Apostrophe misuse is everywhere. Is there hope?

by | Nov 17, 2015 | Translators' Column

Struggling to get apostrophes right. An epidemic?

I am one of those annoying people who likes a language to be spoken ‘just so’. As an ‘alien’ in this green and pleasant land I have strived hard for the past 28 years to perfect my English. Hence I tend to notice things that a native speaker may just walk by. The wrong and confused use of the apostrophe is a good example of the things that send me up a tree.


We have all seen errors on restaurant menus or specials boards. Maybe the chef only gave the list of today’s specials to the person in charge of the specials board two minutes before the restaurant was to open its doors. So the necessary apostrophe in ‘Today’s specials’ is easily missed out by the writer in a hurry. I find this forgivable.


The cause of the confusion around the use of ‘it’s’ versus ‘its’ is deeper-rooted. I recently walked through Canary Wharf to find this board on permanent display: ‘This estate is managed by it’s owners.’ This use of the apostrophe is understandable as it is indeed logical: if the writer were to replace ‘it’s’ with a person’s name, the apostrophe would be correct. However, in this case language has moved on. ‘He’s’ became ‘his’, ‘it’s’ became ‘its’, maybe to prevent confusion with ‘it’s’ as an abbreviation for ‘it is’ as in ‘it’s raining’. It’s just a rule one has to absorb.

Allowable3a 100's

The use or non-use of apostrophes at the end of abbreviations and numbers is a bit of a mixed feast in the English language. One often comes across ‘CD’s’, ‘100’s’ and ‘MOT’s’. This particular use of the apostrophe seems illogical to my mind. You wouldn’t use the apostrophe if you spelt the words out in full. ‘Compact disks’ and ‘Hundreds’ are straight forward examples of simple plurals with no need for an apostrophe. Even the term ‘Ministry of Transport tests’ doesn’t exactly cry out for an apostrophe. English grammar, however, is more forgiving than a mere foreigner. It leniently allows the use of apostrophes in these circumstances for ‘clarification purposes’.

Why? How does that make anything clearer?

Not so obvious

Missing apostrophes

Apparently, not deploying the apostrophe in constructions like ‘specials board’, ‘shoppers car park’ or ‘gents salon’ is ok. Native speakers have explained to me that this is due to either nouns being regarded as compound nouns or as adjectives. When I see evidence of this particular non-use of the long-suffering apostrophe I cannot help but wonder whether the person dispensing with the use of the apostrophe in these circumstances knows of this rule or whether he just got it right by chance?


The International Marketing Excuse

I have included the photo of the Hazev Bar board (London Docklands). Scanning this board you may ask yourself: what’s wrong with ‘Beck’s’? Surely, this is spelt correctly? It does, after all stand for ‘Beck’s beer’. Yes. But this beer was first brewed in the ‘Kaiserbrauerei Beck & May o.H.G.’ in Bremen, Germany, in 1873.

Following German grammar rules to the letter, ‘Beck’s’ should be spelled ‘Becks’.Beck's with or without apostrophe?

According to their website, Beck was one of the first German breweries that exported beers on a large scale. The company claims that the spelling is ‘untypical for Germany‘. The website has us believe that the choice of spelling is a very clever marketing gimmick, intended to emphasise the international importance of the trade name.

I don’t quite buy it, though. Using the word ‘untypical’ looks like a cover-up to me. What if it was just one of those mistakes that happened to work out ok?

Total confusion

Surely it is nothing but coDSCN1747mmon sense for people who have boards printed and permanently displayed to spend time and care on getting it right. One finds it easier to forgive our harassed waitress of our first example. However, howlers like the following can be found in public again and again: ‘Fee’s’ to be paid now, ‘s6c Jestingtockbull’s and cow’s’ on the loose and shop owners who can’t make up their mind whether to use or not to use the apostrophe, so they do both in the same shop window. And I doubt very much that they are jesting.


An article with similar contents but different photos was written by Mecki Testroet and published in the ITI magazine Bulletin in the November/December 2015 issue.

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