Considering it is no more than a squiggle – a comma suspended in mid-air – it’s amazing how much trouble the humble apostrophe can cause. Most commonly used with an ‘s’, it can wreak grammatical havoc in a number of ways – by being on the wrong side of the ‘s’, by being absent, or just by being there…
Of course, when the apostrophe is before the ‘s’ it is referring to the singular, and after the ‘s’ to the plural. But how often it turns up in the wrong place! A recent article in my local paper referred to ‘the local boy’s school’ being 100 years old. Incredible it’s survived so long in these days of austerity, staying open for just one local boy! In another paper was reported a crisis in staffing for the hospital’s ‘outpatient’s department’. Crisis indeed if they can’t cope with one outpatient!
Sometimes it seems people aren’t sure which side of the ‘s’ to put that apostrophe, so they leave it out altogether. One good example is when we talk about something happening in the future; for example, ‘three days time’ instead of ‘three days’ time’. A good way to remember this is that we wouldn’t say ‘one days time’; it just wouldn’t be right, would it? So it must be ‘one day’s time’, and thus ‘three days’ time’. Another example is shops. Again, there are many who seem to use the rule ‘if in doubt, leave it out’ when dealing with apostrophes. So we go to the butchers, or the grocers, not the butcher’s or the grocer’s (since we’re talking about the butcher’s shop, the grocer’s shop). But one can be forgiven for being confused here (is it the butchers’ shop or the grocers’ shop?). Actually, it’s probably easier to go to Sainsbury’s (but not Sainsburys!).
But it all balances out and these missing apostrophes always turn up in other places. Staying on the theme of food shopping, greengrocers for some reason seem to be particular culprits – blackboards outside greengrocers’ shops so often seem to advertise carrot’s, turnip’s or lettuce’s. But it’s not just the greengrocers, of course, and there are many other examples. Numbers are also seemingly not immune to apostrophes where they’re not needed: 0’s and 1’s instead of the perfectly reasonable 0s and 1s.
So, always make sure that all-important apostrophe’s there and in the right place if needed, and never where it has no business to be!
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