Monday 11 January 2016

Humour: Apostrophic Moments and Dialectical Disputations

It’s not often that life throws up the opportunity to talk about women’s underwear with a complete stranger. But there it was. I was passing a lingerie store in the shopping mall and eyed the offending poster glued to the front window. “SALE!” it declared; “BRA'S 20% off.”

Bra’s? I thought. That’s not right. The mistake stuck out—you know—stuck out like a sore thumb. I stepped inside and approached the woman behind the sales counter at the back of the store. This might be construed as indelicate, but I thrust myself forward, anyway. 

“Bra’s,” I said. “B-R-A-apostrophe-S.”

“What?” she said.

“Your sign on the store window,” I replied; “It says Bra’s for sale. The word 'bras' is actually spelt with just an s. You don’t need the apostrophe.” She looked at me blankly. “To form a plural,” I persisted, “just add an s. Apostrophe-s is the possessive—it means belonging to the bra.”


“You don’t need an apostrophe to make the plural," I explained; "it’s Grade 4 stuff."

"Look ... the poster came to us from Toronto. We just stuck it on the window.”

“But it’s wrong,” I said; “you ought to fix it.”

“I’ll tell the manager.”

“Yeah, right.”

This sort of thing often gets me going. It should be nipped, you know … nipped in the bud. If you’re going to try to seize my attention in order to sell me something, at least get the spelling, the punctuation and the grammar correct. OK? Otherwise I’m likely to take direct action. 

This superfluous use of the apostrophe is referred to in Britain as the greengrocer’s apostrophe—because of its common misapplication on market-stall signs: banana’s, apple’s, and pear’s, for example. And, of course, we might laugh at the mistaken spelling of the singular ‘potatoe'—remember when we laughed at Dan Quayle for that mistake?—but then go and write up a sign for a bunch of them as potato’s. 

Sometimes you complain, and the response is useless; but at other times, you can succeed in getting things fixed.

I was at the ATM in my local bank branch, some time ago, when I read a hand-made sign done in bold lettering. It was taped to the top panel of the machine.  At the top of the sign it declared simply: “Saturday’s.” Further down the sign it explained that the bank was now going to be open from 10:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m. on all "Saturday’s". I finished my ATM banking and strolled into the main door of the branch. I was met by a greeter near the door. She was seated on a stool behind a mini-counter. As is my want, I jumped straight in—with little preamble.

“It says on a sign in the ATM room out there that you’re open on Saturday’s: S-A-T-U-R-D-A-Y-apostrophe-S.”


“Well, you don’t need the apostrophe, do you? For a plural noun, just add an s.”

“You’re right,” she said. “That’s a silly mistake. I’ll look into getting it fixed.”

“Well … OK … thanks.” I left the bank happy—mission accomplished, I thought. Sure enough, the next time I was at that ATM—a few days later—the sign was still posted there, but the apostrophe had been removed with liquid paper. And the sign is still there almost a year later. Every time I see that whited-out apostrophe, I register a moment of satisfaction. Of such small things is progress made.

But it is a constant battle. You have to keep people on their toes. A while ago I was passing a small shop in our neighbourhood. A poster in the window said: "Tis’ the Season to be Giving."

I poked my head in the door. 

“Hello?” I called.

“Yes,” came a voice from the back of the shop.

“The sign in your front window ... it says Tis', T-I-S-apostrophe. The apostrophe should be placed at the front: apostrophe-T-I-S.”


“Tis is an abbreviation for ‘it is’. You drop the i at the beginning, so an apostrophe belongs there. Not at the end.”

She strode up to the front of the store and gazed briefly at the window—reading the words on the poster in reverse. “You know, you’re absolutely right,” she said. “I screwed that up. I’ll do up another one. Thanks for pointing that out.”

“Yeah, no problem—you’re welcome.” Well, that’s different, I thought.

Sometimes, though, the problem with offending signs isn’t a matter of spelling or punctuation—it’s a matter of reason or logic.

I was in the Pita Pit, once—with my wife—negotiating the purchase of a falafel sandwich. Above the cash machine was a sign that read “Extra Essentials”. It was announcing the optional side dishes: humus, baba ganouje, and the like. 

I looked at the cashier and then pointed up at the sign. She looked up, over her shoulder.

“Extra essentials?” I asked.


“Well, think about it,” I said. “If they’re extra, then they’re not essentials, are they? I mean, the essentials are basic, right? It’s what you get regardless of anything else. They’re not extras. If you want extras, it’s going to be over and above the basics. Right?”

My wife pinched me on the arm. "Clive ... ", she said with noticeable irritation. But I pressed on.

The cashier looked up at the sign again. And then gave me a look of some disdain.

“Well, they are extra, anyway, aren’t they?”

“Oxymoronic—perhaps—but not essential. And I’ll just stick to the falafel, OK?”

Yes, the wording of some signs just beggars belief. I was in Ikea once and noticed an emergency exit with the following notice printed on it: THIS DOOR IS ALARMED AND SHOULD NOT BE OPENED. In bold capital letters, no less. 

I found the nearest ‘sales associate’ to express my concern. I pointed over to the door.

“Why is that door alarmed?”

“Why? Because it’s an emergency door.”

“Yes, I realize that. It’s doing a useful job—closed and blocking our way; so why would it be alarmed? What is it afraid of?”


“Well, there are two problems here, you see. First, you have the illegitimate use of a noun as a past participle.” Her eyebrows were lifted skyward. “And the passive voice here is just plainly wrong. This ought to be an imperative statement: DO NOT OPEN THIS DOOR – THERE IS AN ALARM ATTACHED. That sort of thing.”

“Really, sir?”

“Oh, yes—cruel to leave it alarmed for so long, don't you think, without any assistance.”

She looked a little confused. And, for some reason, rather flabbergasted. I turned away to find my wife—who had put some considerable distance between herself and me. 

My long-suffering wife. We got into an argument one time about a 'debate' I had with a waitress out on the east coast. We were seated at the restaurant inside the Keith’s brewery in downtown Halifax. 

The waitress was waiting patiently at our table, while I examined the list of Keith's beers on tap. The menu informed us that the half-pints and pints of ale on offer were served in eight- and sixteen-ounce glasses respectively.

“You can’t call it a pint,” I explained parenthetically, “if it’s not twenty fluid ounces.”

“It is a pint, sir” she said. She pointed at the spot on the menu. "There ... pint—sixteen ounces."

“Sorry, that's just wrong—an imperial pint is 20 fluid ounces.”

"We serve pints, sir."

"Clive ...".

"I'll ask in the kitchen, sir."


She disappeared to confer with her partners in crime, who were hiding somewhere beyond the swinging door. My wife registered her disapproval. I explained defensively about the illegality of charging pint-prices for servings that were four ounces short.

A couple of minutes later [Oh, to have been a fly on the wall in that kitchen!] she was back.

"It's a pint," she reported, with an air of satisfaction. "Sixteen ounces is an American pint."

I looked at her and said—with what my wife mistakenly described later as an air of condescension: "But this is Canada; we use Imperial measures here. Right?"

For many years my local pub had "nacho's" on their menu. After I had made several apostrophic interventions about this egregious error, the establishment finally fixed the problem. The new menu included "nachos"—but also this strange item: "Formerly Known As" Bacon n' Mozzarella Burger. Ignoring for now the punctuation mistake, ponder for a moment the problematic logic of this peculiar nomenclature.

When the waitress arrived to take our orders, I broached the issue in a calm and reasonable manner.

"It says here 'Formerly known as' Bacon n' Mozzarella Burger."

"Yes, sirit's quite tasty, actually," she replied.

"That's as maybe. But I'd like to know what it's called now. The menu ought to be telling us, eh."

I felt a kick to the shin from my wife, who was seated across the table from me. She was glaring at me, for some reason.

"What do you mean? It's a Bacon and mozzarella burger—with French fries on the side."

"Forget the fries," I said. "I need to know what the burger is called—in case I'm keen to order."

"I don't get your point, sir. It's a Bacon and Mozzarella burger."

"No, that's the former name. What do you call it now?"

"Clive ... !" said my wife, in a strange tone.

"OK, then; I'll have a pound of chicken wings—with medium sauce."

After the waitress took our order to the kitchen, my wife said: "You know what, sometimes you can be a bit of an asshole."

"No," I replied. "It's not asshole; it's arsehole. Besides, I don't understand what you mean."



  1. I think you should set up your own sign writing business, Clive.
    I had better not point you towards my latest guest article for Deb Barnum at Jane Austen in Vermont. In a photograph of one of the many Jane Austen signs put up by Southampton Council there is a mistaken use of the possessive apostrophe. It has caused a small furore!!!

    1. Ha, ha! Yes. Tony, when I write a piece like this, I proofread very carefully. It's embarrassing to make elementary mistakes of the very kind you're criticizing!

  2. very funny piece Clive - though i'm sure your wife's patience (wifes' patience?) must have been tried a few times too often :)

    1. My general attitude is of "the customer is always right" type; my wife's is more along the lines of "don't cause a fuss" (or don't be a jerk!).

      I have to say that I invariably engage the server in conversation or, if I judge the moment is appropriate, some banter or repartee. I often offer up my opinion on the food, or certain things I don't like about the ingredients (one pet peeve, for example, is the use of black olives from a tin—ghastly!) I figure, if you pay so handsomely to eat out, you might as well get your two-cent comments in. Right?

  3. Thank you, Clive, as always. And remember: nil illegitimis carborundum.

  4. I just reread you blog about the apostrophe, and one word "jumped out" at me in this sentence: "She was seated on a stool behind a mini-counter. As is my want, I jumped straight in—with little preamble." It is the word "want". Is that the word which you "desired" or was it perhaps another word, viz., "wont"? (And I am still not sure of the pronunciation. Every day, when I am in class, I am reminded of the almost continual lack of connection in English between spelling and pronunciation.)
    In any case, "keep on truckin'"