Tuesday, 23 November 2010
Some people struggle with apostrophes. Others get very cross about that. I made a whole programme about apostrophes once, for BBC 4. (I don’t think it troubled the ratings of Eastenders that night). The programme was called The Pedants Revolt. At least, I think it was. As I remember, it was that: a sentence with a verb in it, meaning the pedants are in the act of revolting. But it’s possible the title was The Pedants’ Revolt, which would be a title rather than a sentence, because it would not have a verb in it; ‘revolt’ would then be a noun, a revolt belonging to the pedants. Such is the power of the apostrophe. Were there only one pedant, it would be The Pedant’s Revolt. But I think, if there had been only one pedant, we probably wouldn’t have got a commission from BBC 4. It was marginal enough anyway.
People make mistakes; fair enough. Brains are wired in different ways. I am usually all right on spelling and grammar, but I’m sketchy about knowing left from right and I once got lost in a small, square car park.
Broad rule of thumb: apostrophes either replace missing letters (eg. “He’s going to the shop”: the apostrophe replaces a missing space and a letter i) or they indicate a possessive (eg. “John’s book”, the book belonging to John, in which no letter is missing). The most common mistake is the traditional “grocer’s apostrophe”, an apostrophe added in to a plural, where they are never needed. (“Cabbage’s”, ugh ugh, no apostrophe required there.) “Potato’s” would be all right - one might suspect that this is simply combining a spelling mistake with a bad apostrophe, but technically the ’ could be replacing an e.
Anyway, you don’t need apostrophes when you’re simply adding a letter s to make a plural. Some people don’t know that, or aren’t sure; it’s not evil. Each to his own area of confusion. I once drove from Los Angeles to Las Vegas, setting off at 9am from the outskirts of Los Angeles and arriving, exhausted, eight hours later, on the outskirts of Los Angeles.
But what on earth was going on in the mind of the man who runs a furniture shop under the arches at Kings Cross? Surely you either make the mistake of thinking that plurals carry apostrophes, or you know that they don’t. Did he think, as he put the finishing touches to this beautiful sign, that some nouns are different from others? Or was he simply admitting to himself that he’s not sure of the rule so, opting for this decision, at least he couldn’t be 100% wrong?