What is the greengrocer's apostrophe?

The ‘greengrocer’s apostrophe’ is what grammar snobs call an apostrophe that’s in the wrong place. The poor greengrocer got lumped with this name because greengrocers used to write the prices of their produce on hand-written signs…and they sometimes used apostrophes that weren’t neccessary.

What is the greengrocer's apostrophe?

Grammar snobs not welcome here!

A sign on bananas for sale says 'Best Banana's 110/kilo'

Grammar snobs tend to think an apostrophe in the wrong place is an indication the person is ignorant or uneducated. They want to take a marker to the signs to correct them for the good of civil society. I’m a bit more relaxed about it. I think it’s a reminder that everyone has their own set of skills. Just because I know something, it doesn’t mean that everyone else has to know it too. Greengrocers 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 because they can tell me how long that juicy pineapple I’ve just bought is going to take to ripen up at home.

Why do apostrophes matter?

Apostrophes do matter when it comes to business or professional writing, where the writing itself and the ideas it contains are important. Knowing when to use apostrophes can help with understanding, so if you write for work, it’s a good idea to learn how to use them.

When do you use apostrophes?

Apostrophes are used to indicate:

  • possession
  • shortened forms
  • unusual plurals.

How apostrophes show possession

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

White text on a dark teal background reads: '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.

Where most people get confused is when to use an apostrophe to indicate that more than one person owns the item in question, and what to do about words already ending in ‘s’. That’s why I’ve created a handy cheat sheet on when to use apostrophes to show possession. Download it and display it loud and proud in your office. It’s much better to have people question your poor memory than to be told three weeks after you’ve published a website page that it’s full of errors.

How apostrophes 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:

White text on a teal background readss: It's my turn to choose the movie' is a contraction of: 'It is my turn to choose the movie'. Similarly, 'Let's eat pasta for dinner' is a contraction of: 'Let us eat pasta for dinner'. And, 'Tis a lovely day!' 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), wouldn’t’ve (would not have), haven’t (have not), and should’ve (should have).

How apostrophes show unusual plurals

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.

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

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, but it’s not really ‘mission critical’ in this instance. Where it does matter, though, is in business writing.

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.

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