I'm curious. How has wrongly inserting an apostrophe to indicate a plural noun become so widespread?

I was born in the 60s. Thirty years ago, in England at least, the only time you'd see it would be in greengrocers (Potato's 50p/lb - grrrr!). Now, it's everywhere. An extraordinary and increasing proportion of people seem to assume that it's required for almost every plural.

The thing is, it can't be laziness. It requires more effort, not less, to type the extra character, when in the majority of cases, an 's' is all you need.

How did it start? And how did it catch on?


I should say, I've often suspected that it was originally a hypercorrection, like 'between you and I', also now widespread.

I suppose, that the more people see the construction, the more people that haven't either read widely (an increasing proportion of young people, I'd speculate) or been taught well, will assume it's correct and propagate it further. I suspect social media of contributing substantially to this process.

I think what I'm really asking, is, does anyone know of any actual evidence to support or refute these hypotheses?

  • Wikipedia dates the use of the apostrophe itself from 1496 ( Pietro Bembo in his edition of De Aetna) but is vague about the history of the usage of the 'Greengrocers' Apostrophe'. – Nigel J May 12 '18 at 12:03
  • It's often laziness. Mental laziness. – Edwin Ashworth May 12 '18 at 13:27
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    How can this type of thing be proven? It can't be, really. Its occurrence can be observed. – Lambie May 12 '18 at 14:08
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    I'm voting to close this question as off-topic because it looks like a rant / invitation to discussion. But the relevant usage is also covered by Why did they spell it “URL’s”? (...the apostrophe should only be added to plural s if the word would otherwise become unreadable or exceedingly ambiguous.) – FumbleFingers May 12 '18 at 15:00
  • @Lambie, good point of course. It may be a question with no clear answer. – ChrisA May 12 '18 at 15:00

I think the fraction of the population which perpetrates greengrocers' apostrophes has not increased in size. Thirty years ago, material 'in print' tended to be either written by or edited by professionals, but these days anybody with access to a phone or computer can produce text.

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    Surely that should be which perpetrates greengrocers' apostrophes :) – FumbleFingers May 12 '18 at 15:07
  • There must be a name for that type of error... karmic? – Michael Harvey May 12 '18 at 15:09
  • I think it's the relatively unusual plural form that thows us. Google Books has 108 instances of greengrocer's apostrophes against 333 for greengrocers' apostrophes. The second feels much more "right" to me, if only because if there's going to be one "unusual" plural, there may as well be two. Whereas greengrocer's apostrophe and greengrocers' apostrophe get 1650 and 1270 hits respectively (and are both "fine" by me! :) – FumbleFingers May 12 '18 at 15:20
  • Well, I think it should be "the greengrocer's apostrophe" or "greengrocers' apostrophes". – Michael Harvey May 12 '18 at 15:35
  • I absolutely agree! Both singular+singular and plural+plural are fine. I note that syntactic singular conveys semantic plural in, say, He uses the greengrocer's apostrophe on all his signs. Which may not the only reason anyway, but those Google Books hits suggest a singular preference, so to speak. For my part though, I just think it's interesting that of the other two permutations, I find plural+singular far more "questionable" than singular+plural. – FumbleFingers May 12 '18 at 17:07

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