Apostrophes in search of a greengrocer

Outside a shop in Woolhampton, Berkshire, just along the road from a highly recommended brasserie, well placed for travellers along the A4. 

But why no apostrophe for cake’s?

[Photograph by kind permission of my mobile phone.] 


22 Responses

  1. Ed Davies says:

    This is a job for the Apostrophe Protection Society. They’ve got a page for photographs like this. 

    Brian writes:  Thanks, Ed:  I didn’t know about this splendid society.  Unfortunately it’s no longer possible to send them photographs for their examples pages, but I have put a message on their message board with a link to this post with its picture.

    Incidentally, one of the examples on the Society’s website of an alleged mistake shows a notice with sections headed, respectively, don’ts and do’s.  I would defend do’s as a plural of do on the grounds that dos is unclear at first sight, suggesting an old-fashioned operating system rather than a plural form of ‘do’.  Burchfield’s Fowler notes that "From the 17C. onwards an apostrophe was often used in the plural number when the noun ended in a vowel, e.g. grotto’s, opera’s, toga’s.  Since the mid-19C., grammarians have condemned this use, but it continues to appear, to the amusement of educated people…".   In a very few cases, including do’s, where the absence of an apostrophe makes it difficult immediately to recognise the word as a plural, I would be inclined to swallow an apostrophe for the sake of clarity.

  2. Brian- Mind your ps and qs! 

    Brian writes:  This particular dilemma turns out to have spawned a huge volume of discussion on the web.  Such as:

    Incidentally, I see someone on your blog thinks p’s and q’s could be Ps and Qs. The expression is thought to derive from advice to printers’ apprentices to be careful not to get the lower case p confused with the lower case q  when setting type (which was done in mirror-image, of course). As such, it can’t sensibly be rendered in upper case.  (Paul Doherty, http://tinyurl.com/ekzdy)

    On balance I think I prefer ps and qs to p’s and q’s.  And there’s clearly nothing at all wrong with CDs, MPs, the 1900s, and so forth.  On the other hand, it would be hard to avoid the apostrophes in these examples:


    • I’ve dotted the i’s and crossed the t’s.
    • I cc’d him a copy.
    • He was KO’d in the third round.
    • A’s are good to get in exams.
    • There are four i’s and four s’s in Mississippi.

    Thanks to Paul Doherty for linking to that, too.

    These linguistic teasers always seem to attract far more comments than almost any politics!

  3. Baralbion says:

    You can sometimes get round the difficulty with capitals, as in "CDs". Ps and Qs perhaps? Or again, DOs and DON’Ts. No need, either, to write "1990’s" when you can write "1990s".

  4. Brian says:

    From Jane
    Why are greengrocers always blamed for superfluous apostrophes?  My father was a greengrocer and I’m pretty sure that his stall in Brixton Market would never have displayed such signs!

  5. Tim Weakley says:

    I notice the sign said PASTY’S and not PASTIES or even PASTIE’S.  Unfortunately, we can’t deconstruct the sign as referring to pasties and sandwiches manufactured by a Mr. Pie, or to Pie’s pasties and Sandwich’s (hot cross?) cakes.

  6. Baralbion says:

    A postscript, if I may be indulged.
    The Apostrophe Protection Society is not entirely aptly named. What the world needs are fewer, and better placed, apostrophes. For, strangely, people seem more often to commit the sin of commission than the sin of omission when it comes to apostrophes.
    My own limited and unscientific observations suggest there is a tendency to insert an otiose apostrophe when a word ends in a vowel. In practice, the insertion (or omission) does not often obscure meaning. It’s just that inconsistency is a distraction.

  7. Tim Weakley says:

    Ernest Gowers, The Complete Plain Words (1954 edition): 
    ‘Whether an apostrophe should be used to denote the plural of a word or symbol that does not ordinarily make a plural depends on whether the plural is readily recognisable as such.  Unless the reader really needs help it should not be thrust upon him.  It is clearly justified with single letters: "there are two o’s in woolly"; "mind your p’s and q’s".  Otherwise it is rarely called for.  It should not be used with contractions (e.g. M.P.s) or merely because what is put into the plural is not a noun.’
    A reminder of the form of abbreviations of 50 years ago, which I remember being taught: M.P.s, not MPs. 

  8. Peter Harvey says:

    I imagine that the answer to your question is that cake ends in a consonant sound, while pie and pasty end with vowels. The famous greeengrocer’s apostrophe makes its appearance in forms such as potato’s.

  9. bazza says:

    A taxi firm in this corner of Nottingham decorates its fleet of cars with, in very large lettering, "Quicks cab’s".  This is a case of the correct punctuation marks, not necessarily in the right places.

  10. Is English the only language that inflicts this wretched dot on it’s writers? AFAIR neither French nor Italian use  the  possessive apostrophe, though both use one to indicate a missing vowel.    

  11. Peter Harvey says:

    Tony, Catalan is like Fench and Italian in that regard
    — and those languages have written accents that show pronunciation
    differences and distinguish homographs and they have to be learnt, though not always perfectly. Spanish also has accents for homographs. German is not quite the same as English but does manage to say Peters Haus (Peter’s house) without the sky falling in.

  12. Baralbion says:

    I had been trying to remember a quotation pertinent to a discussion elsewhere on the site on the artistic validity of different styles of music. I found it on a Shakespeare concordance site and here it is:
    Is it not strange that sheeps’ guts should hale souls out of men’s bodies?
    We should need a scholar to tell us whether Shakespeare might actually have produced this inconsistent punctuation or whether it is the work of editors (or indeed a mistake on the part of the website creator). But it suggests that our preoccupation with such matters might be a relatively recent phenomenon. The title of the play itself certainly gives some encouragement to that view: “Much Ado About Nothing”.

  13. Me:  "Is English the only language that inflicts this wretched dot on it’s writers"

    I can’t believe I’ve written this.

    Brian comments:  I thought it was a deliberate joke! 

  14. Baralbion says:

    Its alright. I thought you were being deliberately ironic.

  15. Peter Harvey says:


    So did I. And as presumably are you. 

  16. Ronnie says:

    I wander a little.   Somebody quoted "I cc’d him a copy".  (There may be some pleonasm there.)  I have tended when copying letters to use c. for a single copy (to one person) and cc. for (plural) copies.  Can I have a ruling please?

    Brian writes:  I don’t recall having seen c. tout court.  Certainly e-mail clients all seem to use cc. for visible copies, even if to only one recipient, and bcc. for blind copies (also to one or more recipients).   But I wouldn’t venture a ‘ruling’!

  17. In which case honesty just ain’t the best policy!!!! 

  18. Peter Harvey says:

    cc is not copies (plural); it is the initials of carbon copy/ies.bcc is the initials of blind carbon copy/ies. So the ghost of carbon paper lives on! 

  19. Ronnie says:

    I do know the "carbon copy" theory, Peter, and don’t dismiss it out of hand. In defence of my view of the form I recall that c. and cc. have, or have had, another existence as caput and capita – chapter(s) – in footnotes.  I have also a feeling that cc-ing did not establish itself until after the days of carbon paper, when the introduction of the photocopier allowed (far too) many copies of a document to be flung widely and imperiously round the office.   

  20. Peter Harvey says:

    The Concise Oxford Dictionary shows (blind) carbon copy as the only meaning of (b)cc (apart from cubic centimetre):

    carbon copy (an indication that a duplicate has been or should be sent to another person).

    The OED concurs:

    carbon copy or copies (followed by a list of others to whom correspondence is to be copied)

    and has a relevant quotation from 1936:

    1936 L. I. Hutchinson Stand. Handbk. Secretaries 287 The carbon copy notation, ‘*c.c.’, should be the last notation. 1969 M. Pugh Last Place Left iv. 22 Have you seen the letter?+ It says c.c. to you. Carbon copy. 1982 Computerworld 23 Aug. 33/3 You may sometimes want to keep others informed of what you are asking a person or group to do. In that case, indicate it as a ‘carbon copy’ (CC) on the bottom of the memo.

  1. 14 May, 2006

    Apostrophes revisited

    Brian Barder has had several interesting discussions about language recently in his Ephems: click (here) and (here), and also (here) for one about apostrophes that I would like to discuss further. I have already written about apostrophes , particularly…

  2. 17 September, 2006

    […] Internet worthies such as Brian Barder and Tony Hatfield have provided us with examples of the inaccurate and excessive usage of apostrophes and I’m sure the Pedant General in Ordinary believes that the decline of Western Civilisation is, in no small part, due to the grammatical disasters that abound. Unfortunately I’m not going to improve the PG’s mood. It is, therefore, with some trepidation that I join the ranks of the pedants. […]

    [Brian has replied on the relevant blog]