John Larrysson Column: The Apostrophe ' (Part 2, The Messy Part)

Last week we covered the standard rules for using an apostrophe. To show ownership, or association, and shortened words. We also covered the conflict between its and it's. As usual in English there are messy exceptions.

The Greengrocer's Apostrophe

Many UK shop owners put "banana's" and "potatoe's" on boxes of their fruits or vegetables. This appears to be clearly wrong. Why is it so common? Long ago in the days before English words had standard spellings, punctuation had also not been standardised. Then it was not incorrect, as the rules were not firm, to label a box of bananas as "banana's". The descendants of many of those people still use this form. It is not strictly wrong for a UK shopkeeper to write this way, but it is historical and not standard English. In Hong Kong English labelling a box of potatoes "potatoe's" is an error.

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Awkward Plurals

There are a few situations where you can use an apostrophe to form a plural, like the greengrocer's apostrophe. These are done to make writing clearer when there is no better choice.

Use an apostrophe to show the plural of single letters:


Be careful of your p's and q's.1



I got all A's on my report card.


Use an apostrophe to show the plural of numbers:


There are 3 number 7's in his phone number.



1) A student that has great trouble telling these two letters apart may be suffering from a specific learning disability called dyslexia. Specialised professional help can easily mean the difference between a future with a university degree or not even finishing secondary school. (This may or may not be the origin of the phrase; there are differing opinions)


These are exceptions. Normally an apostrophe should not be used in the plural of ordinary nouns.

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Usually names follow the same apostrophe rules as other words. Sometimes when a name ends with an s and apostrophe plus an s is used when the possessive form of the name is spoken with an extra s. Names that end in s, but without an extra spoken s sound use an apostrophe after the s to show ownership.


My teacher likes Dickens's stories.



Thomas's homework was copied.



There are three James's in my class. (Jameses is also used, but much less commonly.)



Connors' finest performance was in 1991.



Wilsons' project got an A.


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Place names may follow an older use of an apostrophe, especially in England. Even there people disagree about apostrophe use.


I live near St James' Park.



St Paul's Square in Birmingham was renamed St Pauls Square.



Battle Bridge is in Kings Cross, London.



Mr. Harrod's department store is called Harrods.


These names do not always use apostrophes in the same way and you need to follow whatever the person whose name it is normally does or however the place name is normally written by the people who live there. Google them and use whatever they use.

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The Apostrophe ' (Part 1, The Simple Part)

by John Larrysson

[email protected]

A native English speaker who has been teaching practical English in Hong Kong for more than a decade.