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A vintage photo of a chimpanzee at a typewriter.

The infinite monkey theorem states that, given enough time, a hypothetical monkey typing at random would, as part of its output, almost surely produce the complete works of Shakespeare. (Even if this was possible, he would surely need an editor!) In this vintage image, a chimpanzee (which, by the way, is an ape, not a monkey) is giving it a go.

The Greengrocer’s Apostrophe

How should you use the apostrophe?

It is one of those points you do not want to miss in writing or translating to English. In fact, a surprising number of English-speaking people do not seem to know, as can be seen by the number of mistakes in shop signs and advertisements. Some of the worst culprits are allegedly greengrocers, hence the expression the "greengrocer’s apostrophe." Signs can frequently be seen advertising tasty apple’s, juicy pear’s, or the best banana’s. However, greengrocers are not the only ones to get it wrong. Here are a few more real-life examples of incorrect usage:

  • Open Sunday’s.
  • New CD’s just in.
  • Ideal for heaters, lighting, TV’s, radio’s, and other appliances.
  • Menu’s printed.

There is even an association called The Apostrophe Protection Society, set up in 2001, with the aim of tracking down examples of misuse and reminding people of the rules for using apostrophes.

Perhaps it is hardly surprising that foreign speakers have problems with the apostrophe, if the British or Americans can’t get it right!

So what is the rule? It’s really quite simple.

An apostrophe should be used in two cases:

  • To indicate missing letters: I don’t know the answer (I do not know); I’m afraid I can’t make the meeting (I am afraid I cannot...); It’s really quite simple (it is)
  • To denote possession: the dog’s bone, the president’s men, the company’s policies, our competitor’s products

Note that:

  • In the plural, the possessive apostrophe is placed after the –s: the dogs’ bone (more than one dog), the companies’ policies (more than one company)
  • An apostrophe is not used with "it": This is in its best interest; It is its best offer
  • What about names that end in –s? There is no hard and fast rule here. It is usual to add –’s after the first –s, for example: Mr. Jones’s speech, St. James’s Street. However, it has also become accepted practice to simply add an apostrophe (Dickens’ novels).

An apostrophe is NEVER used when the –s simply indicates the plural form of a noun!

Hence, the greengrocer sells "tasty apples, juicy pears, and the best bananas." And the other examples of incorrect usage given at the beginning of this article should read:

  • Open Sundays.
  • New CDs just in.
  • Ideal for heaters, lighting, TVs, radios, and other appliances.
  • Menus printed.

One last point: be careful when using your and you’re. Confusion is easy, as they sound the same.

Your is possessive: this is your pen.

You’re is a contraction of "you are": you’re right about that.

And beware—hunting down examples of incorrectly used apostrophes can become quite addictive!

About the Author

J. McCorquodale is a linguist writing about languages in English, French, and Italian. She acts as a legal translator with Tectrad, a professional translation service group specializing in English to Spanish and English to French translation and Web site translation.

Avoid an Apostrophe Catastrophe!

Misplaced apostrophes are the most common error we see in our clients’ papers. Let us take the guesswork out of where they should go. Our editors can help you present a clean, well-edited paper to your audience. E-mail editor@compassrose.com with the details of your paper, and we will work with you to improve your writing and presentation.

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