BBC in diner truck apostrophe scandal

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The BBC is doing a day or two of filming on the roof terrace of the building that houses my department, and the parking lot below our windows is thick with dressing room trailers and wardrobe trailers and generator trucks. Plus there is one other vehicle: parked directly below the windows of the room where the faculty of the country's finest department of Linguistics and English Language hold their staff meetings is a large catering truck to provide lunch for the crew, and it is labeled DeluxDiner's.

The company that owns it is called "DeluxDiners". They have a website at As you can see from that page, the company name is a regular plural. There is no trace of an apostrophe in the web page text. But there is a photograph of one of their lunch trucks, with the offending apostrophe up there in red.

My department is in an uproar. Older members are pacing the corridor muttering to themselves and brandishing copies of Fowler's Modern English Usage (I don't know why they do that brandishing thing). Younger members are planning sit-ins or worse. American members of the faculty (we have quite a few) are cleaning their weapons. (Firearms are just about totally forbidden in this country, so they do not have their revolvers, but they are oiling the bows and arrows they brought over.)

There is going to be trouble here. The BBC have paid the university for a quiet day of unimpeded control over our roof terrace, to film several scenes of some drama (I don't know what, exactly); and that is all very well, but we did not expect them to bring in this orthographic scandal, this brightly colored monstrosity of grammatical uncouthness, this mobile lunchroom of illiteracy.

Someone recently told me that the diner truck is actually subcontracted to a company called KoCo, which is a subsidiary of Shed Media Scotland, which is part of the Shed Media Group, which was recently sold to Time Warner. So it may be Time Warner that should be protested against, and not the BBC at all. I don't know. But what I do know is that sooner or later some hothead is going to seize the moment and the doors to that roof terrace are going to burst open during a shoot and an army of linguists and English language specialists are going to rush out there and stage a demo.

The big question for me is, as a responsible head of department should I try to prevent it? Or as a grammarian, documenter of Standard English, and defender of educational standards, should I join in the demonstration?

You will need to watch the TV news to find out which way my conscience finally led me. Either way there could be (indeed, probably will be) bad press.

Will it be Simon Heffer and Lynne Truss Attack "Liberal" Grammar Prof Over BBC Lunch Van Typo: University Threatens Dismissal?

Or Language Log Writer Held on Public Disorder Charge After Edinburgh Apostrophe Riot, University Threatens Dismissal?

Tell me what should I do, commenters.


  1. Mark Etherton said,

    October 5, 2010 @ 9:37 am

    Perhaps you could apostrophize the caterers. Or the demonstrators.

  2. Paul said,

    October 5, 2010 @ 9:52 am

    Suggest a respelling to "Deluck'sDiner's"?

  3. Faldone said,

    October 5, 2010 @ 9:53 am

    Or perhap's is'sue a department wide dictum that any es's s'hall henceforth have an apo'strophe immediately next to it. Any ins'tance double es's can 'share one between them.

  4. Ginger Yellow said,

    October 5, 2010 @ 9:53 am

    If we can't get a good crash blossom out of this, what are we for?

  5. Pflaumbaum said,

    October 5, 2010 @ 9:57 am

    If it's a BBC caterer, take my word for it the apostrophe will be by far the least offensive thing on that truck.

  6. Giliell said,

    October 5, 2010 @ 10:11 am

    That's what I usually call a "catostrophe"
    But I can't help feeling a bit of revenge here: After the English apostrophe before the genitive S invaded German, that kind of wierd plurals also showed up (you can drink a lot of cocktail's and eat hot dog's)

  7. Dan T. said,

    October 5, 2010 @ 10:14 am

    Maybe it's intended as a possessive where the van is concerned, indicating that the company owns the van? (But if the company has a plural "s" at the end of its name already, the apostrophe should be after it.)

  8. Faldone said,

    October 5, 2010 @ 10:22 am

    That's my argument for the apostrophe so often seen in signs in the front yard of private homes, e.g., The Smith's. It indicates that the mortgage has been paid off and the bank has no interest in the property, It is solely the property of the head of household, i.e., the Smith.

  9. ceiswyn said,

    October 5, 2010 @ 10:24 am

    …and shouldn't it be spelled 'Deluxe', anyway?

    [Yes. But the missing e is the least of my troubles. People are starting to gather and wave their fists at the setup crews working to get the diner reading for the cast's lunches. And it's not the 5th letter of the alphabet they're angry about, it's the 27th. —GKP]

  10. Paul said,

    October 5, 2010 @ 10:30 am

    There is no real documentary. It's a clever ruse to elicit a reaction, Ali G-style.

  11. Chris Hunt said,

    October 5, 2010 @ 10:44 am

    I thought Lunch Van Typo was a Dutch journalist before I discovered this post.

  12. Picky said,

    October 5, 2010 @ 10:48 am

    You're an amateur, GKP. Lynne Truss demands university sack threat for pinko BBC snack van typo prof

  13. Ginger Yellow said,

    October 5, 2010 @ 10:55 am

    Surely: Truss in pinko BBC snack van typo prof university sack threat demand

  14. Picky said,

    October 5, 2010 @ 10:57 am

    In fact my chief sub has smartened that up to

    Lynne Truss in pinko BBC snack van prof sack threat plea

  15. Picky said,

    October 5, 2010 @ 10:58 am

    You must have been talking to him, Ginger.

  16. Lars Karlsson said,

    October 5, 2010 @ 11:04 am

    My English isn't very good, but I have a question so I suppose I should do my best to deliver it anyway.
    Why is it that you capitalize the first letters of the words in headlines? I've seen this done before in other contexts by regular people, and assumed they didn't know what they were doing.
    In Sweden we either capitalize all letters or we write normal sentences. Your way of doing it feels weird.

    [I don't know why. And in some papers the gratuitous capitalization of significant words is not done. But capitalization is the least of my worries; there's an apostrophe riot brewing here. —GKP]

  17. Anna Phor said,

    October 5, 2010 @ 11:04 am

    Linguists Perturbed as BBC Crew Eats Shoots and Leaves

  18. Picky said,

    October 5, 2010 @ 11:10 am

    Lars: I'm not the right one to answer you, because it's an American habit, but I suppose it's a bit like initially capitalising the name of a book or play, as though it were a title or proper noun.

  19. Picky said,

    October 5, 2010 @ 11:12 am

    Anna: they can't be perturbed. Shocked, perhaps. Or 'riot'. Or 'run amuck'. Or 'in orgy'.

  20. Faldone said,

    October 5, 2010 @ 11:27 am

    @ Lars:

    It's one of several options available to US headline writers. At one extreme all words have initial caps, at the other it's standard sentence style. In between you have only nouns, only important words, and everything except prepositions and articles (the, a, an). It varies from publication to publication.

  21. Pflaumbaum said,

    October 5, 2010 @ 11:31 am

    I don't think it's a particularly American thing.

  22. richard howland-bolton said,

    October 5, 2010 @ 11:41 am

    Is this an extension of the Grocers apostrophe?
    Damn! The buggers used them all up and there wasnt one left for this comment.

    God made the wicked Grocer
    For a mystery and a sign,
    That men might shun the awful shops
    And go to inns to dine…

  23. dwmacg said,

    October 5, 2010 @ 12:03 pm

    All this talk of demos, apostrophes, and newspapers reminds me of a headline from the Turkish Daily News years ago:

    "Big Students Demo in China"

    I think the story had something to do with the size of the classroom desks.

  24. Chris said,

    October 5, 2010 @ 12:22 pm

    :You should round up a few of your colleagues, wander over the the truck, and start talking about stranded prepositions. Then when whoever's manning the thing makes the inevitable stupid joke, you will be justified in setting it on fire with the jokester trapped within. Apostrophe problem solved, and important example made, both at once.

  25. Eric said,

    October 5, 2010 @ 12:36 pm

    On that side of the pond, though, it'd have to be "BBC crew eat shoots and leaves."

  26. Picky said,

    October 5, 2010 @ 12:50 pm

    Pflaumbaum: No? I'm sure you're right. Where were you thinking of?

  27. John Ellis said,

    October 5, 2010 @ 1:20 pm

    Well, as the camera crew and everything are there, why not change the drama to be a war movie?

    Apostrophe Now

  28. michael farris said,

    October 5, 2010 @ 1:29 pm

    I know a clever story about Churchill and apostrophes but now I'm afraid for my life if I tell it.

  29. Jeremy Wheeler said,

    October 5, 2010 @ 1:32 pm

    God! Can't you all see what is going on here? GKP is logging all the boring, peeving, faux-amusing, poorly referenced, smart-arse comments about apostrophes and adding the commenters to his hit list. You poor, poor fools…

  30. Alan Gunn said,

    October 5, 2010 @ 1:33 pm

    Some years ago my son told one of his sergeants that he'd have him taken out and shot if he persisted in his plan to put an apostrophe in the plural of "mortar." Surely a head of department has at least as much power as a second lieutenant, though some might raise legalistic quibbles about the caterers not being in your chain of command. Trouble is, as this is happening in Britain there's probably nothing handy to shoot people with.

    Like Gillell, I have noticed the possessive apostrophe in German, at least in names of businesses. I wonder if this is another thing to hold McDonald's responsible for.

  31. Jon Carr said,

    October 5, 2010 @ 1:56 pm

    I’m interested as to whether you’d categorize this as a grammatical error or an orthographical error. It always seemed a little weird to me to refer to apostrophe abuse as an error of grammar, when it’s really a matter of spelling. Put differently, if this were spoken, there’d be no error; so it must be an error specific to written conventions.

    Or maybe it’s a moot point: it seems to me that ‘grammar’ has popularly become a catch-all term to include the use of punctuation.

  32. Liam said,

    October 5, 2010 @ 2:14 pm

    On a lunch truck, who's to say what's an apostrophe, and what's just a stray splotch of hot sauce?

    Someone who has licked the side of the truck, that's who.

  33. Martin said,

    October 5, 2010 @ 2:26 pm

    English Guide Rings Bust Drama Shoot Over Mark.

  34. KevinM said,

    October 5, 2010 @ 2:38 pm

    @Lars: Use of capitalization in headlines is actually something of a vexed question among journalists. Many feel that capitalizing all letters or capitalizing the first letters of words detracts from clarity. Using normal capitalization actually tends to minimize ambiguities in headlines known as crash blossoms; at least it prevents a proper noun from being mistaken for something else, as in one of my favorites: "Wild Sign Right Wing Christian Matte." (The Minnesota Wild are a hockey team, who signed a contract with a player named Christian Matte. Nothing about right wing Christians or wild signs was intended. Use of standard capitalization would have given the non-Minnesotan, non-hockey fan reader at least a fighting chance.)

  35. Lars Karlsson said,

    October 5, 2010 @ 3:03 pm

    Thank you all for the interesting answers.

  36. Iulus said,

    October 5, 2010 @ 3:30 pm

    Are you sure this shouldn't be filed under "prescriptivist poppycock"?
    I mean, an obvious understand is that they are a company in the business of providing Delux(e) mobile Diners, so the plural is obvious and appropriate. [Wow. I've seen some careless readers commenting on Language Log, but you really collect the confectionery. You'll probably realize later and hate yourself. —GKP]
    If you should be getting mad at missing apostrophes, it should be in the (at least Americanly) ubiquitous "cleaners," which only makes sense if there are multiple cleaners. The presence of multiple cleaning employees seems irrelevant to the name "cleaners."

    Also, I notice you said, "The BBC have paid the university." Is this a component of British grammar? In my part of the US, at least, an institution is thought of as a singular, but considering them plural is certainly logical. [British syntax showing: nouns denoting companies or teams take plural agreement nearly all the time in British English. —GKP]

  37. Rebekah said,

    October 5, 2010 @ 3:45 pm

    You could have one of the American members of the faculty cover up the apostrophe with duct tape.

  38. BAnn said,

    October 5, 2010 @ 3:47 pm

    Relax. I once saw a snack van in Berlin which had "Chick'n'Wings" in bold letters written on one of its sides. And that's just one of common German apostrophe atrocities.

  39. Chandra said,

    October 5, 2010 @ 3:48 pm

    @Giliell: Indeed, a catostrophe brought on by an atrostrophe.

  40. Terry Collmann said,

    October 5, 2010 @ 3:58 pm

    Lars/Plaumbaum: capitalising initial letters of headlines is strictly a North American habit, and never found in newspapers printed in the the British Isles. It's supposed to derive from the days of lead type, when words sometimes had to be squeezed together to fit the space available and CapitalisingInitialLettersMadeSqueezedHeadlinesEasierToRead.

  41. Delux Diner said,

    October 5, 2010 @ 4:02 pm

    Actually, that's my van.

  42. groki said,

    October 5, 2010 @ 4:12 pm

    calm your minions, GKP:

    DeluxDiners is plural*, but the singular of course would be a DeluxDiner. the catering truck is obviously not large enough for more than single-serve, so only one DeluxDiner at a time. while that DeluxDiner is being served, the company devotes itself to that DeluxDiner.

    so the apostrophe is simply meant to suggest that, for the duration of the catered transaction, DeluxDiners is the DeluxDiner's.

  43. Jac said,

    October 5, 2010 @ 4:20 pm

    I think you're right, Jeremy, but they have not heeded your warning.

  44. Sili said,

    October 5, 2010 @ 4:37 pm

    …and shouldn't it be spelled 'Deluxe', anyway?

    That's what the apostrophe is there for. You put in one of those ticky things when you take out a letter, so "Deluxe Diners" becomes "DeluxDiner's". Easy! See?

  45. groki said,

    October 5, 2010 @ 4:44 pm

    *the lost footnote was something OT about the incoherence of the phrase "one-person company."

  46. Iulus said,

    October 5, 2010 @ 4:55 pm

    Somehow I read this article twice as "DeluxDiners" and not "DeluxDiner's." The peeving makes more sense now.

  47. Bloix said,

    October 5, 2010 @ 5:05 pm

    "Why is it that you capitalize the first letters of the words in headlines?"

    The headline is thought of as the title of the article. In American usage, all "important words" in titles (of books, articles, chapters, etc.) are capitalized. In Sweden, you apparently don't have that convention, e.g., Män som hatar kvinnor, not Män Som Hatar Kvinnor.

  48. Clarissa at Talk to the Clouds said,

    October 5, 2010 @ 5:07 pm

    Iulus, that is a common difference between American (North American?) and British English(s). Collective nouns are much more often treated as plural in British English and singular in American English, with some flexibility depending on the perspective of the speaker.

  49. Ellen K. said,

    October 5, 2010 @ 6:34 pm

    KevinM, if one capitalizes "Christians", and capitalizes the first word of a title, then "Wild" and "Christian" are capitalized whether they are names or not, so even with ordinary capitalization, one might see a wild sign and a right-wing Christian with a missing hyphen in that headline. ("Wild Sign Right Wing Christian Matte." versus ""Wild sign right wing Christian Matte."). (Although, one possible wrong reading would have matte rather than Matte, though what a right-wing Christian matte would be I don't know.)

  50. Baron Counterpane said,

    October 5, 2010 @ 6:48 pm

    Indeed. Crystal Palace is the name of an English football team and also an English Basketball team. An English soccer commentator would say, "Palace are ahead thanks to a second half penalty" whereas I once heard an American basketball commentator on a televised match say "Crystal is back in the lead thanks to that three-pointer".

  51. Joyce Melton said,

    October 5, 2010 @ 7:19 pm

    Obviously, a matte cut to fit a right-wing Christian so that his hideous polyester sweater does not show on the plate.

  52. Stephen Nicholson said,

    October 5, 2010 @ 7:36 pm

    Tell the other faculty and staff that you've talked to people that run the catering service. Tell them that, because it's been subcontracted to hell and back, they didn't realize that DeluxDiners is a regular plural. They'll change it after they get paid for this gig.

    Or you could join them and tell them to go after the backwards "R" in Toys "R" Us next.

  53. Brian said,

    October 5, 2010 @ 7:39 pm

    I think covering up the apostrophe (presumably using gaffer tape) is the best plan.

  54. Jonathan Lundell said,

    October 5, 2010 @ 9:06 pm

    Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill!

  55. Frank Y. Gladney said,

    October 5, 2010 @ 9:45 pm

    Here in Urbana, Illinois, we shop at Schnuck's. Suppose we wanted to say, The prices at Schnuck's are the lowest in town, but instead of "at Schnuck's" we wanted to prepose it as one word before "prices": we'd say it [shnuk.sIs], but how on earth would we spell it?

  56. Will said,

    October 6, 2010 @ 12:09 am

    This particular apostrophe mistake — turning a plural into a possessive at the end of a restaurant name — is actually one that doesn't bother me at all. The analogy to other restaurants where there actually is a possessive is so strong in my mind that the apostrophe here is actually an almost helpful marker.

    In any other context though, randomly putting an apostrophe before an S bothers the hell out of me.

  57. The Same Eric said,

    October 6, 2010 @ 1:00 am

    Frank:I have uttered monstrosities before such as, "I prefer McDonald's's nuggets."And that's how I write it.

  58. vozbox said,

    October 6, 2010 @ 4:00 am

    You could stage a silent, tongue-in-cheek protest with one of these "shirt's." I own one and get a good bit of mileage out of it, though I admit it can be alarming how many people don't get the joke.

  59. Mark Gould said,

    October 6, 2010 @ 5:42 am

    In an attempt to wrap up the BBC 'collective noun' issue, it is worth remembering that the British Broadcasting Corporation is a single legal person (a corporation, in fact), whereas something like Her Majesty's Government is a ragbag of individuals or institutions (depending on the context). On that basis, I don't think it can ever be right to treat the BBC as a collective noun.

    But that is a lawyer's perspective, rather than a linguist's, so I am ready to be corrected. (By whatever means is most appropriate, or handy.)

  60. Alan Palmer said,

    October 6, 2010 @ 6:50 am

    I wouldn't say that the aberrant apostrophe could be described as a "typo". A typo happens when someone makes a mistake in typing a word, such as accidentally leaving out a letter or hitting the wrong key. The missing e in "Deluxe" could (but is unlikely to be) a typo, but the apostrophe must have been deliberately typed.

  61. tpr said,

    October 6, 2010 @ 7:32 am

    I can see the apostrophe being used as a pretext for military intervention.

  62. Christian DiCanio said,

    October 6, 2010 @ 7:39 am

    In my dialect of English, it is quite normal to use a possessive when referring to places, even when no possessive is normally used in the place name compound. Referring to a place like "Douglas Plumbing", it is normal to hear someone say "I should call Douglas's." Referring to a place called "Pellicano Foods", one could say "I bought it at Pellicano's."

    So, while I think that in many cases this misuse of an apostrophe reflects simple orthographic ignorance, it may also stem from an overapplication of possessive morphology in place names. Just a thought/possibility.

  63. gnaddrig said,

    October 6, 2010 @ 8:11 am

    Apostrophitis, i.e. the habit of putting in an apostrophe wherever a word ends with s (or, in extreme cases, wherever the letter s occurs) has become so commonplace in German that we have an extra word for the apostrophe thus misplaced: Deppenapostrophidiot's apostrophe (see greengrocers' apostrophes in Wikipedia).

  64. empty said,

    October 6, 2010 @ 10:10 am

    I'm sure that for some people no plural is truly deluxe until you've stuck an apostrophe before the s.

  65. Geoffrey K. Pullum said,

    October 6, 2010 @ 10:37 am

    Boy, I'm so relieved: the BBC ate, shot, and left. All the trucks were gone this morning, including the provocative apostrophed diner. Crisis over. On to the next.

  66. Geoffrey K. Pullum said,

    October 14, 2010 @ 9:25 am

    Oh, no: as of this week (some time after October 11) it is back. The parking lot is full of trailers and trucks again, and the unapostrophed bus diner is there again. Where the hell are all the young people with spray paint cans when you need them?

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