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Training Bulletin Issue 78

The apostrophe that wouldn't die

At the end of last year, and gosh doesn't that sound longer ago than just a scant few weeks, Happy New Year by the way! Where was I? Oh, yes. At the end of last year, the press jumped on the heart-breaking tale of a man whose whole life's purpose was gone. John Richards, stalwart founder and mainstay of the Apostrophe Protection Society, had thrown in the towel. “The barbarians have won, the battle is lost,” he said in the Daily Mail. The winding down of the Society was also reported by The Guardian, The Independent and CNN, among others, so it sounds as if actually quite a lot of people cared. Should you?

Is it only writers who get worked up?

One could argue that journalists, who write for a living, would care much more than regular folk about apostrophes, hence the extensive press coverage that many might feel was greater than the situation merited.

In a previous bulletin, we offered you a flowchart that would ensure you always got apostrophes right. (If you'd like one, by the way, email ) So many of you requested this last time round that we now print it on the mousemats that we give to every training course delegate. They are always very well received, with people often asking for extra copies to pass on to colleagues. This suggests to me that it's not just the journalists who care, it's anyone who is interested in seeing things done correctly.

And has anyone stopped to think about what happens if we don't use apostrophes properly? What are the alternatives, omitting them altogether or sticking them in randomly? Unfortunately, both of these things are happening.

The bids being written next week.The bids will be evaluated by experts.
Cake's for saleCake's my favourite

People will look at these sorts of examples and start saying, “Wow, English is dumb. Why is it written the same whether you mean ‘the bid is’ and ‘bids’ plural? If only there were a way to tell the difference!”

“Do they mean just one cake then? I could get there and someone else has bought it.”

And a lesson from the past on getting rid of punctuation marks:

“Why does Joe rhyme with slow, but Zoe rhymes with showy? Yeah, English spelling is so hard, why doesn't it differentiate?”

Well, it used to but a long time ago we decided we didn't want the bother of the punctuation mark that showed us how to pronounce these words.* So now people point and laugh: “Why is it ‘chicken coop’ but ‘cooperate'? How are you supposed to know how to even pronounce these? English is dumb!”

What about standardisation? Or standardization?

We already argue about different ways to spell, leading many companies to define style guides to make sure their output looks professional by being consistent, and that their staff's usage reflects the right image for them. Another example where the lack of clear rules can lead to headaches is debate about the right way to use capitals: are you a Team Leader, Team leader or team leader? Or even Teamleader? Why not Team-Leader?

Why then do we obtusely refuse to apply the clear (and not that difficult, honestly) rule about apostrophes? Not doing so just leads to a free for all that people will argue about and end up needing to clarify in a style guide. I am sure that most companies confronted with this dilemma will end up prescribing that staff follow the old-fashioned correct convention, rather than defining their own arbitrary standard.

So we can't just chuck the apostrophe then?

Sorry, no. Doing so will just make you look careless at best, ignorant at worst, in the same way that poor spelling, bad grammar and incorrect punctuation do. Here's how to get apostrophes right.

Two main uses: contractions and possessives

This is a contraction, like won't, don't, I'll, he's, etc. If in doubt, just write it in full – a lot of people think contractions are too informal for serious business writing anyway.

This is a possessive or a property. Something is owned by or ascribed to the bid. The apostrophe and the ‘s’ go after the thing that does the possessing, in this case the bid. This rule is 100% consistent, no exceptions. Even if the thing that does the possessing is a word that already ends in ‘s’ like ‘boss’ or ‘class’: my boss's sense of humour is weird, or the class's results are now online.

If multiple things do the possessing (for example, if you are talking about many bids), then the apostrophe goes after the ‘s’, like this:
all the bids' main USPs will be entered in a compliance matrix.

For the plurals that don't end with the letter ‘s’, you put 's after the plural word, as in: children's school uniforms are expensive or the mice's tails were cut off with a carving knife.

We don't need apostrophes at all for plural abbreviations like USPs, or years: the 2020s are inevitably being compared to the 1920s. That's it. Seriously, get our flowchart and you won't go wrong.

If you are interested in knowing more about how and why to have a style guide, take a look at Perfect your Editing & Proofreading.

If you just want to be sure that you are avoiding some of the most common errors in grammar and punctuation, there's Brush Up Your English!

* It's called the diaeresis and it looks like two dots over the second vowel where this is pronounced separately, as in naïve or coördinate. Sadly so obsolete these days that MS Word® doesn't even recognise it.

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