"greengrocer's apostrophe" (was Re: Cam(pb)ell)

Arnold Zwicky zwicky at CSLI.STANFORD.EDU
Fri Aug 4 17:16:07 UTC 2000

james smith:

 I understand what a greengrocer is, and figured out
 what a greengrocer's apostrophe is.  What isn't clear:
 is this peculiar to greengrocers only,

by no means.  the name "greengrocer's apostrophe" merely suggests that
greengrocers' signs are a common habitat for this particular species
of apostrophe.

 is this common to all merchants,

very common in advertising designed by merchants themselves.

 or is this use so common or widespread
 throughout all aspects of writing and
 printing in England

it is widespread indeed in the writing of ordinary people, people
who are not (in some sense) professional writers.  and not just
in england.  for a while i was collecting examples from student
papers in linguistics courses at ohio state, but they were just
*too* frequent [note "usenet asterisks" for emphasis] for me to
cope with.

 that it is considered an accepted
 use of the apostrophe?

no, not in serious/professional/formal writing contexts, where it
universally counts as an error to be corrected before publication
(except in certain special circumstances, like the pluralization
of letter names and numbers, where some or all style books call for
an apostrophe).

on the other hand, in what you might call "vernacular spelling", the
greengrocer's apostrophe is so common, as a variant of the
unpunctuated plural (i haven't come across a writer who uses
apostrophe+S as mark of the plural 100% of the time it's
available[1]), that it would be reasonable to think of it as part of
norms for vernacular written english.

in any case, the greengrocer's apostrophe seems so natural to so
many writers of english - it's not the result of some sort of lapse
of attention - that an account is called for.  whatever its historical
source might have been, it seems to fit right into the system of
vernacular spelling.

my hypothesis is that once writers have learned the use of
apostrophe+S to mark the possessive, they generalize it from this one
grammatical function with nouns to *all* grammatical functions of S
with nouns (plural as well as possessive), and even to all grammatical
functions of S (including the 3rd singular present with verbs - my
ohio state data include things like "Mrs. Haas want's cheerleaders"
[note unpunctuated plural!]).  note that to do this, writers must
tacitly appreciate the notion of "grammatical function", since they
distinguish word-final S that is grammatically significant from other
instances of word-final S: there's no tendency to spell KISS as KIS'S,
PERHAPS as PERHAP'S, not to mention NERVOUS as NERVOU'S or PUS as
PU'S.  as usual, to make a common "error", you have to understand
quite a bit about the structure of the language (and, also, in this
case, something about the spelling system).

[1] for most vernacular writers, apostrophe+S seems not to be
available for pluralizing words that end in S: CLASS'S for CLASSES
is rare.  on the other hand, HORSE'S for HORSES is common, so this
is entirely a matter of spelling, not pronunciation.  i don't know
what the facts are for words ending in SH, CH, TCH, etc.: ?BUSH'S,
?PEACH'S, ?BATCH'S.  surely someone has studied this.

arnold (zwicky at csli.stanford.edu)

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