Plain Words
Training Bulletin
issue 34

Web Site Home

Back issues

Editor Recommends

How to Punctuate,
George Davidson

Subscribe to this training bulletin

Update Me! Service

Interested in a course but unsure when you can attend?

We’ll email you the date and venue when we schedule it

Update me!

Training Bulletin Issue 34

The Great Apostrophe Catastrophe of 2009

Many people wish them as dead as the dodo – or the diaeresis, a form of punctuation that really is obsolete. But apostrophes aren’t going away any time soon, probably not in the lifetime of anyone reading this bulletin. And some people are sufficiently fond of them to have founded The Apostrophe Protection Society, to promote their correct and continued usage.

There has been so much bad press lately about wrong use of the apostrophe in government circles that some local councils have been forced to issue guidelines for staff on its correct usage. Salford City Council pointed out that, just because the writer of a document is not sure where an apostrophe goes, it does not mean that readers don’t know. And if readers do know, then there is no surer way to lose credibility and to look badly educated.

This is as true of business writing as it is of council documents. People who can identify incorrect usage in your emails, letters or reports will also doubt the accuracy of what you write and of your professionalism. This will inevitably reflect badly on your organisation, so employers prefer to hire and retain staff whose writing is correct.

Read on to learn the easiest ways to remember where the apostrophes go and how to avoid the most common problems with them. And we’ll also explain what a diaeresis is – hey, knowing it might win you a pub quiz one day.

The apostrophe has two main uses

Some people seem to think “This word ends with a letter ‘s’ so I’d better stick an apostrophe in here somewhere.” Unfortunately for them, there’s a bit more to it than that.

Missing letters

If we leave out some of the letters in words, the apostrophes show where the missing letters were – most of the time. This is known as a contraction (nothing to do with labour pains). Unfortunately, that rule isn’t 100% true.

We’llWe will
I’llI will
Don’tDo not
Might’veMight have
It’sIt is
Shouldn’t’veShould not have

The easiest way to avoid getting the contraction apostrophe wrong is just to write the words out in full. If in doubt, keep contractions for speech and you won’t go wrong. And there is a good reason to do just that:

won’tWill not

If we followed the rule of going where the missing letters are, we would be saying willn’t or even wi’n’t, not won’t.

Belongs to

The second major use of the apostrophe is to show that something belongs to, or is a property of, something else. This one gets a bit more confusing because you have to take into account whether the possessing is done by one thing or more than one thing.

The report’s findings were leaked.The findings of one report were leaked.
The reports’ findings were leaked.The findings of several reports were leaked

In the first example, one report does the possessing so you put ’s after it. In the second example, several reports do the possessing. As the plural already ends in a letter “s”, you just put one apostrophe after that.

Common mistakes to look out for

This seems straightforward, but confusion arises with singular words already ending in the letter “s” and with irregular plurals.

Never go wrong again with your apostrophes!

Send away for Plain Words’ Foolproof Apostrophe Flowchart! We will send you a simple flowchart as a pdf that you can print and put up near your computer or on the tea room bulletin board. If everyone gets their apostrophes right, your organisation’s communications will look more competent and professional.
To receive this, email: with the subject “apostrophes”.

And what about that diaeresis?

The diaeresis is a piece of punctuation that used to be more common in English but these days is almost entirely obsolete. It’s the two dots you see over the second vowel in words like Noël, or names such as Anaïs or Brontë. It tells the reader that the two letters are pronounced separately and explains why Joe is pronounced differently from Zoë.

It’s a bit sad that we’ve lost this symbol, as it made it much easier to distinguish between things like chicken coop and coöperate. Without it, we’re just left with yet another example of the irregularities of English pronunciation.

Improve your grammar and punctuation

Learn how to avoid or correct some of the most common punctuation and grammar errors in business writing today by attending one of our most popular courses, Brush Up Your English! We have recently revised this to include more examples of common mistakes and how to avoid them.

We also cover some of the common problems of punctuation in Structuring and Writing Reports and Effective Business Writing.

Editor recommends

George Davidson, How to Punctuate

One of the series of Penguin Writers’ Guides, this will clear up every possible question you have about punctuation. For those who need to write for American clients or whose companies are American-owned, it also explains the many areas where usages differ.

Public course schedule

Follow this link for the dates of our public courses.

The price is £495 + VAT per person for a one-day course and £850 + VAT for a two-day course. Half day courses are £295 + VAT per person.

Consultancies cost £850 + VAT for one day or £500 + VAT for half a day, held at your premises.

We also offer private courses at your premises. Please call us for details.

How to book

To book, call Abi on +44(0)844 445 7743 ext 20, or use the booking form.

Kind Regards
The Plain Words Training Team

Valid XHTML 1.0!. Valid CSS!

©2009 Plain Words Ltd : HTML by Hairydog