The greengrocer’s apostrophe and the ‘ten items’ supermarket sign. MEGAN PIKE investigates our continuing obsession with language ‘correctness’

Once upon a time, ‘silly’ used to refer to things which were blessed or worthy, and ‘nice’ made reference to someone who was silly. The English language is forever evolving and changing…. Fact! (TED, 2014) So why do people fight so hard to preserve and maintain this ‘perfect’ English language? Why do they continue to fight a losing battle?

Firstly, we should address exactly who these people are: they are often referred to as prescriptivists (although others may have a slightly different name for them). When there is a grammar mistake on a Facebook post, they will be there to comment. When Tesco’s say ‘ten items or less’ rather than ‘ten items or fewer’, you can guarantee they will have their pens at the ready to complain. They believe that the English language should be regulated, and that a correct way of speaking and writing should be ‘prescribed’ (Crystal, 2006).  But the real question is, do they have a point?

Aitchison (1997, pp. 9-14) explored how people’s obsession with maintaining the language stems from the fears and worries that come with language change. With three (slightly overlapping) ideas she explains the main concerns with the English language with what she labels ‘the damp spoon syndrome’, ‘the crumbling castle effect’ and ‘the infectious diseases theory’. In all of these ideas the English language is referred to as a physical entity that can be tarnished in some way. From new words coming in to the language being described as a disease to colloquial language being related to the same laziness that would cause someone to use a wet spoon to get sugar, these accusations paint language change in a vividly negative way.

On the other end of the spectrum you have the descriptivists. They believe in the observation of language change rather than attempting to regulate it (Trask, 2007 p. 69). The Oxford English Dictionary (OED), often referred to as the ‘authority’ on the English language, are themselves descriptivist. Over the past 150 years they have documented the change of English over the last 1,000 years. Because of this we can now trace the origins of over 600,000 words (OED, 2016). They aim to change with the language, not cause a change in language. Many linguists support this approach to language change, with Lakoff (as reported in Cameron, 1995, p.4) reporting that as long as language change comes from within and is an unconscious process rather than an attempt to manipulate the language, then language change is healthy.

If we take language in its bare form, as a form of communication, then as long as the change does not hinder communication, then surely change is good. David Crystal (2006, p.455) explains this idea through the example of the ‘greengrocer’s apostrophe’. If a greengrocer was to misuse an apostrophe on his sign displaying what he has in the shop, it would have no effect on the legibility or connotations of the sign. Whether he sells ‘potatoes’’ or ‘potatoe’s’, the place of the apostrophe does not affect the message, so why should it matter? The message is still conveyed, therefore the texts meets its purpose.

However, although there are many positives to allowing language change, prescriptivists have a point. There are many cases of careless punctuation that, for example, would confuse the message behind it and therefore lose clarity. For example, there is a very big difference between ‘let’s eat, grandma’ and ‘let’s eat grandma’! The comma is essential for differentiating between eating with grandma or eating grandma.  There is also the issue of how far should we let change happen. In 2015 the Oxford English Dictionary made its word of the year a ‘crying with laughter emoji’ (OED, 2016), and even many open minded people would agree that this is perhaps pushing it too far.

Obviously, there is no stopping language change, and generally I tend to side more with descriptivism. However, sometimes the careless use of a comma, lack of a full stop or misapplication of a word can result in major misunderstandings and, at times like this, it makes far more sense to side with the prescriptivists. Hence, if the best aspects are taken from both extremes of the debate then we can reach a balance, which will allow the language to grow without loss of legibility.

MEGAN PIKE, English Language undergraduate, University of Chester


Aitchison, J. (1997). The language web: the power and problems of words. Cambridge, United Kingdom: Cambridge University Press.

Cameron, D. (1995). Verbal Hygiene, The politics of Language. London, United Kingdom: Routledge.

Crystal, D. (2006). How language works: how babies babble, words change meanings and languages live or die. London, United Kingdom: Penguin.

OED Online. (2016). Oxford University Press. Retrieved March 17, 2016, from

TED. (2014). Ideas TED. Retrieved April 1, 2016.

Trask, R. L. (1999). Language: the basics. London, United Kingdom: Routledge.


One thought on “The greengrocer’s apostrophe and the ‘ten items’ supermarket sign. MEGAN PIKE investigates our continuing obsession with language ‘correctness’

  1. Emily Page says:

    – Megan

    This is a really insightful post about the battle between the prescriptivists and descriptivists. I found it really interesting!
    I completely agree that the main function of language is for communication and Crystal (2006) is correct that so long as messages can be conveyed correctly, then language change should be permitted. Having said this, I would be lying if I said I don’t get frustrated by non-standard forms of language and so I do sympathise with the prescriptivist view.

    I liked your example of the ‘face with tears of joy’ emoji becoming the OED’s word of the year in 2015. It has to be said that although I am open to language change, I found the idea of this very difficult and perhaps an example of descriptivism gone too far.

    Language change is inevitable and we would be fighting a losing battle in an attempt to prevent it. I feel as though the English language should be accepting of lexical additions as they reflect the ongoing changes in society. However, I feel the importance lies in promoting standard forms of grammar, spelling and punctuation as inconsistent uses are bound to confuse children learning to read/ write or anyone learning English as an additional language.

    – Emily

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