What a difference an ‘ makes

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Apostrophes are important, and here is proof.

Australians  call them “greengrocer’s apostrophes”. But first I should explain “greengrocer”. That’s the borrowed British name for a shop selling fruit and vegetables. While the U.S. has fewer such specialised retailers, and they are not usually known under that name, Americans would still know the misplaced punctuation marks, as in:  Apple’s $4.95 kg

Or, as cartoonist Ros Asquith recently stacked the greengrocer’s shelves:


Greengrocer’s apostrophes proliferated in Australia from the 1960s because many greengrocers were recent Italian or Greek immigrants, who knew fruit and vegetables much better than they knew the language.

Everyone makes mistakes (I once published “chow” instead of “ciao” – many, many years ago); none of us is all-knowing; and grammar is inconsistent, but I count myself on the side of Lynne Truss, author of Eats, Shoots & Leaves: The zero tolerance approach to punctuation.

Someone knows an apostrophe is required … but where, oh where? … Mens coat’s.

As to spelling, a restaurateur has no “n” (the French endings are -ant and -ateur). A licence to sell alcoholic drinks in Britain will be a license in the United States, and lost, in Australia, somewhere between.

Spelling and grammar choices are important for two basic reasons: firstly, meaning. This is a textbook example:

A woman, without her man, is nothing.

A woman: without her, man is nothing.

Secondly, and only slightly more subtly,  the choice is a sign, revealing something about the writer. In the case of greengrocers, apostrophes might suggest they really know their fruit and vegetables, just as, in certain circumstances, a semi-literate menu might be encouraging.

On the other hand, if a smart establishment cannot care about their grammar, then will they care about their customers?

At the top, I promised proof of the importance of apostrophes. An American celebrity chef called Michael Symon didn’t write Michael Symons’ A History of Cooks and Cooking, but an Amazon reviewer was apostrophe inattentive. In this case, the purchase worked out. “This is a very good book“, she advises.

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