Victoria Coren Mitchell - Writer, Broadcaster & Poker Player

Grammatical Nightmares

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?


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Steven McG at 5:14 pm on November 23rd, 2010

I have always found this cartoon - - useful for working out the correct use of apostrophes.

palladian at 6:59 pm on November 23rd, 2010

‘eg.’ - Mais non! Any contraction of exempli gratia requires ‘e.g.’ :)

dg at 7:20 pm on November 23rd, 2010

One word:


What’s that all about? Its clearly got it’s own rules, presumably as a test to see if you were paying attention at school.

Supposing he has a brochure featuring various radiator cabinet designs and one book case. The radiator cabinets are made to order. Oh, and the book case is made to order, too.

I imagine that’s what he was thinking.

FMD at 7:27 pm on November 23rd, 2010

Thanks for the lesson, Miss.

I can’t actually remember having any grammar lessons; although I must have?

Whilst having made an effort to get this basic concept down pat, I know I’m prone to making embarrassing apostrophe mistakes if I’m not paying attention. Singulars that end in an s still normally induce at least a nanosecond of contemplation on apostrophe usage…

I did learn my left and right though, by holding hands up to the TV screen when “Play School” was covering it and noting that my right hand had a mark on it. I’m proud, it’s served me well.

PS. Whilst writing this I recalled you were actually in my dream, Victoria! And funnily enough you said I was great at something(?) but my spelling was atrocious, I argued back that my spelling was great but grammar was atrocious… XD

AndytheDealer at 8:11 pm on November 23rd, 2010

It’s not the apostrophe he’s having problems with, it’s his spelling.  He thinks bookcases are spelled BOOK CASEEES and he’s using the apostrophe to indicate the missing e’s due to space constraints.  Personally I have no problem with the use of apostrophe’s whatsoever.

Nick at 8:21 pm on November 23rd, 2010

Maybe he thought you only needed it with words that end in a vowel?

There used to be a shop near here called Heroe’s, which was a particular favourite for doing so much right and then getting it wrong.

The Tim at 8:28 pm on November 23rd, 2010

Perhaps Mr. Case was a pimp and he spelt ‘maid’ incorrectly.

I really liked TPR. It finished with Julian Fellowes (I think) listening to Dad’s Army (which must have belonged to one Dad) and screaming “It should be ‘Whom do you think you are kidding’.” There was also that series ‘Never Mind the Full Stops’ which JF presented. Didn’t you appear on that once?

Also, why Kings Cross and not King’s Cross, or Kings’ Cross. Kings cross states that male monarchs are transiting an unstated object or place. There’s also Barons Court, which presumably means that two or more noblemen are engaging in some kind of lurid outdoor activity (though I’m told that the name for the station was made up to make it compete with Earl’s Court.

Matt Black at 9:08 pm on November 23rd, 2010

I was never usually one to worry too much about the humble apostrophe. Then I learnt the word “fo’c'sle”.

VM at 10:43 pm on November 23rd, 2010

Quote of the day: ‘

You took a terrible beat in the tournament Sunday where your set of 8s lost to pocket 3s when four hearts came on board, giving the other player a flush.

By the way, is there any where I can buy a copy of For Richer, for Poorer: A Love Affair with Poker with you narrating the whole book? That would be awesome. I heard you narrate parts of the book and really enjoyed it. It’d be cool if you could narrate all my favorite books, but I guess that’s unrealistic.

You rock.

Mike at 10:43 pm on November 23rd, 2010

So what about something like saying it is Christine’s birthday, and she is called Chris for short.  Do I say it is Chris’s birthday or Chris’ birthday?  As the birthday belongs to Chris then surely it should be Chris’s birthday because it needs to be possessive., but I have a feeling that I have got that wrong; whereas to say that it is Vicky’s birthday would be the correct grammar because the word Vicky on its own does not end in an S, so to make it possessive requires an apostrophe S at the end.

Incidentally it is neither Christine’s birthday nor yours, so I am wrong anyway. Help!

Ron Heywood at 11:32 pm on November 23rd, 2010

The oatmeal guide is beautifully drawn, but the original Bob the Angry flower strip is the one I always refer to

leelee at 12:34 am on November 24th, 2010

Hello victoria i love watching only connect, must admit that i am not the smartest human,  its very educational and the opening theme tune is nice.

Victoria Coren at 1:42 am on November 24th, 2010

There are some very funny comments on this thread - I’m delighted to find you all so inspired by a grammatical theme!

VM, there is no recording of my book For Richer, For Poorer, only the book itself. It’s my voice, but not out loud…

Kim G at 2:09 am on November 24th, 2010

On a practical level there is clearly room for an apostrophe on the right hand sign, if you’re writing “radiator cabinets” there’s no such luxury. And if you’ve gt room fr one you might as well stick it in, it annoys the pedant’s. ;)

And to add to the confusion the iPhone now adds them in at random.

The road to he’ll is paved with autocorrections.

Chris at 5:44 am on November 24th, 2010

‘Here endith the lesson’ then.. Very informative VC. Of course when spelling and grammar now take such a low priority in general education (word processing being perceived as taking the strain from our tiny minds and text speak acceptably bastardising almost every word) then frankly my dear..should we give a damn? Anyway if N.Korea have their way we’ll all be worrying about something else soon!

The Tim at 9:58 am on November 24th, 2010

So, Victoria Coren, did you get an invite to the Royal Wedding? - Mine must have got lost in the post.

ayeeighohyou at 11:55 am on November 24th, 2010

Pedant(’)s are miserable, whiny fascists who had no friends at school.

jim carr at 12:01 pm on November 24th, 2010

Victoria, a tip to help you tell left from right. If you think STALIN was ok, despite the fact that he murdered millions of his own citizens, then you are on the LEFT. However,if you think MUSSOLINI was a good chap,because he made the trains run on time, you are on the RIGHT. I hope this will help you next time you are dazed and confused in HARRODS.  xx jim.

Annie at 4:04 pm on November 24th, 2010

Give him the benefit of the doubt:  he means ‘Book case is made to order’, although he’s missing the indefinite article. Also, put like that it sounds as though it’s an aside, rather than the main point of the shop: ‘A book case is made to order [if you want one]’.

I hate myself.

dg at 8:46 pm on November 24th, 2010

@jim carr ...but MUSSOLINI has an L in it, and no R’s. I don’t understand. How does this mnemonic work?

(Incidentally, there was a point in this post where I found that cartoon of Steven’s useful. See if you can guess where…)

@ayeeighohyou well, trolls are… ahh, whatever…

Alan C at 9:10 pm on November 24th, 2010

Thanks V. 
Although I would like to know what ‘G is made to size’  on the right hand side means,  the mind boggles.

This takes me back to last year when I sat an English exam and had to check all the grammatical errors in the text (forgotten it all now).

Is this the start of a new theme in your Blog where you set english grammar lessons for us? 
You could mark our results and issue appropriate punishment for our errors like a strict school mistress.
You could be Miss Vicky Whiplash.
xx Alan

Wildride at 11:46 pm on November 24th, 2010

3 reasons for apostrophes (in common use):
1) Contraction
2) Possession
3) Look out! Here comes an “s”

Although the third is deprecated. Oh and Chris’ and Chris’s are both fine.  And the plural is Chrises’—I think.

A Vote for Vicky 'Whiplash' Coren! at 4:01 am on November 25th, 2010

I’d just like to endorse Wildrides fantasy image and ask what you’d like for Christmas this year VC? A cat’o nine tails perhaps? ..Oops me apostrophe’s moved!

N b N at 2:02 pm on November 25th, 2010

I think you must’ve had something of an old-fashioned, (non-constructionist) type of education.

It isn’t very postmodern to say whether he’s right or wrong.  In fact doublethink is an important skill.  I think the question must need to be reframed.

It’s time for change.  Based on consensus, dusty old ‘rules’ should not interfere with the innovative development and progressive interpretation of a living language which must evolve to meet the demands of a dynamic new age.

We’re all in it together.

(I hope the proper sarcasm is being conveyed with this!)

KlooRhee at 3:58 pm on November 25th, 2010

Thanks’re Victoria’s(?). Finally something that makes sense. Im still struggling.

John at 4:57 pm on November 25th, 2010

I like to punctuate although I sometimes get it wrong.  And, as I think you recently pointed out -  Jane Austen appeared to use little more than the odd dash in her work. So… : being a relatively young discipline should it really be set in stone?  The evolution of speech is actively encouraged, monitored and recorded ;: shouldn’t the use of colons and commas follow suit?  But then the words ‘Rules’, ‘France’, and ‘The Pub Landlord’ spring to mind, and I know which way I have to lean.

GT at 5:01 pm on November 25th, 2010

I did that road trip from LA to Vegas many years ago and apart from a half hour stop to eat a dried up burrito in Barstow it took about 8 - 9 hours - about 6 of them trying to find a way out of LA.

By the way if you can’t tell your left from right it sounds to me like your perfectly qualified to be Deputy Prime Minister..I’m sure you’d do a better job :-)

John Robertson at 5:18 pm on November 25th, 2010

Stephen Fry, on an old episode of ‘QI’ said he didn’t understand why people get so excited about apostrophes. I was a bit surprised at that because they do alter the meaning, a lot of the time. It seemed to me to be like saying it doesn’t matter whether you spell ‘bell’ with a ‘b’ or an ‘h’.

The one that drives me excessively crazy is decades. “Back in the 60’s”

You only have to spell it out. Not many people would write “back in the sixtie’s”

Annie at 11:56 pm on November 25th, 2010

John Robertson: I hate myself; I love you.

I’m (not) easy (but…).

Darren Knowles at 12:47 pm on November 26th, 2010

Ahhh yes… I love a lady who knows how to correctly utilise an apostrophe!... and is witty, intellectual, good at poker… basically, I’m happily intimidated by Vicky Coren.

Jools at 3:09 pm on November 26th, 2010

I notice most grocers’ apostrophes happen with words ending in a vowel.  I have no idea why this is.  I bet some linguist somewhere has researched the topic.

I’ve always promised that if I ever have a huge lottery win, I’ll take out a series of commercials in a prime time slot with some basic literacy pointers… I’d be willing to bet a lot of people wonder whether they’re doing it right but are afraid to ask.

Amanda at 9:32 pm on November 26th, 2010

He thought he was safe by forming a career of banging in nails, but no. The bits he wasn’t quite sure about during the furniture maker’s education are now illuminated on the web.

He thought the sign-writer was the one with the O Levels.

If grammar is just a snapshot in time of common understanding why is it King’s Lynn but Haywards Heath?

Lego at 2:37 am on November 27th, 2010


Ah yes, grammar. You know, I reckon I’d be a highly paid Daily Fail columnist by now, banging on about “forrins” and “scroungers” with some “facts” I’d just made up off the top of my head 5 minutes earlier, if I was half decent at English and grammar. But alas, no, my brain was born be more than a touch on random side, and to fail at grammar.

I’m probably at my worst when I batter out one of my epically long, rambling comments, which I’m trying to do as fast as possible to kid myself I’m not wasting my life not getting paid to write, epically long, rambling comments.

I’m definitely a bit random with apostrophes (although I do correct if I do a proper proof read). Weirdest one I do is “get’s” instead of “gets.” ?!? you might say. I agree.

FMD at 8:31 am on November 27th, 2010

I lay the blame for a bad sign squarely at the feet of the business: 1) for accepting the sign, 2) for displaying the sign, 3) sign writers often use the exact copy the client gives them, even though they know it contains grammatical errors…

Alan C said: “Although I would like to know what ‘G is made to size’  on the right hand side means,  the mind boggles.”

In order to avoid that nasty issue of the apostrophe they eschewed using “bookshelves” and opted to create a new word: “bookshelving”. That is what the sign says.

As they have competently used spaces on the other signs I conclude that “bookshelving” is deliberate, and not meant to be “book shelving” or “book-shelving”...

FMD at 8:35 am on November 27th, 2010

Oh yeah, Victoria, I forgot that I had the following exchange with a Twitter Bod after you brought the issue to light.

FMD: You don’t seem to be aware that “Who To Follow” should be “Whom To Follow”? Standards please!

Twitter Bod: That’s a totally valid remark. We are actually aware of it and are thinking of a better way to say this.

This was weeks/months ago, so clearly they are very slow thinkers…

MarkP at 10:30 pm on November 27th, 2010

I think I’ve said this before but it’s worth repeating. I unfortunately received an inner city 1970’s comprehensive education, this meant we didn’t do grammar or even Shakespeare instead preferring Stan Barstow or Alan Sillitoe. When it came to poetry we copied out Beatles lyrics.
It was your program that persuaded me it was time to try and do something about it. I now have a good idea where and when apostrophes should be used but I still couldn’t tell you the difference between a noun and a pronoun (does that really matter?). Thank you Vicky for making the subject of grammar so interesting.

michael at 11:12 pm on November 27th, 2010

Maybe the sign writer had a spare apostrophe and had nowhere else to put it ?

Jak Daly at 4:29 pm on November 28th, 2010

Hey Vicky first read of your blog and your site, always follow you on the poker scene, but never knew how rounded you were as an individual.
But I have an issue with the word its. The apostrophe isn’t there like it is in the word isn’t but is returned for the fact that it has become posessive. But then my teachers always correct it so where does that leave me.

JD (ladman)

Victoria Coren at 12:19 pm on November 29th, 2010

Hi JD. When “its” is a possessive, that’s when you DON’T have the apostrophe. (“The cat enjoys sitting in its basket”.) The apostrophe goes into “it’s” to replace missing letters - “It’s a nice day” (replacing ‘it is’) or “It’s got to be Katie who gets evicted tonight” (replacing ‘it has’.)

  But, you know.. if you get it wrong, people will still know what you mean!

Duffer at 1:12 pm on November 29th, 2010

Of course, the absolute authority on matters such as these is Lynne Trus’s…

jim carr at 3:34 pm on November 29th, 2010

hello victoria, it’s monday,and it"s ONLY CONNECT time again,and as it’s my favourite quiz, it’s no surprise i’m looking forward to 830PM. it’s been lovely reading your blog,and very educational, it’s been nearly 50 years since i got my GCSE english language, so i was in need of refreshment! xx jim

Arkady at 12:03 am on November 30th, 2010

Here’s my goto cartoon for apostrophes (specifically: “your” vs “you’re”):

Also, if the introduction to today’s Only Connect is accurate, you’re a very eloquent drunk: you didn’t slur your words at all!

Jack Daly at 5:22 pm on November 30th, 2010

Hey its me again hoping you see this as its too long for a tweet, although it may seem unrelated, in which case I’ll try and include an its.
Basically I’m 17 and have been playing online poker for years with moderate success in the last. I have since been banned by my parents from playing in the house due to school results etc.. etc.. blah… blah… Since this I have played very little and when I have its been in the early hours in my bedroom on my laptop. My question is when I turn 18 do i proceed this way and go to casino/poker rooms or just never play again.


Victoria Coren at 1:37 am on December 1st, 2010

Hi Jack. I can’t answer that question for you. If you want to play poker when you leave school, my advice would be

1) Get a job so you have a safe source of income and a back-up.

2) Play only for sums you can easily afford, whether online or live.

3) If you keep losing, then either make poker a casual hobby where you accept losing small sums for the fun of playing, or stop and find something else you enjoy.

But I can’t tell you whether you SHOULD play poker or not, that’s up to you. All I can say is: if you do play, play sensibly, and don’t do it too much of the time unless you’re a solid, regular winning player.

Jack Daly at 9:42 am on December 1st, 2010

Thanks a lot, I will take that on board, I do play with a quite strict BRM. I just wish I could play cash (I suck at cash) as MTT’s require long time commitments.

The Tim at 12:44 pm on December 1st, 2010

You’ll make a great mother, VC.

FMD at 5:55 pm on December 1st, 2010

Victoria, the program you mentioned is available online:

I enjoyed it.

In what appeared to be the title sequence it showed, perhaps ironically, “The Pendant’s Revolt” as the title! (But I may be mistaken in thinking that was the title sequence.)

Re. St John’s College, Oxford: it would be a crying shame if you weren’t on the University Challenge team, Victoria!

Pete Kimberley at 1:02 pm on December 2nd, 2010

The French are great with creative apostrophe use - my favourite was a store selling children’s clothes - it was named ‘Ti’Chou - with 2 apostrophes - no doubt a contraction of “Petit Chou” - small cabbage, a term of endearment.


CasusBell15 at 2:59 pm on December 2nd, 2010

@ The Tim; Re your 9.28pm post. in future I will endeavour not to be drinking tea when I read your future posts. My screen needs a wipe now.

The Tim at 7:07 pm on December 2nd, 2010

Before we finally move onto another thread, another common error people make with is with St. John Ambulance - most people try and put an apostropohe in - but there ain’t one. (I only thought of it as I’ve just recieved a booklet from them.)

KenSingtone at 12:41 am on January 27th, 2011

FMD: Thanks for link to The Pedants’ Revolt.  I missed the broadcast though I think remember seeing a trailer.
This is a real gem, and filmed at places familiar to me at the time, so particularly poignant. 
Alan Coren must have been so proud of his daughter (well I know I would have been).

Victoria, confusion over your left and right?  Unless you are ambidexterous, right is the hand that holds your pen (there is a shot of you using a pen right-handed in The Pedants’ Revolt).  Forgotten pens in this computer age? You could try left: begins line of text, right: end of line.  Or if you know your QWERTY keyboard layout and some Latin, the letters S(inister) D(exter) occur in the correct configuration in the second row.

Wolf cub at 12:07 am on February 6th, 2012

Thank you for the lesson! I like teachers.
Do you only use a ’ if it’s a quote within a quote?
It’s hard to know whether to use a ; or – isn’t it
Do you think she ever told her husband?
Because they can both carry on sentences can’t they?
Alone in my catch-up lesson, Bartok was proving tricky. Over my shoulder she guided me; her soft voice made me tingle. ”I know you’ve been lusting me. There’s so much sadness in your eyes” At the table…OVER the table. She welcomed me into manhood. Maybe she did tell him, in GRAPHIC detail. Maybe that’s their ‘thing’. Do you have a ‘thing’? I like ‘things’. I guess I can just look back on it as a fun experience… the only problem is, it’s been 5 years now and I still can’t stop thinking about her.
I like teachers.

Victoria Coren

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