Monthly Archives: July 2007

When to Use Apostrophes…and When Not to Use Them

When to Use Apostrophes…and When Not to Use Them

Since a document is only as useful as it is readable, a writer should make sure that it is free of all English usage and punctuation errors before submitting it for publication or dissemination. One important aspect of punctuation involves the use of apostrophes.

Apostrophes are properly used in only two circumstances, for contractions and to indicate possession.

Let’s examine contractions first. Contractions are words which are composed of two individual words, such as isn’t, they’re, and they’ll. An apostrophe is used in place of a letter or letters that have been dropped from one of the words that compose the contraction. In the case of isn’t, which is composed of is and not, the apostrophe holds the place of the o, which was deleted from not. In they’re, the apostrophe takes the place of the a from are. In the case of they’ll, the apostrophe is used in place of two letters, w and i from the word will.

As previously stated, apostrophes are also used to show possession. That means to indicate that a subject or other noun in a sentence “owns” or “possesses” something or someone. That construction is generally formed by adding an apostrophe and an s to the end of the noun. Here are some examples of that:

The insurance agent’s clients are pleased with his approach. The agent possesses (in a grammatical sense) the clients.

We invited Mr. Campbell’s family to the awards dinner. Mr. Campbell possesses his family.

When can we expect this month’s report? The report is a possession of this month.

When indicating possession in reference to regular plural nouns, the apostrophe is placed between the last letter of the singular form of the word and the s, as in the following:

We spent hours calculating the workers’ compensation package. In this sentence, the noun that is the subject of possession is workers, the plural of worker. They possess the compensation package.

The company plans on honoring the vice presidents’ achievements. The achievements are those of the vice presidents (more than one vice president).

Mrs. Jackson is attempting to resolve the clients’ problems. The problems are those of the clients (more than one client).

There are two special situations involving possessives: names ending in s and when using irregular plural nouns. In terms of names ending in s, the apostrophe is added to the end of the name, after the s. The examples below involve names that end in s:

That is Charles’ new office. Obviously, the name is Charles.

Mr. Fieldings’ briefcase is missing. The name is Fieldings, not Fielding. If it were Fielding, then the possessive form would be Mr. Fielding’s briefcase

We plan on celebrating Gladys’ birthday tomorrow. The apostrophe belongs after the s because her name is Gladys, not Glady.

When showing possession with words which are irregular plurals (that is, spellings that are different from the singular form), an apostrophe and then an s are placed after the word. The following are examples of possessive apostrophe use in words with irregular plural spellings:

The women’s group will meet with us next week. Women is the irregular plural of woman.

That is the men’s locker room. Men is the irregular plural of man.

We have a children’s day every summer. Children is the irregular plural of child.

Under no circumstances should apostrophes be used to indicate plurals. The following cases are all incorrect:

All of the new employee’s are working out well. It should be employees.

Have we determined which clients’ will be eligible for the discount? It should be clients.

Next month, we should discuss the strategy’s for our new marketing campaign. It should be strategies.

To sum up, apostrophes are correctly used only in contractions and to show possession, and not to pluralize nouns.

Avoiding Jargon and Corporate-Speak

Avoiding Jargon and Corporate-Speak

Have you ever come across a website where the About Us page says something like this?

Our value lies in providing you with a full turnkey solution that encompasses support, analysis, and continuous improvement. We proudly employ TQM and strive to optimize our quality assurance levels to satisfy our valued customers, as evidenced by our increased dominant market share and…

In a word, Yuck. Why not just speak English? I mean, really—who actually talks like this?

There is a tendency, it seems, to indulge one’s penchant for jargon—one might say, a predisposition towards an individual’s cant of choice. Mind you, this assertion is not ipse dixit; the evidence is mountainous, given the pedantic disciplines of medicine, engineering, and computer science alone…

Pardon me; I just slipped into jargon mode myself. Now, if you happen to be an English major or professor, maybe that stilted mess made sense. But an average reader will probably move on at the first indication that the writing is overly (or unnecessarily) not written with him or her in mind.

Here’s the point. If you want a good grade, you should write to please the professor. If you want to sell widgets, you should write your website or other sales copy to entice people to buy widgets. You have to do this at their level, not yours. They may not have a doctorate in widgetology, and your industry-specific terms, far from impressing them, will drive them to your competitors.

So, when writing copy for your product or service, remember:

Talk to your customers at their level:
This would not be at the level of yourself and your peers, who happen to be experts (unless, of course, your customers are also experts).

Avoid jargon:
If someone sees several unfamiliar terms, they’re going to likely go somewhere that will tell them the same thing in plain English. Sometimes jargon is unavoidable, but avoid it when you can.