This simple construction is enough to cause a near-fatal case of conniptions for a great many people. Including your customers.
Never mind that the pile of cabbages into which it is jammed is clearly just that.
Never mind that it is perfectly possible to buy said vegetables without having a correctly punctuated sign attached.
Never mind that the person who wrote it left school without any qualifications in English.
IT. IS. WRONG.
Is what they cry.
(Not the market-stallholders: they cry, “Camondarlinfreecabbagizapahnd!)
So let’s get the dreaded apostrophe sorted once and for all.
First of all, how many uses does it have?
First use: to indicate possession
When it comes to forming the possessive case, your biggest and best friend is this simple rule:
You form the possessive by adding apostrophe + s except for plurals ending in s, where you just add an apostrophe.
So that gives us:
The dog’s bowl.
The oxen’s cart.
The brethren’s meeting house.
The chickens’ run.
Well, it wouldn’t be a rule of English grammar without exceptions, now would it?
These pronouns don’t take an apostrophe to form the possessive:
Nor do archaic names:
Second use: to indicate missing letters in contractions
In theory, this should be easy. There are no exceptions.
When people include this type of #apostrofail in their writing it’s usually because of carelessness rather than ignorance.
So, it’s a shame there’s no magic wand we’re able to wave so we don’t mess it up. If there were, we couldn’t, shouldn’t or wouldn’t be blamed for its use.
In formal English you should stick to standard contractions. Do not create your own. But in dialogue, flippant or informal writing (blogging, perhaps) you have more leeway.
You could write:
You know what you need, mate? Some ’elp with your stra’egic plannin’. ’s all right, I’ll do it.
I’m not sure why you would, but I think it would be OK.
Third use: to avoid confusion when pluralising certain words or letters
How many is can you see in the headline above?
How many his were uttered during the meet ‘n’ greet?
I counted four tos, three hes and five bes in your opening paragraph.
To clarify your meaning, which, after all, is the purpose of punctuation, it’s OK to write
How many i’s can you see in the headline above?
How many hi’s were uttered during the meet ‘n’ greet?
I counted four to’s, three he’s and five be’s in your opening paragraph.
Of course, you could also capitalise the pluralised words, enclose them in speech marks or use bold or italic type, but the single apostrophe is the least intrusive.
Incidentally, this is where you get the answer to that old cliché: the list of do’s and don’t’s.
Fourth use: in temporal expressions
New Snitex offers 24 hours’ hayfever relief.
The Mazmobile comes with five years’ free servicing.
He did three weeks’ voluntary work.
These are all examples of temporal expressions, where the noun-phrase at the end – hayfever relief, free servicing, voluntary work – “belongs” to the time-phrase that precedes it.
Fifth use: in decades
Did the Beatles come to prominence in the 1960s? Or was it the 1960’s?
It was the 1960s. (Unless you are following outdated US style.)
But were you working in the ’90s? I hope so.
And I’m telling you this because
Nothing will set a pedant’s nose twitching faster than a misplaced apostrophe.
Whether it matters in context is beside the point.
Many people, on spotting an error of punctuation (and errors involving the apostrophe are among the easiest of all to spot), will immediately pass judgement on the writer. It is rarely favourable.
If you are selling, pitching or persuading, distracting your reader is never a good plan.
Nor is leading them to form the conclusion that you are an idiot, shyster or hack.
So keep your reader focused on your message by getting your apostrophes in the right place.