Apostrophes. Sigh.

If I had my way, apostrophes would be exiled from English. My reasons are sound. Many perfectly fine languages do quite well without this punctuation mark. Plus, few people misunderstand the writer’s intended meaning just because an errant apostrophe has crashed a sentence or gone AWOL. Alas, I don’t have my way very often, and never in matters of apostrophes. Perhaps that’s why I seldom bother snapping photos of the many errors I see on signs around New York. But every once in a while, I can’t resist. This sign caught my eye yesterday:







I’m fine with an apostrophe-less “ladies,” because nouns do morph into adjectives at times (e.g. “Yankees baseball”). However, “mens” isn’t a noun. In fact, it’s not even a word. “Men” is an irregular plural, so the only legitimate term is “men’s,” the possessive form. But are the alternatives fair?  You can write “ladies’ & men’s” or “ladies and men” and claim symmetry and equality.  Yet while you might talk about “ladies tailoring” you probably wouldn’t say “men tailoring.” (The technical reason: It doesn’t sound right. Plus, who’s to say that you’re not talking about a guy waving a tape measure around?) Despite the difficulty of fashioning an apostrophe in neon, I think this sign should read  “ladies’ and men’s.”

This sign writer took a different approach:


Fairness demands that because you can have a “man cave,” you should also be able to have a “man shirt.” Working backward on the logic chain to the first sign in this post, you end up with “woman and man tailoring.” I can live with that usage. In fact, I can think of many a woman and man I wouldn’t mind tailoring to my specifications  — talks less, vacuums more, stuff like that. But strict grammarians might object.

One more for (and from) the road:


Why do people keep trying to make plurals with apostrophes? Upstate’s “hen’s” may be the “happiest,” but I bet upstate’s grammarians are pretty glum. They may even be the “unhappiest grammarian’s.”

14 thoughts on “Apostrophes. Sigh.

  1. don yates

    Italian might drive you up the walls: The singular third person present indicative of “to be” (“essere”) is properly “è.” Similar to our “it’s,” and equally common, is “c’è” (pronounced “chay”) for “there is” (long form: “ci + è”). Despite the fact that, these days, diacritical markings no longer pose the problem they did on typewriters – I love the fact that I can show off when citing an encyclopædia article, or referencing (sorry!) an artist’s œuvre* – Italians tend to take what seems to them the easy way out by using your least favorite punctuation for the accent grave: “è” becomes “e'” (e’) and, horror of horrors, “c’è” “c’e'” (c’e’). Fortunately this tic does not survive reasonably professional editing, but it is rife in emails (and we aren’t going anywhere near texting!)
    *You can guess how I feel about the Acadèmie française deciding to drop the circumflex. I like the reminder that “hôtel” was once “hostel” and “côte,” “coste” and I happen to know I am not alone but, alas!, in present discourse, Henry Ford and his ilk reign supreme.

  2. don yates

    I should have added that that accent grave is not a decorative fossil, it is crucial: a naked “e” is the conjunction “and.” Also, “ci” can be “there,” “here,” “us,” “to us,” “ourselves”, and probably a few other things I haven’t learned yet.
    (“Da” can be either “to,” “from,” or “in the house of” – literally or figuratively like the French “chez.” It can also denote genealogical descent. It’s a pretty contextual language – probably why they use their hands a lot.*)
    *Yes, we have actual lessons in using the hand gestures!

      1. don yates

        Right now I’m busy packing for Bologna but there are such YouTube videos and I will seek them out for you when I have a moment! Miss you too Gerri very very much.


  3. william cooper

    I can understand why launderers might not be versed in using apostrophes, but shouldn’t they know better than to punctuate the end of each item in a laundry list with a period?

  4. Ellie Presner

    Gerri, those plurals with apostrophes stuck in them drive me nuts! I see them all the time; makes me want to scream!

    Don – the académie dropped the accent circonflex?!? Wow. Here in Québec, it’s still going strong. Like you, I find it entertaining knowing about the erstwhile existence of all those S’s. Er…I kind of had to put that apostrophe in there, Gerri. Didn’t I?

    1. Geraldine Post author

      Yup. The plural of letters calls for an apostrophe, unless you can italicize the letter and not the pluralizing “s.” I grew up using the apostrophe for the plural of numbers, too, but that’s out of style now. Specifically, out of the Chicago Manual of Style.

  5. William Cooper

    Alright, I can turn a blind eye when a launderer or dry cleaner slips in an errant apostrophe, but the “Failing NY Times”? Check out today’s front page headline. (Maybe Elie shouldn’t see this.) Bannon’s Made Millions in Shaping Right-Wing Thought.” Can “made” function as an adjective, as in “He’s a made man in the mafia”? Can you have made millions, as in earned income? But if that were so, wouldn’t the “in” have to be “from”?

    1. Geraldine Post author

      I read the story but interpreted the apostrophe as part of a contraction (Bannon has made). I do find more and more grammar errors in the NYT, though. Each time, I also think “yikes!” because I expect better from that paper.

  6. William Cooper

    Aha! I missed that reading. Interestingly, on the front page the current online version of the paper (as of 10:52 PDT) the headline omits “made” and uses the apostrophe to show possession. (“Bannon”s Fortune Built on Shaping right-Wing Thought.” But if you click on the link, the article has the original headline.

    Since you’re apparently a loyal reader of the failing newspaper, you probably caught Sunday’s Book Review section interview of humorist Fran Lebowitz, who, when asked what book she would recommend to the president, she replied that it depends on who’s reading it to him. Gems like this make up for a lot of grammatical hiccups.


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