Apostrophes are like birds. More specifically, they are like our pet cockatiel, Ruffles. Ruffles is a much loved and important member of the family who flutters to our shoulders when he feels like watching television, playing peek-a-bird, talking to our socks (he has a sock fetish) or just perching on a soft body to snooze. Ruffles’ antics can be very amusing and we usually enjoy his company, but sometimes his presence is just not appropriate, e.g., when he flies to someone’s shoulder just as they are heading out to shovel snow.
Apostrophes are important members of the written English family but, like our bird, their company is sometimes welcome and sometimes inappropriate. They flutter above letters looking for a suitable landing position and choosing the wrong spot can make an apostrophe’s presence very amusing. There are Websites devoted exclusively to the misadventures of this punctuation mark.
Occasionally Ruffles sets off from his cage to fly manically through the house without, apparently, a predetermined flight plan in mind. Conversation pauses as his audience views this frenzied flight with amusement and waits for the outcome. He’s going to land in the dining room … no, no, he’s in the kitchen … wait, it’s okay, he’s going back to his cage… no he’s not ….he‘s in the living room …. oh, ohhhhhh, ohhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh, he’s hanging precariously from the drapes.
Pluralizing most singular nouns really couldn’t be any easier: you add an s. Orange becomes oranges, sock – socks, and sales assistant – sales assistants. If you add an apostrophe before an s, you are making a noun possessive: the socks belong to the bird = the bird’s socks. Unfortunately, apostrophes take flight and land without reason in handwritten signs outside of stores so often that plural nouns with misplaced punctuation (e.g., fresh apple’s and orange’s, sock’s and shoe’s, sales assistant’s needed) have been dubbed greengrocers’ apostrophes.
It’s easy to find Internet sites and books that thoroughly explain all the rules for using apostrophes. I don’t know why anybody who is unsure of the correct usage of this punctuation mark doesn’t just review the rules once or twice or thirty times to ensure successful landings for the apostrophe every time it sets forth.
Perhaps anyone about to write a sign should imagine an audience eagerly anticipating the result. Oh no, there’s an apostrophe taking off … it’s circling the words … it’s heading for a landing… wait, it’s okay, I think it’s turning back… no, no, it’s going to settle … oh, ohhhhhh, ohhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh, it landed in the sock’s.