Panini’s apostrophes

I have written before about what is sometimes called “grocer’s apostrophes” in English.
Here is a good example I saw recently at a café in York.

The apostrophe before the -s plural suffix on panini doesn’t surprise me. People often put in an apostrophe on a noun that is not a mainstream noun, for example if it comes from another language—in the case of panini, Italian.

The apostrophe on milkshake surprises me more. Milkshake is a well established noun. It may be, though, that two factors conspired in the case of milkshake’s on this list:

  • perhaps some people still feel that the compound noun milkshake is still not quite a mainstream noun.
  • if the writer had some residual hesitancy about whether milkshake is a ‘real’ noun, perhaps its position immediately after panini’s tipped the balance for the writer.

It flabbergasts me, though, to see cake’s with the apostrophe. I can’t think of a more mainstream noun than cake.

When do people use the apostrophe in plurals?

In The Oxford Reference Guide to English Morphology (2013), Laurie Bauer, Rochelle Lieber and Ingo Plag identify 5 cases when some people write the plural ending with an apostrophe -‘s instead of just with -s:

  • things not thought of as proper words (symbols, numbers, letters, abbreviations), for example: p”s, A’s, the 1960’s, 7’s.
  • words being used as nouns because they are mentioned, for example: if’s and but’s.
  • things perceived as only marginal words, such as do’s
  • proper nouns [names] ending in <s>, such as Jones’s
  • foreign words ending in a vowel letter other than <e>, such as pizza’s, piano’s, guru’s.

Bauer, Lieber and Plag comment that:

  • in standard 21st century usage, the apostrophe is now rare in all 5 cases, but sometimes distinguishes a’s from as and i’s from is.
  • in non-standard usage, the apostrophe persists for foreign words. It is also seen advertising some goods on, for example, market stalls and shop signs. This is sometimes the case even for words not ending in a vowel letter at at all. Example include pear’s, apple’s and, in what seems almost a parody, Golden Deliciou’s.

Plurals of Italian words

One last point. Panini is of Italian origin (meaning ‘little bread’ or ‘bread roll’). Bauer, Lieber and Plag comment on plurals of words of foreign origin. On words of Italian origin, they say:

  • some Italian plurals ending in -i (such as celli, libretti) are used only by musicians. These Italian forms are probably best viewed as ‘code-switching’ (from English to Italian) not as genuine English plurals. The regular English plural is always possible for these words.
  • Italian plurals of foodstuffs (such as spaghetti, penne, ravioli) are singular non-count (mass) nouns in English, and function in the same way as, for example, rice.
  • panini and zucchini (though plural in Italian) function in English as singular forms, taking regular plural marking when needed.


  1. In Dutch, the apostrophe is obligatory in the plural of words of foreign origin that take an “s” plural instead of the regular Dutch “en” plural; for example, “foto’s”.

  2. Thanks, Alan. That seems similar to the idea that English writers resort to the apostrophe when the noun is atypical in some way—in form, shape or meaning. That could explain most of the categories listed in The Oxford Reference Guide to English Morphology.
    And it could explain panini’s. And perhaps even milkshake’s, if the writer felt that milkshake is only marginally a real noun.
    But cake’s still leaves me totally flummoxed.

  3. I was taught that proper names of up to 2 syllables should have an apostrophe + ‘s’ but if longer than that they should only have the apostrophe. So Jones’s is correct but St Thomas’ Hospital is incorrect and should be St Thomas’s.

  4. Richard, belated thanks for your comment. I have just looked again at this post (and the comments) because I am writing another post on a related topic.
    Thanks for telling me about the 2-syllable rule you learnt. I assume that was a prescriptive rule you were taught about spelling, rather than an attempt to record how people actually pronounce these forms. I’m not sure I was ever taught a rule like this, though I have a vague memory of hearing something similar somewhere.
    I have just looked at The Oxford Reference Guide to English Morphology (Bauer, Lieber and Plag 2013) and A Student’s Guide to English Grammar (Huddlestone and Pullum, 2005 1st edition, not this year’s 2nd edition). Neither source mentions word length (number of syllables) as a factor. (Both sources aim to be descriptive, not prescriptive).
    Your example of St Thomas’s is interesting. Taken as a single phrase, St Thomas is 3 syllables, though as a single word Thomas has only 2 syllables.

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