That’s what the sign out the front of the general store said, just like that: Banana’s for sale. It’s wrong. It’s true, there were bananas for sale in the shop, but the punctuation is wrong. The word they were after was bananas. Simple plural form. Banana’s is a possessive form – such as the banana’s skin.
The friend who ranted to me about the banana’s for sale sign when she saw it always points these errant apostrophes out to store owners. She says her butcher now cringes when she walks into the shop. He anticipates that he’s made an apostrophe mistake and asks her what he’s done wrong. “You don’t need the apostrophe in sausages,” she might answer. “They don’t own anything.”
Macquarie Dictionary editor Susan Butler claims that she’d rather see apostrophes done away with altogether than continue to see these errors:
“It would be a far, far better thing if we were to forgo the apostrophe entirely, expunge it from our writing completely rather than let it loose to rampage amongst our plurals.” (p18, The aitch Factor by Susan Butler.)
The rules on apostrophes in modern Australian English may be a little murky around the edges but in the main are clear. Apostrophes do two basic things.
Firstly, they show there’s a letter missing. There’s being a case in point; the missing letter is “i” – there is a letter missing. More of this in a minute.
Secondly, apostrophes show ownership – the dog’s legs refers to the legs of one dog. The dogs’ legs, on the other hand, refers to the legs of more than one dog. The rule here is simple – if there are multiple dogs (or cats or budgerigars or workers or anything else) that own the things being considered, the apostrophe goes after the plural “s”. Now, a word of caution, if you don’t need an “s” to create the plural, but are adding one for possession, the apostrophe comes before the “s”. This sounds complicated but isn’t:
Now back to the missing letter apostrophe for a minute. In the previous paragraph, I used apostrophes in contractions a few times:
There’s – there is
Don’t – do not
Isn’t – is not
None of these seem to present much in the way of difficulties. But the same can’t (cannot) be said for it’s (it is) or you’re (you are). The problem arises because these forms sound just like the possessive pronouns its and yours, neither of which have apostrophes. Although we give nouns apostrophes to show ownership, possessive pronouns don’t generally have apostrophes in English. Again, this sounds complicated but isn’t. It’s made simple by the fact that we don’t have many possessive pronouns in English – for example, its, yours, hers, his, ours, whose, and theirs. By definition they are possessive. They don’t need apostrophes to help them show ownership. When one is used as a pronoun – for example, one’s own writing – it is given an apostrophe to differentiate it from the plural ones, as in ones, twos and threes. The possessive pronoun mine doesn’t appear to cause difficulties, perhaps because it’s always without an apostrophe and only comes in the one form. Your/you’re, its/it’s and whose/who’s seem to be the ones most often used incorrectly. The trick to remembering the difference (that is, to know whether you’re using a contracted form that needs an apostrophe or not) is to play a substitution game. Take the example from the previous sentence:
…to know whether you’re using a contracted form…
…to know whether you are using a contracted form… makes sense and is what was meant, so the apostrophe is correct.
Compare this to:
Your writing will improve if you follow this simple rule.
If you try substituting you are for your, you end up with:
You are writing will improve if you follow this simple rule.
That doesn’t make sense. You are cannot be substituted for the word your in that sentence, so the correct form is your, not you’re.
Honestly, this sounds so much more complicated that it really is. Just remember:
Two jobs for apostrophes:
- to show possession (work out who or what is owning the thing to know where the apostrophe goes)
- to show a contraction (say the sentence with the words sounded out in full to see if this is the right form.
No apostrophes in possessive pronouns (generally) (his, hers, ours, its, theirs, yours, whose)
No apostrophes in plurals that don’t own something. My friend’s butcher would almost never need an apostrophe in one of his signs.
Simple. Remember those things and you won’t slip up. Nothing to go bananas about.
But if it still seems overly complicated, you could take up Susan Butler’s offer:
“So I would be prepared to lead a ‘Down with the Apostrophe’ campaign rather than suffer in silence while they multiply like rabbits and warren our writing to the point where the reader cannot negotiate any text safely without falling down an apostrophe hole.” (p18, The aitch Factor by Susan Butler.)