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Better Writing: Apostrophe Errors Undermine Credibility

Wednesday, July 08, 2009 at 05:50 AM EDT

You don’t always need to write obsessively correct English. I’ve written tips on how some grammar rules can be broken elsewhere in this series. One popular example is Better writing: And.

However, there are serious mistakes which are best avoided if you want to appear professional and intelligent. When you commit a grammar crime in, say, a business email, in a report or in a web post, you undermine your message. In many cases your clumsy and clueless English could be around for a long time warning the world not to take you seriously.

Apostrophes are often to blame for these credibility errors. If you are not a confident writer, alarm bells should ring every time you reach for the apostrophes key.

Five apostrophe errors to watch for:

  1. The greengrocers’ apostrophe gets its name because so many handwritten shop signs use apostrophes incorrectly. It’s unfair to single out greengrocers — the mistake is widespread across the entire spectrum of trades and professions.
  2. A greengrocers’ apostrophe happens when a writer turns a word into a plural by using an apostrophe s rather than the correct plural ending.

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

  3. It’s when you mean its.
    Its is a possessive pronoun — like his or her. It’s is a contraction of “it is” or “it has”. If this bothers you, make a point of always 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.
  4. And while we are on the subject, there is no such word as its’.

  5. Confusing your with you’re. Your is another possessive pronoun. To check think of: his computer, her computer, its computer, your computer.
  6. You’re is a contraction of “you are”, as in “you’re reading a column on basic grammatical errors”.

  7. 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.
  8. 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?

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