Business English Quick Tips: apostrophes

If you need to write for your job or business in English, these quick tips will help you succeed…

And now to one of every grammarian’s favourite bête noire: the apostrophe. More arguments and possibly violence have erupted about this humble little splash of punctuation than any other form of writing, and because English is a language with more irregularities than regularities there are no standard rules to abide by. You’ve just got to know the non-standard ones.

“To those who care about punctuation, a sentence such as ‘Thank God its Friday’ (without the apostrophe) rouses feelings not only of despair but of violence,” says Lynne Truss in her classic humorous book ‘Eats, Shoots and Leaves.’ “The confusion of the possessive ‘its’ (with apostrophe with the contractive ‘it’s’ (with apostrophe) is an unequivocal signal of illiteracy and sets off a simple Pavlovian ‘kill’ response in the average stickler.”

As a general rule, you use an apostrophe:

1)      to show possession, e.g. “Suzan’s desk”

2)      to create a contraction, e.g. “it’s” for “it is.”

You do NOT use an apostrophe for plurals of any kind – you just stick an “s” (or in some cases “es”) at the end of the word.

Apostrophes for plural nouns with an “s” or “es” on the end … ah, yes, this is another little quirk of the English language. If the noun is plural, e.g. “companies,” you put the apostrophe after the “s,” not before, e.g. “companies’ joint ventures”

Apostrophes for plural nouns without an “s” on the end … yet another delightful quirk of the English language. With words like “people,” “men,” etc. you revert to the original format and put the apostrophe before the “s”, e.g. “people’s,” “men’s.” Well, I never said English was simple, did I?

Did’nt … Is’nt … Would’nt … Should’nt … etc. WRONG! The apostrophe goes where the missing letter is, so the correct versions are didn’t, isn’t, wouldn’t, shouldn’t, etc.

Apostrophes to show something has been left out … like “Jo’burg” (Johannesburg) or” ‘em” (them, and yes, I know that’s slang.) Increasingly these tend to be left out; the longer a shortened version has been in use the more likely it is to become a proper word in its own right.

There are other uses of apostrophes which, like when they’re used to show an omission, are becoming increasingly rare. These include a once popular way of indicating the plural or a letter, number, acronyms, initials, etc … e.g. “mind your P’s and Q’s,” “PC’s” and “back in the 1980’s.” The purists will tell you to retain the apostrophes here but the reality is we don’t any more; what matters, only, is that the meaning is clear.

More soon … and if you have any questions about business writing in English please add them here in the comments section, and I will try to answer them as well as I can.