Yes! We Have No Banana’s*

*Superfluous apostrophe intentional—please, no angry letters.

A recording of the Broadway revue tune “Yes! We Have No Bananas” spent five weeks at number one in 1923 (which speaks to a simpler time, I think). It tells of a greengrocer who has string beans, onions, cabbages, scallions, tomatoes, potatoes, coconuts, walnuts, and two kinds of red herring but is out of bananas. An agreeable fellow, “he never bananas_cutoutanswers ‘no,’” so when customers request the tropical yellow fruit, he responds with the famous titular line. Believe it or not, there is a tenuous connection between this novelty song and superfluous apostrophes in plural words. Can you possibly imagine what it is?

The insertion of an apostrophe before the final s in a plural noun is a common pet peeve among the “apostrophe intelligent.” But did you know this contentious grammatical error has a name—a really cute one? It’s called a “greengrocer’s apostrophe,” after the misuse of apostrophes on the often handwritten signs in greengrocers’ shops: “FRESH ENGLISH PEA’S,” “SEEDLESS GRAPE’S,” “JUICY NECTARINE’S,” “LEMON’S, 25¢ EACH.” By the way, I am not insinuating that Jimmy Costas, the Long Island greengrocer who allegedly inspired the song about out-of-stock bananas made this blunder himself—he was just an interest-creating device.

In case it’s news to you that apostrophes have no place in plurals, or you are a greengrocer, let’s review the rule for creating standard plural forms (from The Chicago Manual of Style):

Most nouns form their plural by adding s or—if they end in chjsshx, or z—by adding esFor example:

  • boy/boys
  • apple/apples
  • watch/watches
  • dish/dishes
  • tax/taxes

But what would a rule be without exceptions? For some words, you just have to learn the correct plural form or (as a last resort) consult a dictionary:

Words ending in y that changes to ies

  • ruby/rubies
  • family/families

Certain words ending in o

  • tomato/tomatoes
  • hero/heroes

Certain words of Latin or Greek origin

  • bacterium/bacteria
  • crisis/crises

All words with irregular plurals

  • child/children
  • ox/oxen

Of course, there are additional nuances—we are talking about the English language. For example, Chicago recommends using the singular form for the plural for names ending in an unpronounced s or x, as in “the seventeen Louis of France.” There is also one instance in which an apostrophe should be used to indicate a plural, to aid in comprehension: for lowercase letters used as words, such as “x’s and y’s.” On a related note, capital letters used as words, numerals used as nouns, and abbreviations form the plural by simply adding s: “two As and three Bs,” “the 1970s,” “PCs.” There are exceptions to this rule, as well, but we won’t get into those here.

Today’s takeaway: don’t be possessive about plurals!

1 thought on “Yes! We Have No Banana’s*

  1. Pingback: Proofing Your Own Writing | Novel-Gazing

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