You may have heard people talking about “grocers’ apostrophes”. You will almost certainly have seen many of them. You may not quite know what they are.
The expression arose in the mid-20th century in response to greengrocers’ signs advertising:
I once even saw a café advertising sandwiche’s.
The problem – of which greengrocers are allegedly unaware – is that the apostrophes in the examples above are, specifically, possessive apostrophes. They indicate ownership. Strictly speaking, the sign is informing us that one of the apples owns a 20p coin and that the wealthy tomatoes collectively own a £20 note. In each case, no apostrophe is necessary at all.
Greengrocers, no doubt unfairly in most cases, are therefore effectively being accused of not really understanding punctuation and throwing in apostrophes to try to look academic. (It’s a bit like dropping Latin phrases into a weak argument. You think you might sound clever and you hope no one will notice that you’re talking rubbish. I do it all the time.) Our much-maligned greengrocers are accused of thinking that anyone using apostrophes liberally must look well-educated. So they just hurl them in wherever they can. After all, like parsnips, apostrophes are free.
So what do our greengrocers need to learn about punctuation? Well, if we only have a group of grocers, then that’s fine – we need no apostrophes at all. Nobody possesses anything. If one, but only one, of those grocers owns a shop, then we have the grocer’s shop. The possessive apostrophe follows the grocer who owns the shop. If some or all of the grocers own shops, we have the grocers’ shops. The possessive apostrophe needs to follow all the grocers. (In the unlikely situation that these grocers collectively own a single shop, we therefore have the grocers’ shop.)
Of course, many people argue that such pedantic punctuation is irrelevant. Surely the sign is perfectly clear? We all know what the grocer means, and isn’t that ultimately the point of language and punctuation – to communicate clearly, in whatever way works best for you? In the end, if the grocer’s tomatoes taste nice, what does it matter about his apostrophes?