The Amazing Flying Comma

Posted by on Feb 19, 2011 in Blog | 2 comments

The Amazing Flying Comma

Our last post had guests ruminating over which of two questions about purple cabbage was correct. The right answer is whose purple cabbage is this? If your instinct was to choose who’s purple cabbage is this? you were probably laboring under the delusion that flying curly-cues tucked amongst the general alphabet look good­—no matter where. You wouldn’t be alone. Abuse of the amazing flying comma, sometimes called the apostrophe, is rampant.

Here’s why who’s purple cabbage is this? doesn’t work: who’s is the contraction for who is. So under this rule, the sentence could alternately read, who is purple cabbage is this? Only terrible Chinese translators talk like this, the same savvy folks who bring us actual menu items like Magical Soil Bean in Asian restaurants from Beijing to Baltimore.

But I digress. Bad Chinese translations to English aside, why are twenty-first century Americans (and Brits, for that matter) so enamored of the apostrophe? Signs everywhere are rife with them, mostly when they aren’t needed. Record’s and CDs. Ice Cream: Try Our’s! And one that drives me personally insane every time I stop by the neighborhood convenience store: Gas ‘n’ Grocerie’s.

Folks, mini-lesson in apostrophes: the word grocery is singular; groceries is the plural form of that word. Among other uses, an apostrophe suggests ownership or possession. So, the groceries here own something? What— the store? Our sanity? It’s the sign makers, I tell you. They paint the word groceries and muse to themselves, “Aw heck, groceries looks kind of lonely by itself; I’ll just throw in one of those little flying commas to keep it company.” And what about Jay’s Auto’s? Most people are going to correctly assume that it’s Jay who owns the autos. Yet who can say what Jay, or the sign maker he hired, may have been thinking: perhaps a simple desire to be inclusive, giving the autos in the car lot the impression that Jay and they mutually own each other, so nobody’s feelings are hurt.

One more mini-lesson, since misuse of the apostrophe dies hard: these are Bonnie’s sawed-off shotguns. The guns belong to Bonnie; the apostrophe between her name and the s tells us so. But what if both Bonnie and Clyde, as a unit, own the guns? Here the second half of the unit takes the apostrophe, and the sentence looks like this: these are Bonnie and Clyde’s sawed-off shotguns.


Ah, but neither Bonnie nor Clyde’s names end with an s. Nouns that end in s are where the punctuation rubber truly meets the road. Let’s take the family they call Jones, the people with whom so many people try to keep up. The Jones family owns, say, five BMWs. If we wish to communicate that the Jones family owns the cars, we’re obliged to add an es and an apostrophe to the end of Jones: these are the Joneses’ five BMWs. And don’t even think about inserting an apostrophe between BMW and s, just because Jay does it. BMWs is simply the plural of BMW; I guarantee you that the BMWs own or possess nothing in this case; the Joneses do!

There’s no stopping the abuse of flying commas, so I suggest we go with it and create a sign makers’ “credo of apostrophe” to be part of every sign painting job application. Applicants would explain, in three hundred words or less, they’re personal’ philosophie’s of apostrophe,s’.


  1. So assuming we owned five BMWs, would they be the Gateses’ or the Gates’ BMWs? I’ve always assumed the latter but now your messing with me and I’m all corn-fused. I may quit and go become a sign-maker.

    • If the BMWs belong to the Gates family as a whole, you’d write, the Gateses’ BMWs. If only Leary Gates owns the cars, it would look like this: Leary Gates’ BMWs. Don’t be a sign
      maker; you’d lose your grip on grammar.

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