Watch What You Write: This page is devoted to defending the English language and encouraging disciplined writing. Our regular contributor will be Adrianne LeMan who will seize on sloppy writing and firmly remind us of the need to write correctly. However, we welcome other contributors. Just send your piece or any comments on what we have published to firstname.lastname@example.org
Plurals and possessives are a cause of much confusion in English – and there are no easy-to-follow rules.
Some words simply add an “s” to denote the plural – for example, girl to girls, boy to boys, house to houses; some insert an “e” – potato to potatoes, tomato to tomatoes; others make more substantial changes. For example, scarf changes to scarves, life to lives, person to people, lady to ladies; and some nouns, such as politics, are always plural (politic is an adjective and means prudent, which people in politics often are not!).
Never, ever, put an apostrophe in decades: it’s the 1990s, not the 1990’s, unless (and in English, there always seems to be an unless) you’re using it as a possessive – and possessives are an even bigger problem.
English is, I think, the only language to use apostrophes – ‘s (for singular) or s’ (for plural) – to denote ownership. It is much more fluent to say or write “The man’s hat blew off” than “The hat of the man blew off”, but it leads to a great deal of confusion and to the common use of what has become known as “the greengrocer’s apostrophe” (greengrocers seem to be particularly prone to labelling their goods “Fresh tomatoe’s”, instead of “Fresh tomatoes”, etc).
What is the easiest way to work out where the apostrophe goes? Turn the sentence around so that the noun is at the end; the apostrophe will follow the last letter of the noun. For example, “The homework of the girl” – one girl – is “The girl’s homework”, “The homework of the girls” – more than one – is “The girls’ homework”.
We also use apostrophes to indicate an elision (one or more missing letters): I’ve (I have), I’m (I am), wasn’t (was not), etc, and it’s (it is) – and with it’s we’re back to the confusion between possessives and plurals. It is a pronoun (like him and her) that is used to refer to an object or an animal; the plural is its, not it’s.
As you can see from the following pictures, the confusion about apostrophes is not recent. The person who owned the pie and mash shop was, undoubtedly called Clark. Strictly speaking, his shop sign should have read “Clark’s”, and the addition of the apostrophe wouldn’t have spoiled the sign. Similarly, I’m sure that the man who built the terrace in Islington, in 1824, was called Thomson…and how interesting that the stonemason added a pointless full point after the date.
Adrianne LeMan originally trained as a designer. She worked on the art desks of newspapers and magazines before moving on to work for, and run, design consultancies. Since 1992, when she founded her own business, she has also written and edited annual reports, websites, brochures, etc, for a wide range of major companies. She retired from her business in 2008 and now works as a freelance writer/editor – again working for major companies. She is interested in words: their use, and misuse, the way they are spelled and the way they look. She is also interested in the use, and misuse, of language, which should be clear and to the point. Adrianne has a post graduate degree in design from the Royal College of Art and an MA in Contemporary History and Politics from Birkbeck College, London University.