*Superfluous apostrophe intentional—please, no angry letters.
A recording of the Broadway revue tune “Yes! We Have No Bananas” spent five weeks at number one in 1923 (which speaks to a simpler time, I think). It tells of a greengrocer who has string beans, onions, cabbages, scallions, tomatoes, potatoes, coconuts, walnuts, and two kinds of red herring but is out of bananas. An agreeable fellow, “he never answers ‘no,’” so when customers request the tropical yellow fruit, he responds with the famous titular line. Believe it or not, there is a tenuous connection between this novelty song and superfluous apostrophes in plural words. Can you possibly imagine what it is?
The insertion of an apostrophe before the final s in a plural noun is a common pet peeve among the “apostrophe intelligent.” But did you know this contentious grammatical error has a name—a really cute one? It’s called a “greengrocer’s apostrophe,” after the misuse of apostrophes on the often handwritten signs in greengrocers’ shops: “FRESH ENGLISH PEA’S,” “SEEDLESS GRAPE’S,” “JUICY NECTARINE’S,” “LEMON’S, 25¢ EACH.” By the way, I am not insinuating that Jimmy Costas, the Long Island greengrocer who allegedly inspired the song about out-of-stock bananas made this blunder himself—he was just an interest-creating device.
In case it’s news to you that apostrophes have no place in plurals, or you are a greengrocer, let’s review the rule for creating standard plural forms (from The Chicago Manual of Style):
Most nouns form their plural by adding s or—if they end in ch, j, s, sh, x, or z—by adding es. For example:
But what would a rule be without exceptions? For some words, you just have to learn the correct plural form or (as a last resort) consult a dictionary:
Words ending in y that changes to ies
Certain words ending in o
Certain words of Latin or Greek origin
All words with irregular plurals
Of course, there are additional nuances—we are talking about the English language. For example, Chicago recommends using the singular form for the plural for names ending in an unpronounced s or x, as in “the seventeen Louis of France.” There is also one instance in which an apostrophe should be used to indicate a plural, to aid in comprehension: for lowercase letters used as words, such as “x’s and y’s.” On a related note, capital letters used as words, numerals used as nouns, and abbreviations form the plural by simply adding s: “two As and three Bs,” “the 1970s,” “PCs.” There are exceptions to this rule, as well, but we won’t get into those here.
Today’s takeaway: don’t be possessive about plurals!