Copy-wise: Possessives, plurals and greengrocers

Copy-wise: Possessives, plurals and greengrocers

November 29, 2016


November 29, 2016


Copy-wise: Possessives, plurals and greengrocers


Tony Hallett
Managing director

Tony set up Collective Content in 2011 so brands can more easily become publishers and tell stories. This built on 15 years in media, from reporter to publishing director at Silicon Media Group, CNET Networks and CBS Interactive.

This post was first published on 11 January 2013.
Do you know your 1970’s from your 1970s?

Interesting as that decade was, the more observant among you will have noticed the use of an apostrophe in one rendering of 1970 above and not the other. That’s because this post – the latest in a series related to basic grammatical or stylistic pitfalls – is about the difference between plural and possessive words.

Or to put it another way: Beware the grocers’ apostrophe.

Plural or possessive

The grocers’ or greengrocers’ apostrophe relates to the practice of (some) high street sellers of fruit and veg writing signs such as Banana’s 10p each or Apple’s 80p/lb. Clearly there is no need for the apostrophe in these circumstances.

Similarly, we often come across individuals and companies only too happy to be trigger happy with this type of punctuation, just as they might be with capital letters.

Saying I worked at Microsoft in the 1990’s isn’t correct. Though perhaps you might have been 1990’s most valuable employee at Microsoft. Perhaps.
Getting this type of grammar wrong is a basic mistake. It looks bad everywhere, though arguably worst in corporate copy (websites, product details etc) or in an individual’s LinkedIn profile.

There are exceptions. Recently we mentioned the AP style guide recommends writing do’s and don’ts. It’s inconsistent and yes, that is a grocers’ apostrophe in do’s but they argue dos would look odd. So in rare cases you can make exceptions. (Collective Content prefers dos and don’ts, for the record.)

All this type of thing takes up pages of common sense guides such as Eats, Shoots and Leaves, which are well worth a read.

One area of confusion concerns the plural of proper nouns that end in an s. What is the plural of Moses? (Should you ever be casting a school play and look out to see a dozen young hopefuls dressed as the Old Testament figure.)

Just as we’d say the plural of Jones is Joneses (got that?), then it’d have to be Moseses. But some people would argue Moses’ – and there is no right answer.

Again, consistency is key.

One footnote – a cursory glance around the web tells us Tesco has been a well-known ‘offender’ when it comes to leaving out apostrophes altogether. (Aisles full of mens toiletries, childrens clothes and so on.) Aren’t they supposed to be one of the biggest grocers of all?
*photo credit: dickdotcom via photopin cc

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