My Favourite Sign with a Confusing Apostrophe

Years ago, the Yatala Pie Shoppe was a landmark for Australians and visitors travelling by road between Brisbane and the Gold Coast. The coming of the 2×4 lane motorway saw the end of the old establishment, although the business was bought and re-established at a new site down the road from the old one.

Although I never visited the original pie ‘shoppe’, I was always amused, driving back and forth from Brisbane over the couple of years I lived there, to read the sign

‘Yatala, famous for it’s pies’.

Of course, it is (or it’s) not uncommon for signs in public places to have apostrophes where they should not be, but if we think about what the apostrophe signifies, some of the results can be quite amusing. My Yatala example has always amused me because it means, literally, that the town of Yatala is (made of) pies!

One of the most common mistakes in written English is the misplacement of the apostrophe. And it is a mistake by no means comitted only by people whose first language is not English. I am often surprised by finding incorrectly placed apostrophes in otherwise quite literate writings by apparently quite well educated people, including Australians and Americans whose first language is English.

So why is this such a challenge?

My hunch is that, quite simply, the significance of the apostrophe – i.e. what it ‘signifies’ – has never been explained. And I wonder is that in part because the apostrophe actually signifies something that isn’t there! Because the apostrophe, as in ‘it’s’, ‘he’s’, ‘who’s’ and so on, is in grammatical terms a ‘mark of elision’ – that is, the sign of a vowel or a syllable that has been ‘left out’.

That should clear enough for ‘it’s raining’ meaning ‘it is raining’ and for ‘do you know who’s coming? for ‘do you know who is coming?’

Where it seems to get complicated is in its use as a sign of the possessive, i.e. something belonging to or being owned by someone or something, as in ‘John’s coat’, ‘Rebecca’s dress’.

The basic idea to remember here is that the possessive use comes from an older form of English, where there would have been a letter ‘e’, now replaced by an apostrophe. This is explained clearly at The Dreaded Apostrophe site.

One of the most common errors in using apostrophes these days is as a form of the plural. Thus the plural of CD is written erroneously as ‘CD’s’.

There is an amusing cartoon about the apostrophe here.

My brother, travelling some years ago in a country where little English was spoken, was asked by a shopkeeper how to know when to use the apostrophe. My brother suggested, wisely, that the best approach might be not to use it at all. And that would be my suggestion for anyone unclear about when and when not to use the apostrophe – less chance of showing you don’t know if you leave it out than if you put it where it should not be.

There is a more formal introduction to the use of the apostrophe in this Wikipedia article.

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