Apostrophe's : 2 pound a pound...
July 17, 2008 1:38 PM   Subscribe

"Grocer's Apostrophe" or "Grocers' Apostrophe"?

Help settle an argument between my wife and I.

I'd argue that it should be "Grocers' Apostrophe" since it's the apostrophe traditionally used by grocers.

My wife argues that it's "Grocer's Apostrophe" since it's the apostrophe that a grocer has used.

Which one has a better claim to be correct?

To pre-empt a little, I'll admit that the front page of google has lots of 's and no s', but since when has that stopped a goos argument?
posted by twine42 to Writing & Language (46 answers total)
 
Oh for christ's sakes, I proof read a dozen times to make sure I haven't ballsed up an apostrophe anywhere and then I mess up spelling 'good'. *sigh*
posted by twine42 at 1:43 PM on July 17, 2008


It entirely depends on the context you're using it in. Both can be correct.

Grocers' is plural possessive. You're talking about the apostrophe that belongs to multiple grocers.

Grocer's is singular possessive. You're talking about the apostrophe that belongs to a single grocer.
posted by autojack at 1:46 PM on July 17, 2008


Grocer's no matter how many of them, because it's referring to apple's and orange's and duplicating the phenomenon.
posted by carbide at 1:49 PM on July 17, 2008 [3 favorites]


Depends on the context. It would be "grocers' apostrophe" if you're talking about it in the abstract, as something that is used by grocers in general or by multiple grocers, and "grocer's apostrophe" if you're talking about a particular apostrophe used by a single grocer.
posted by andraste at 1:49 PM on July 17, 2008


I always thought the grocer was single in that phrase...as a parallel with, um, catcher's face mask or carpenter's level, for instance.
posted by not that girl at 1:52 PM on July 17, 2008


Autojack has it right.

Grocer's apostrophe = the apostrophe for one grocer, such as the man I worked for when I was a senior in high school.

Grocers' apostrophe = the apostrophe for multiple grocers, such as the family that owned the store I worked for back then.

Both are correct. It's all about the context. Are you and your wife talking about one person, several people, or grocers in general (plural)?
posted by 2oh1 at 1:54 PM on July 17, 2008


Greengrocers' apostrophes?
posted by kirkaracha at 1:54 PM on July 17, 2008 [1 favorite]


I always interpreted it as carbide does, as a sort of winking reference to the phenomenon it describes (cf. RAS syndrome).
posted by danb at 1:56 PM on July 17, 2008


I always thought the grocer was single in that phrase...as a parallel with, um, catcher's face mask or carpenter's level, for instance.

I agree. In these kind of cases, I think of it as every catcher or grocer or carpenter in the world has one for himself. If there were one mask owned collectively by all catchers, it would be "catchers' mask."
posted by drjimmy11 at 1:57 PM on July 17, 2008 [2 favorites]


Depends on the context. It would be "grocers' apostrophe" if you're talking about it in the abstract, as something that is used by grocers in general or by multiple grocers, and "grocer's apostrophe" if you're talking about a particular apostrophe used by a single grocer.

I don't think so unless the context is unusual. Looking at analogous constructions, I can think of "busman's holiday," in which the "busman" is always singular (it's not "busmens' holiday). I know there are other expressions like this where an occupation is mentioned, but can't think of too many (other than "the cobbler's children go barefoot." I have the feeling that most often, the worker in these constructions is assumed to be singular.
posted by Miko at 1:59 PM on July 17, 2008


OK, it's coming back to me: I know a couple of these from the maritime context, where you have a "farmer's knot" and a "trucker's hitch" (Google returns180,000 results for the "trucker" version with the apostrophe, 1400-something without. 913 for the "farmer" version with, 24 without).
posted by Miko at 2:04 PM on July 17, 2008


Both are correct. The question is really which is more commonly used, and never having seen the expression, I can't say.
posted by ethnomethodologist at 2:10 PM on July 17, 2008


I've always thought it ought to be "grocers' apostrophe", and "truckers' hitch" - it's the kind of apostrophe used by (too) many grocers, and the hitch used by most truckers, not by some one grocer or trucker.

But, I've always bowed to what seemed to be popular opinion and written it as the singular possessive. Hope me, languagehat!
posted by nicwolff at 2:26 PM on July 17, 2008


I always thought the grocer was single in that phrase...as a parallel with, um, catcher's face mask or carpenter's level, for instance.

This is correct. (You know it's true because Miko agrees, and Miko is never wrong.)
posted by languagehat at 2:28 PM on July 17, 2008


I had no idea this phenomenon had a name to go with it. I love it.

But yeah, I'm gonna go with the singular "grocer's apostrophe." I think pluralizing it generalizes it to all grocers, since you haven't defined a specific set of grocers, and it's a bit rude to assume all grocers are idiots.

The singular version creates a kind of archetypical Grocer, who first misused to the apostrophe in ancient times and passed it along with his trade.

The word "grocer" looks absolutely bizarre to me after this thread.
posted by Plug Dub In at 2:42 PM on July 17, 2008


Is that where I got that from!! Jeebus, I thought maybe I was insane. I couldn't figure it out. It was the same year they taught the difference between they're/their/there, to/two/too - so needless to say no-one has ever known what the hell I was talking about!

I had learned that an apostrophe for ownership ALWAYS went last. (Otherwise it was the contraction for 'is' which is just stupid.) That has been bugging me for years!! Multiple ownership and singular ownership, right gotcha!

Um... Wtf??
Have I missed something or is that a joke?
Now I'm sorry.
I'll never be taking english lessons from someone that thinks 'wife and me' is proper english...

(My confusion is due (mostly.. or maybe I did miss something) - to the possibility that unbeknownst to me, one of the only true rules that there is may have been altered at some point. Gotta love the English Language, huh?)
posted by mu~ha~ha~ha~har at 2:53 PM on July 17, 2008


wtf


Both are correct.
posted by Zambrano at 3:03 PM on July 17, 2008


I'm with Miko -- it's a phenomenon practiced by one misguided grocer at a time.
posted by desuetude at 3:12 PM on July 17, 2008 [1 favorite]


grocer's' apostrophe's
posted by DoctorFedora at 3:25 PM on July 17, 2008 [1 favorite]


It's like the terms "workers compensation" and "attorneys fees" which are spelled alternately with the apostrophe before the "s," after the "s," and sometimes with no apostrophe at all. I've seen it every single way in official legal documents. Certainly there must be definitive rule when discussing a group as a whole.
posted by jabberjaw at 4:08 PM on July 17, 2008


for full-on smirking irony, it should be Grocers "Apostrophe". You can do the air-scare quotes gesture if you wish.
posted by scruss at 4:57 PM on July 17, 2008


You need a lawyer's opinion. If you want several opinions from one lawyer, it will cost you more, but you'll get a lawyer's opinions. If you spend even more money and get several lawyers to agree, you'll get the lawyers' opinion. If they don't agree, it will take even more time and cost you a fortune, but you'll have the lawyers' opinions. Aside from price, how are grocers different?
posted by weapons-grade pandemonium at 5:09 PM on July 17, 2008 [1 favorite]


The supermarket association has a lobbyist in Washington; he is the grocers' lobbyist.

It really does depend on context.
posted by Robert Angelo at 6:08 PM on July 17, 2008


I'm going to buck the trend...

The Grocers' Apostrophe is a phrase used to describe the misuse of apostrophes in a general sense. It's not based on one grocer getting it wrong, it's based on grocers generally. And while not all of them get it wrong, enough of them do, in a very public way, to give the phrase meaning (still).

However, if your wife is referring to the signage at your local fruit'n'veg shop, then yes, that would be the grocer's apostrophe.
posted by finding.perdita at 6:13 PM on July 17, 2008


The Grocer's Apostrophe belongs to one specific grocer - the Platonic ideal of a grocer, who, despite ideal status, hasn't hung out with the Platonic ideal of Grammar enough to know where his apostrophe is supposed to go.

So, Grocer's Apostrophe.
posted by soma lkzx at 7:45 PM on July 17, 2008


The Grocers' Apostrophe is a phrase used to describe the misuse of apostrophes in a general sense. It's not based on one grocer getting it wrong,

No, it's not, but it's still not describing only one grocer. It's describing The Grocer, in a way in which we use the singular form to stand for an entire class of grocers. It's similar to saying something like "The soldier is concerned with only one thing: survival." Or "The jaguar is a deadly jungle cat." We understand that the speaker is not talking about a specific soldier or jaguar, but about the class of soldiers or jaguars.
posted by Miko at 8:31 PM on July 17, 2008 [1 favorite]


I vote for "grocer's"... Along with "catcher's mask," "pitcher's mound" and "batter's box" are other examples that comes to mind. Another, perhaps more parallel example: "plumber's crack."

I like Miko's description. "Grocer's apostrophe" is sort of a proverbial concept, not a literal one. It's not like, say, "grocers' strike" or "grocers' financial success." But is it the "Grocer's Apostrophe" or "grocer's apostrophe," or is that more of a personal preference?

Personally, I'm much less sure about "President's/Presidents'/Presidents" Day and similar instances...
posted by TheSecretDecoderRing at 11:34 PM on July 17, 2008


Put me down for grocer's too. It's not a question of how many grocers write each one or how many grocers together do it; you're alleging that it's characteristic of grocers as a class, of the Platonic grocer, not of any particular grocer or group. It's just like the way you read a voters information pamphlet and buy illegal fireworks on the Indians reservation, then you scratch your swimmers' swimmer's itch with the back of your chefs' chef's knife. Singular all.

If it were [[your swimmer's] itch] and [[your chef's] knife] there'd be room to talk about how many swimmers or chefs you had, but this is [your [swimmer's itch]], totally different.

On a side note, languagehat has just confirmed my theory about Miko.
posted by eritain at 3:42 AM on July 18, 2008 [1 favorite]


All of the linguistic and language-related books that I have use grocer's apostrophe, which is a specific, established term in the study of language, grammar, punctuation, and so forth. Miko is right, and Languagehat is right about Miko being right.
posted by Mo Nickels at 5:57 AM on July 18, 2008


For crying out loud, people, there's no settled usage. Using the very limited tools at my disposal (i.e. Google Books) it seems to me that it's a recent coinage, certainly nothing turns up from before 1990 using any of the eight varieties I could think of (greengrocer's apostrophe, greengrocers' apostrophe, grocer's apostrophe and grocers' apostrophe and the plurals of each). The two earliest example I could find, both date from 1992. A book called Professional Report Writing, has greengrocers' apostrophes and Monopolies of Loss, a collection of short stories by Adam Mars-Jones, has grocer's apostrophe. Either way, and even if two or three years separated the first instances, grocers' and grocer's are perfectly acceptable. My personal opinion is that it is "the apostrophe grocers use" and would therefore be in the plural, but personal opinion counts for bupki's in this kind of matter.
posted by Kattullus at 7:18 AM on July 18, 2008


But even if the coinage is recent (which I agree it probably is) the analogues like those mentioned by TheSecretDecoderRing and eritain are the guide one would use in determining which usage is preferred. There may never be a completely "settled" usage, but there is definitely a preferred written usage with plenty of precedent. Most editors would correct all of these constructions to the singular form.

Particularly because the phrase itself is used to critique the misuse of apostrophes, it makes good sense to employ the apostrophe within the phrase in the most widely accepted way - otherwise the whole point is undermined.

Thanks for the votes of confidence, folks; a quick search of MeFi would provide plenty of evidence that I'm capable of egregious wrongness, but I appreciate your good opinion. ;) )
posted by Miko at 7:26 AM on July 18, 2008


Miko: Particularly because the phrase itself is used to critique the misuse of apostrophes, it makes good sense to employ the apostrophe within the phrase in the most widely accepted way - otherwise the whole point is undermined.

Uh... that makes a case equally for grocers' and grocer's. Whether most editors would change the plural to the singular is irrelevant (and unsupported), hell, maybe there's different preferred usage on different sides of the Atlantic (I have no idea whether that's true) but either way, both are acceptable. Neither of them is right and there are perfectly good justifications of both forms. Saying that one is right while the other is wrong is pedantry.
posted by Kattullus at 8:14 AM on July 18, 2008


I didnt' say that one was right and the other was wrong.

Whether most editors would change the plural to the singular is irrelevant (and unsupported)


Actually, I think that's exactly what's relevant. Given that we agree that there is no ultimate arbitrating authority on the correctness of specific pieces of language, the closest we can come to establishing any sort of guideline is to look at what is most commonly used as the standard in publishing. Even there, style guidelines vary from one authority to the other depending on which style guide is in use, but often, there is a majority agreement among editors as to what's preferred.

When you write for publication, your writing will generally be corrected to a style guide that the publisher uses. When it becomes clear that one usage is far more common than others and that that usage appears in more edited sources than others, it's safe to assume that editors prefer it.

maybe there's different preferred usage on different sides of the Atlantic (I have no idea whether that's true)
It's not; I checked.

I think that once people embrace descriptivism, they sometimes begin to think that there really is no preference at all. In fact, though, editors do have an interest in creating text that reads smoothly and doesn't have glaring inconsistencies with other texts - it's distracting and it slows readers down. As someone who spends a fair amount of time reading eighteenth-century newspapers, which were printed in a time before the standardization of spellings, capitalization, abbreviation, contraction, and other elements of language, I can see the strong advantages to building on existing precedent rather than having every writer head off in his or her own direction and leave it to the reader to deal with the variations. And there is a practical consideration, which is that if you work with words and write for print, you need to accept the idea that you'll be following an established publication standard. Saying that the standard is arbitrary or really doesn't matter doesn't make it go away, and jobs are still handed out to people who understand the existing standards better.

In this case, I think the argument for the singular class + possessive is the one better supported by older and more common English constructions. "Widow's walk," "Fool's errand," "madman's folly," "woman's prerogative;" in just about every case, a Google search reveals a history of using the singular form of a noun + possessive apostrophe to refer to some quality or item associated with a class of people.
posted by Miko at 8:54 AM on July 18, 2008


Okay, I suppose we'll have to agree to disagree, Miko. If the criterion employed is which one is more used then yes, the singular is more correct. However, according to that logic, greengrocer's apostrophe, with 5130 hits in Google should be the only correct form (grocer's apostrophe gets 3260 hits). My contention is that all four variant spelling are acceptable (much like judgment and judgement) and people should be free to use whichever one they choose. About a sixth of the hits for all four variants are for the versions using the plural form (1721 hits total). I feel that's enough to establish the variant as acceptable given the youth of the phrase. There are phrases like that in the English language that generally take the plural, like "workers' compensation" which usually has the plural possessive form (Ohio Board of Workers' Compensation, Wikipedia entry on the subject, New York Workers' Compensation Board, Merriam-Webster Dictionary).
posted by Kattullus at 9:53 AM on July 18, 2008


greengrocer's apostrophe, with 5130 hits in Google should be the only correct form (grocer's apostrophe gets 3260 hits).

I'd never say "should be the only correct form" if we're looking at Google results. As we know, people don't always know what the standard is or write using standard usage - hence this question and others like it. So Google results include mispellings and other non-preferred uses, and it would be unrealistic to expect that not a single person ever used the plural form when writing online. What I'm looking at when referencing raw Google results is the ratio, which is heavily in favor of the singular, 7 to 1 in the first case, 4 to 1 in the second:

Grocer's apostrohe: 3260
Grocers' apostrophe: 461

Greengrocer's apostrophe: 5130
Greengrocers' apostrophe: 1260

But I'm also looking at what sources use each: newspapers and magazines, or unedited blogs and forum comments? Sources which use editors are the ones I place more weight on.

I see your argument about the exception with workers, but I maintain that the usage of singular with "grocer" is more consistent with the history of similar phrases and is still more frequently preferred. Note I take pains to avoid using the word "correct" because nothing can be correct without a specific standard to correct to. Is your suggestion "justified?" Well, sure - you could use it in your writing if you wanted to. What I'm saying is that the general evidence indicates that if you were using it while writing for an edited publication, it would most often be corrected by editors to match the style guide on the use of the possessive.

There are some really great comments here with regard to "workers' compensation," "homeowners insurance," "teachers union," and other similar exceptions. I think the connotation is that these are plural because individuals are united in a group for common cause - which is different than taking a single example of a person and having them stand for the class. But it's clearly a murky distinction which the blogger calls "arbitrary." So, when editing, I'd generally expect to come down on the side of the singular + possessive unless there were explicit exceptions in the style guide for these cases, or follow the style of the organization's name when mentioning the organization.
posted by Miko at 10:26 AM on July 18, 2008


Oh, also, I think that the greater number of results for "greengrocer" over "grocer" hints at a UK origin for this coinage. The word "greengrocer" is very uncommon in the US. It makes sense to me that if the word came into parlance in the UK and then migrated here at some later point, there would be more citations using the English form. The Wikipedia entry on the topic mentioned something about a "languages teacher in Liverpool" who coined the phrase in the "mid-20th century," but there was no citation and I couldn't find any other mention of the phrase having originated in Liverpool.
posted by Miko at 10:44 AM on July 18, 2008


This comes down to personal preference. If you prefer the singular possessive, by all means, use the singular possessive. Similarly, if you prefer judgment to judgement use the former. My point is that both versions are of about equal age as far as I can establish using the tools at my command and that both remain in use.* Lots of arbitrary preferences get enshrined as "rules" but the fact of the matter is that it's all a matter of preference. The idiotic exhortation against splitting infinitives in English is perhaps the most famous example. There's nothing wrong with aesthetic judgments, but enshrining them as rules is nonsensical.

As to the origin, the earliest instances of this phrase were both from the UK, which bears your hunch out. Though one of them used grocer and the other greengrocer. I suspect that the popularization of that phrase in the US came from that renowned enemy of good manners, Lynne Truss

I suppose my overall point is that twine42 and his wife can happily use whichever version they choose but that neither of them will have the satisfaction of triumphing over the other in this case of spousal one-upmanship.

*This isn't a case of an older usage getting replaced by a later misunderstanding (e.g. "you've got another think coming" vs. "you've got another thing coming"), in which case a personal preference at least has some sort of justification. Not a very good one, but some nonetheless (one example of this kind of argument being taken to silly extremes is the idea that decimate only means "to reduce by one in ten" which the OED has poopooed). Not that I'm saying, Miko, that your argument rests on that, but I wanted to protect my flank :)
posted by Kattullus at 11:50 AM on July 18, 2008


This comes down to personal preference.

I still think it's a little more than personal preference. It's also the preference of many more professional users of the English language and it's part of more style guides. I think we do a disservice to people when suggesting that it's simply a matter of preference. There's a more established preference and a less established preference. I agree with you insofar as there can really be no "correct" version, but there is most definitely a "preferred" version. Maybe we can agree on that. When you're writing for anyone likely to reference existing style norms, you're going to want to go with the more frequently preferred construction.
posted by Miko at 12:35 PM on July 18, 2008


enshrining them as rules is nonsensical.

...except when they are rules, which was my point - when a style guide is in effect, then something can be "correct to" that style - or not.
posted by Miko at 12:36 PM on July 18, 2008


I think we have to separate the three questions we're trying to answer.

1) The question that twine42 is trying to settle is: which usage has a better claim to be correct, grocers' or grocer's? I think the only sensible answer is that both are correct.

2) Which is normal, the singular possessive or the plural possessive? My answer is that, as far as the tools at my fingertips can tell me, both are about equally as old, so neither can be reasonably claimed as a later mangling. The singular gets about 6 times as many hits on Google searches. The phrase "you've got another thing coming" gets about 6 times as many Google search hits as "you've got another think coming" does. Both are perfectly acceptable phrases. Therefore both forms, grocers' and grocer's, should be considered normal English.

3) Is one more professional than the other? I won't doubt that more editors would use the singular, but I don't think that makes it in any way "correct." A lot of people swear by Strunk and White but that doesn't make Strunk and White any less of an embarrassment. I sincerely doubt that anyone would trip over either form or find it harder to fathom than the other. An editor that changesjudgement to judgment to enforce an internal style guide* isn't wrong to do that but that's purely an aesthetic judgment, nothing else.

*The Guardian's Style guide prefers judgment and so does the AP Style guide (which gives the laughable reason that "there is no "judge" in judgment." I trust they give that on authority). Here's the Merriam-Webster definition of judgement/judgment. In case you're curious, Google has twice as many hits for judgment).
posted by Kattullus at 2:06 PM on July 18, 2008


I'd say:

1) There's no such thing as an independently existing standard of "correct."

2) Which is normal? The singular possessive is more normal, as in more often the norm (how long the expression has existed isn't material, because as I tried to show, there is a long history of similar constructions upon which this one was modelled).

3) Singular possessive is more often used in edited printed English, and I think that's at the heart of the question. I certainly agree that standards vary, but one can only talk about "correctness" when referencing a standard. For instance, if you use Strunk and White as your style guide, you will correct written English to the Strunk and White standard. If you use the AP Style Guide, you'll correct to that standard. If you use MLA, you'll correct to that standard. And so on.

Because more editors and more style guides would recommend the use of singular possessive, it is more frequently preferred. That' as close as I'll come to calling something "correct."

I agree with your central point - that language standards are inherently arbitrary. But they aren't ahistorical nor value-free. If we avoid the word "correct," then the question of the OP is: which one is the better choice; which looks more familiar; which accords with existing standards and is not a specific exception; which raises fewer editorial flags? In that case, taking in all available evidence, I'd still have to say "grocer's." It may not be upheld by a universal, empirical standard, but language never is - and "grocer's" is the way it's currently preferred.
posted by Miko at 2:31 PM on July 18, 2008 [1 favorite]


Some really great reading: a whole slew of style guides with sections on the apostrophe.
posted by Miko at 2:38 PM on July 18, 2008


Miko, what on Earth do style guide entries about apostrophes have to do with whether we're talking about one or many grocers? No one is using an apostrophe incorrectly, the question is whether it is somehow less valid to say grocers' apostrophe than grocer's apostrophe. Yes, the singular is used more often but how does that make grocers' apostrophe less idiomatic? It is a perfectly natural phrase that has just as long a history as grocer's apostrophe.

Miko: there is a long history of similar constructions upon which this one was modelled

Yes, there is a long history of such construction, but plural constructions exist as well. You say there's a difference: "I think the connotation is that these are plural because individuals are united in a group for common cause - which is different than taking a single example of a person and having them stand for the class." I agree with you, it's murky, I'd go so far as to say that it's a meaningless distinction. I don't disagree with you that editors should edit text so that it complies to in-house style guides, but I don't agree that such arbitrary judgments should apply to people outside these organizations. If twine42 were asking how to write the phrase to suit a particular style guide then your approach would be correct, but he isn't. He's trying to find out if he's right or his wife. And the only reasonable answer to that question, "which one has a better claim to be correct?" is neither, they're both correct (which I understand as a synonym for idiomatic in this case).
posted by Kattullus at 3:34 PM on July 18, 2008


Katullus, you are welcome to spell it however you like. My points stand.
posted by Miko at 4:24 PM on July 18, 2008


Wow... I tend to ignore my ask threads for a day so I don't end up trying to rule my own thread. I'm glad I kept out because this is really interesting.

In answer to the short "they're both right" answers : I know they're both gramatically correct, but that doesn't change which is the more proper usage. The idea of catcher's gloves vs catchers' gloves is a valid one, but that's related to an object not a concept. I think that's where my logic originally came from...
posted by twine42 at 5:14 PM on July 18, 2008


The catcher's attention should always stay on the pitcher.
The catcher's patience is bred through years of training.
The catcher's importance to the team cannot be overstated.
In baseball, entire games can be impacted by the catcher's decision-making.
It is damaging for the knees to maintain the baseball catcher's position for any length of time.
posted by Miko at 5:45 PM on July 18, 2008


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