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Bill Bennett


Apostrophe errors undermine your writing

You don’t always need to write flawless English.

Some grammar rules are optional. Others make you look dumb.

Poor grammar undermines your message. Readers will question your intelligence and professionalism. Clumsy English can stick around for a long time warning the world not to take you seriously.

Apostrophes are a danger zone for inexperienced writers. If you are not a confident writer, alarm bells should ring every time you hit the apostrophe key.

Five apostrophe errors to watch for:

1. The greengrocers’ apostrophe gets its name because handwritten shop signs often use apostrophes incorrectly. It’s unfair to single out greengrocers — the mistake is everywhere.

A greengrocers’ apostrophe happens when a writer turns a word into a plural with an apostrophe s instead of the correct plural ending.

For example: Macintoshes and PCs not Macintosh’s and PC’s.

2. It’s when you mean its.

Its is a possessive pronoun — like his or her. It’s is a compact way of writing “it is” or “it has”.

If this bothers you, make a point of writing it is out in full and never writing it’s. Alternatively try speaking the sentence and checking whether replacing its with “it is” makes sense.

And while we are on the subject, there is no such word as its’.

3. Confusing your with you’re. Your is another possessive pronoun. To check think of: his computer, her computer, its computer, your computer.

You’re is a contraction of “you are”, as in “you’re reading a column on basic grammatical errors”.

4. Muddling they’re, their and there. Another common apostrophe problem comes with “they’re” which is a shortened version of “they are”. Their is the possessive plural pronoun. As in; his computer, its computer, your computer, their computer. There is a place. It is the opposite of here. Their and there are particularly easy words to confuse when typing on a keyboard.

5. When to use who’s and whose. Another case of a possessive pronoun that doesn’t have an apostrophe being confused with a verb contraction. Think of: whose computer is that? Who’s using it?



16 thoughts on “Apostrophe errors undermine your writing

  1. I hate it when people leave out the apostrophe in be’cause. You see this everywhere and it drives me mad.

  2. Thank you so much for writing this! The misuse of the apostrophe is my biggest bugbear (and my mother’s). She tends to storm into retail outlets and ask for chalk to correct their sign 😉

    What perhaps annoys me more than bad grammar, however, is people who excuse it by telling me language is a living organism and is therefore evolving.

    While language evolves (often painfully in my opinion), grammar is like maths and stays resolutely right or wrong.

    I am not perfect, and do make apostrophe mistakes myself. However usually a thorough proof-read spots them (and luckily my mum reads my blog so if I leave one in the wrong place there I can be assured that she will leave a comment correcting me!) People are simply to lazy to learn rules, and don’t put enough thought into proof reading.

    1. grammer is absolutely not like maths. There is no way you have grammatical proofs. Grammar is descriptive not prescriptive.
      see stephen fry’s musings on this

      If there is a correct grammar where did it come from how can I independently verify the correctness of a given grammar. You are confusing widely held opinion with proof. You how can you falsify a given grammer, Only falsify by showing its absence from a given corpus. So by adding it to a corpus it is now no longer false

  3. Thanks Emily.

    In the old days of more leisurely newspaper deadlines, I would write a piece, then do something else – go out for lunch, coffee, interview someone etc. Later I would come back to the article fresh and proof it thoroughly before handing it to the subs. That way I’d pick up my errors.

    Incidentally errors are much easier to pick up on paper. If I’m dealing with an important document I still proof a printout rather than attempt it onscreen.

    This new-fangled online writing is much harder. Earlier today I posted a story about the confusion among newspapers about the correct style for Auckland super city. It had a glaring spelling error that I simply would never have let slip through if I a) saw it on paper and b) came to it fresh for proofing.

    I find this sometimes happens in comments too.

    For some reason my writing was cleaner when I used a typewriter than it is when I use a word processor with built-in spelling and grammar checkers.

  4. I agree entirely. I am a greenie and therefore wince slightly whenever printing something, but it really is the only way for me to proof read.

  5. Was that a joke, or do people actually spell it that way somewhere?
    I’ve never seen it, and Google returns 1.33 billion results for “because” and exactly 0 for “be’cause”… :/

  6. @freelanceunbound

    An interesting point. You’ll find both greengrocers’ and greengrocer’s apostrophes out there in the wild. I chose greengrocers’ because we are talking about multiple greengrocers, but as you say one could choose to view the greengrocer as a collective noun.

    This, in my opinion is a matter of style rather than grammar. The style book for my site says: greengrocers’.

  7. People are simply to lazy to learn rules, and don’t put enough thought into proof reading.

  8. Hi Bill,

    I’m a bit slow on the uptake here, but I’ve just stumbled across your site and in the process, found my way to this blog post. Thank goodness for you and your list, although I do have a point to add to it. I’m a Brit who’s just about lost faith in the English language here in NZ. Or at least I’m well and truly baffled by the widespread misuse of plurals by the Kiwis and folks of other nationalities living here. Not just one or two people are inserting apostrophes (apostrophe’s) into plural word forms, but I’d confidently say 99% of people I deal with on a daily basis are! And that’s journalists and PRs included. This makes me suspect there’s something fundamentally wrong with the way Kiwi schools are teaching English. Surely so many people can’t be playing copycat to others’ errors? Such little interest when I bring my gripes to air with friends and family though [*sigh*]…Any thoughts of your own?

    Slightly off the subject, but also the widespread misuse of ‘myself’ and ‘yourself’, when ‘me’ or ‘you’ is the only correct choice, cracks me up everytime I hear them! Overt politeness is no defence. It makes those incorrectly using these reflexive pronouns look like muppets in my eyes – credibility shot in the blink of an eye. Harsh, perhaps, but I’m a bit of a dragon when it comes to stupid grammar.

  9. Ok, this is not the written but the spoken word. It’s one I live with everyday and it’s getting me down. How do I tell a colleague who should know better that the plural of you is not yous?

    1. @Margot. In written English yous or youse is dreadful. Strike it out every time.

      In spoken English it’s more complex – the word exists a legitimate form in some English dialects. Correcting someone saying it is the equivalent of correcting a Scot saying ‘aye’ or Geordie saying ‘canny’. In fact ‘youse’ appears in Geordie and is identical in meaning to the Southern US ‘y’all’.

      So, unless you’re working in radio or a call centre, where standard English is important, I wouldn’t worry too much about a colleague who uses dialect words – even if it isn’t their native dialect.

      1. My parents were schoolteachers. My mother was saying that she had tried to explain to a new teacher whose first language was not English that she should not address her class as “youse”. She had told her it was simply incorrect.

        My father, the English teacher making mischief, asked “But what about when you say ‘I’ll fight you, but I won’t fight youse’?”

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