”, I immediately wonder what belongs to the bananas.

Getting apostrophes right in business writing

At the fruit shop, getting apostrophes right isn’t going to be an issue, but in business, it could have lasting impacts. Anything that takes your readers away from the message you are trying to convey is a bad thing. And simple errors like these can make you look unprofessional. Business is hard enough without simple things like this getting in the way. If you’re confused, print out the above and put it in a prominent place. Or you can bookmark my handy cheat sheet on when to use apostrophes to show possession. It’s better to be questioned about why your memory is poor than ridiculed because your web copy is full of errors.


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