The apostrophe – dos and don’ts

Ah, the apostrophe. That much maligned, much misunderstood, much misused little punctuation mark. Without it, there can be no possession because we wouldn’t be able to attribute ownership to anybody.

Spot the problem here? It should be the park of the people, not the park of the peoples!

And think of all those extra letters we’d have to type if we couldn’t substitute them with that little free-floating comma?

No, the apostrophe is not to be taken for granted. Nor is it something to be frightened of. Simply follow these simple dos and don’ts and you won’t go wrong.

DO use the apostrophe when…

  • …indicating possession. Example: Paul’s ball, Mary’s piano, Dad’s moustache, etc.
  • …using abbreviated words, such as don’t instead of do not; can’t instead of can not; wouldn’t instead of would not; he’s instead of he is.
  • …leaving out part of a word. Eg. ’48 instead of 1948 or ‘n’ instead of and.

DON’T use the apostrophe when…

  • …writing about more than one item (plural). So, the plural of banana is bananas, NEVER banana’s.
  • …using pronouns, such as his, hers, theirs etc. Example: The bananas are hers.
  • …writing the plural of abbreviations. Although technically there’s no hard and fast rule about this, I think it’s fine to write STDs rather than STD’s; don’t instead of don’t’s; 1940s instead of 1940’s.

And one last thing…

Lots of people get confused about using the apostrophe with plurals. When the plural of a word ends with the letter s, such as bananas, then generally the apostrophe will go at the end. Otherwise the rules outlined above still apply.

So, if a group of monkeys take possession of a bunch of bananas, they become the monkeys’ bananas.

However, if a group of people take the bananas, they are the people’s bananas.

Let the abuse of the apostrophe stop here!

Advertisements

Get to the point

Know when to stop.

Something I’ve been noticing recently is that many writers – professional journalists among them – seem to have developed an aversion to the full stop.

I’m frequently presented with text which is riddled with commas, colons, semi-colons, dashes and a variety of other squiggles, dots and doodles, with ne’er a full stop to be seen.

This phenomenon is particularly noticeable in direct quotes. So, for example, it’s no longer uncommon to read a paragraph like this…

It was a great day, the weather was fantastic and a big crowd turned out, we would like to thank everybody who helped out with the organisation of the event, without them it would not have been possible.

Another instance in which this arises is where the person being quoted uses the word ‘and’ a lot, such as the following:

We had a great day and the weather was fantastic and the people who turned up really enjoyed themselves and helped contribute to a great day and we are already looking forward to next year’s event.

In both instances, the writer is guilty of being almost too scrupulous when it comes to reproducing the direct quote – and in doing so sacrificing the nuance of the speech. Someone reading either of the sentences above might well get the impression of the speaker as someone who speaks quickly, without taking a breath or pausing for thought, her words little more than a breathless stream of verbiage.

In reality, it is more likely that the speaker would have paused for breath or to emphasize a particular word or phrase. It is the job of the writer to somehow capture this when reproducing her/her quote. Judicious use of the full stop is an excellent way of doing this.

Here’s what happens if you use it effectively:

It was a great day. The weather was fantastic and a big crowd turned out. We would like to thank everybody who helped out with the organisation of the event;  without them it would not have been possible.

In the second example, it is acceptable to replace a couple of those Ands with full stops. Here goes:

We had a great day. The weather was fantastic and the people who turned up really enjoyed themselves and helped contribute to a great day. We are already looking forward to next year’s event.

The full stops give a shape to the quotes and make life much easier for the reader, who now doesn’t have to re-read the sentence to identify the emphasis and the essence of what is being said.

The same applies throughout your writing, whether you’re quoting directly or not. Don’t be afraid of the full stop. It makes your writing clearer and ‘punchier’. It removes ambiguity. And, crucially, it makes life easier for your reader.

Of course, there’s a place for long, run-on sentences marshalled by the appropriate punctuation, but that’s a post for another day. For now, just learn when to stop.

Just write!

Writer’s block is an affliction we hacks don’t suffer from. We simply can’t afford to. When you have a deadline breathing down your neck and a stressed editor screaming across the room for your copy, waiting for the muse to lavish her blessing upon you simply isn’t an option.

So, how do you get over it?

The first step is to stop giving yourself excuses not to write. Just sit down and start. That’s the biggest step taken there and then. Stop procrastinating, dawdling, dithering or otherwise farting around.

Give yourself a word count and a deadline and then make sure you meet it.

Example: I’m going to write 400 words in the next 20 minutes.

Don’t worry if the first few sentences are rubbish. Just keep going. Let the story tell itself. You’ll be surprised what happens when you just get yourself out of the way. Don’t think too much about style or panache or trying to impress your reader with your stunning command of language. Go back to basics. Get the facts down in more or less the right order.

Don’t worry too much about getting it perfect first time.

I’ll let you in on a secret: you write when you re-write.

In other words, It’s only on the second or third draft that a piece of writing really begins to come together.

That first draft is just about getting everything down on paper – facts, ideas, themes, etc. They may not make just sense yet but don’t panic, they will.

Don’t be afraid to write fast.

This way you have a much better chance of capturing the immediacy and energy of the story you’re trying to tell. Too much self-editing at first draft stage can have a paralysing effect – think too much about what you’re writing and you might not write anything at all

It’s only when you’re finished your first draft that the real job of writing begins.

At this point, it is useful to put yourself in the place of your reader. Most journalists have an archetypical reader in mind whenever they write. That could be an 87-year-old farmer’s wife who left school at 16, or a 45-year-old college professor with degrees coming out of his ears – it all depends on your audience.

When reading back over your first draft, become that reader. Ask yourself the following questions:

  • Will this make sense?
  • Have I captured the essence of the story?
  • Have I included the most important facts?
  • Have I left anything out?

Remember the 5 W’s – Who, What, Where, Why When.  Have you included all these details in the appropriate order?

Don’t be too precious about what you have written. Feel free to chop sentences up, move them around, re-write them completely if necessary. You can always undo your changes if they don’t work

KEEP IT SIMPLE!

Cut out all the unnecessary crap, imprecise words and clunky phrases. Scrap the jargon. (See my post on mistakes to avoid https://writelikeahack.wordpress.com/2012/06/06/5-common-mistakes-to-avoid-when-writing/)

You’ll be surprised at how the essence of the story begins to emerge once you have written everything down.

Finally, ask yourself: Does my story have life in it?

Include direct quotes, description, characterisation. Used sparingly, these are the elements that give your story its energy – or ‘flow’.

Don’t worry about getting it all right. Like most things in life, you get better with practice.

For now, just write and keep writing. And, while you’re at it, go out and buy a couple of newspapers and read them from cover to cover. If you want to learn how to write, study how the professionals do it.

Why proofreading matters

Did you ever read a piece of text that makes absolutely no sense and wonder what the hell the writer was thinking?

Well, chances are that he/she didn’t read back over what they had written before publishing/submitting it.

It couldn’t be simpler – read what you have written. Then read it again – just to be sure!

If it doesn’t make sense to you, how can you expect your reader to understand what you’re trying to say.

To illustrate this point, here are a few examples from local/community notes where minor errors of spelling and punctuation completely change the meaning of the text – sometimes to hilarious effect. In all these cases, if the writers had just read over what they had written, they would have spotted and been able to correct the mistake.

On completion, there will be a real party atmosphere with barbecue foot and entertainment with a raffle for loads of prizes

The death of XX occurred at XXX. After a short illness at the advanced aged of 96 years, she was a quiet, gentle and unassuming lady and had a welcome reception for all who crossed her threshold. 

And finally, an example of someone who didn’t obey the ‘Keep It Simple’ rule or, for that matter, the rule about avoiding clichés:

With time running out XX  leapt like a salmon smashing a header off the crossbar from a corner in the 93rd minute and from the resulting break XX bundled the ball over the line, winning the match with the last kick of the game.

It doesn’t matter whether you’re writing for a newspaper, magazine, online publication or just sending an email, learn to become your own proofreader. Remember, your words are precious – be proud of them.

Who’s your daddy?

Quick one this morning…  who’s v whose

As if we weren’t confused enough about the difference between who’s and whose, Dr Seuss goes and writes this book!

This can be a bit confusing, because normally the apostrophe (‘) indicated possession – for example Ken’s violin, Mary’s trombone etc. However the rule doesn’t apply when it comes to the word whose which is the possessive form of who.

Example: Kevin is a musician whose violin is very beautiful.

Whose music do you prefer – Ken’s or Mary’s?

Who’s, on the other hand, is a contraction (or shortening) of ‘who is’

Example: Ken is a musician who’s very good at his craft

Who’s that playing trumpet beside Mary?

Like most contractions (don’t, won’t, can’t, etc.), who’s should only be used in an informal context or as part of a direct quote. For more formal writing, such as business correspondence or job applications, you should always use the correct form – who is.

 

There their they’re

These three words – ‘there, ‘their’ and ‘they’re’ – all sound the same but have very different meanings and it’s incredible how many people can’t seem to get their heads around the difference.

But, guess what, there’s no big mystery. Just follow these simple guidelines and you should never get these common words mixed up again…

There is used generally to indicate location, as in: There is the house.

OR

at the start of a sentence

Example: There will be rain tonight.

Their is the possessive form of they. In other words, it suggested belonging.

For example: The children like their toys

OR

The cats drink their milk

And finally…

They’re is simply an abbreviation of They are

So, instead of writing: They are eating dinner,

We can say: They’re eating dinner.

So, there you have it. Simple really when you think about it.

5 common mistakes to avoid when writing

Take a leaf from Ernest Hemingway’s book (indeed, any of his books). Keep your writing lean and clean and it will be more effective.

Newsflash: It’s not difficult to write well. In fact, it’s probably easier to write well than it is to write badly. The key is to forget everything you’ve been taught about writing (teachers are often the worst offenders when it comes to poor writing) and just write like you speak. After all, if you’re talking to someone else – giving them the latest gossip, asking for information, whatever it may be – you don’t sit down beforehand to plan it out. In most cases, the words just come out and they make sense to the other person. You have the words and you know how to use them. So why does it need to be so complicated when you try to write them down?

As a journalist and sub-editor, I have read thousands of poorly written press releases, letters, speeches, emails and even newspaper articles. And what I’ve discovered is that they all share a handful of easily avoidable errors. Cut out these five common mistakes and you’re already well on your way to becoming a better writer.

1. Overcomplication: I’ve said it before, but it can’t be restated often – or strongly – enough: good writing is simple writing. Get to the point, using as few words as possible. Use simple words that you and your readers will understand immediately – nobody wants to have to go searching through a dictionary when they’re reading a newspaper article. And they won’t.

Here’s a trick to help you do this: Imagine you’re walking home from work. A man runs past you at full tilt. A couple of seconds later, two police officers come sprinting past. You watch as they tackle the man, get him on the ground and handcuff him before bundling him into a patrol car that arrives soon after.

When you get home, your girlfriend asks you about your day. How do you tell the story? Do you start by describing what you had for your lunch? What your boss said in a meeting earlier that day? What the weather was like?

Of course not – you immediately tell her the most exciting thing that happened to you that day. “A mad thing happened when I was walking home. I saw two cops jump a guy and beat the crap out of him.”

That’s the kernel of the story there – the most salient facts.

You’ll then go on to add some detail, in something like the following order: How he had been running away from them, how the patrol car arrived shortly afterwards, what he had been wearing (if you noticed), how he had looked, how the cops had looked, how other people on the street had reacted.

In other words, you give the most important – and exciting – details first, then gradually add the smaller details, all the while using your words to build up a picture of the event that you witnessed. And you do it all in normal, everyday language.

It’s the same with good writing: cut to the chase and cut the crap. Focus on the five W’s – Who, What, Where, When, Why (in whatever order, depending on the story). Imagine you’re telling the story to a friend, face to face and don’t overcomplicate the thing.

2. Reliance on cliché/jargon/bullshit

This is one of the most common pitfalls for inexperienced (and experienced) writers. And it’s a trap that’s easy to fall into.

Cliché is a default mode of speech. We use them every day. Examples: ‘It’s raining cats and dogs’, ‘absence makes the heart grow fonder’, ‘Company X always puts its customers first’.

Expressions like these have been overused to the point of becoming meaningless. Don’t use them. They simply clutter up your writing and irritate your readers.

The same goes for jargon, ie. terms that are specific to a particular sector or industry. Business jargon includes such peaches as ‘low hanging fruit’, ‘going forward’, ‘actioning a plan’, ‘downsizing’…the list goes on.

Often these terms are used to disguise the true meaning of what’s happening. For instance, terms like downsizing, restructuring or reducing headcount all mean the same thing – cutting jobs! But how often do you see it expressed in that way?

Cliché and jargon both serve the same purpose: to deflect from the true meaning of what you’re trying to say, either deliberately or inadvertently. Hence a good writer should seek to avoid both

3. Bad spelling

Yes, I know it’s a no-brainer, but it’s incredible how often bad spelling crops up. And it’s so easy to avoid. Most text today is written electronically and pretty much every package you’re going to use will have some form of spell checker.

Use it, but don’t rely on it.

The spell checker will highlight some obvious howlers, but even the best ones will miss and/or confuse certain words. (More on this in later posts). If in doubt, grab a dictionary and check the spelling and meaning of a word. If you’re still not clear, then delete it and use another word, or combination of words, that you – and your reader – will understand more easily.

There’s no excuse for bad spelling, so take your time to get it right.

4. Poetic licence

Also referred to as purple prose or flowery language. This is when a writer gets carried away with description or qualification.

Example: It was a fiercely hot day, with literally millions of tiny bugs performing intricate loop-the-loops in an azure-blue sky.

Now that’s a mouthful!

The words in bold are redundant. Leave them out.

Take a leaf from Ernest Hemingway’s book (indeed, any of his books). Keep your writing lean and clean and it will be more effective.

5. Poor structure

Lots of us get confused about punctuation, grammar, sentence and paragraph structure. It can be a minefield. But it doesn’t have to be.

Write like you speak. Learn to use the basics of punctuation. Capital letters, full stops, commas – these are all essential tools in a writer’s arsenal.

Tip #1. Start each sentence with a capital letter and end it with a full stop.

You’d be amazed at how often this basic rule is ignored. A sentence doesn’t end with a ‘,’ or a ‘:’ or a ‘;’. It ends with a full stop ‘.’ .

Tip #2. Keep your sentences short.

Don’t write long, rambling sentences, with lots of commas and sub-clauses. If in doubt, stick in a full stop and start a new one.

Tip #3. Use paragraphs to break up your text.

A big block of text is very uninviting to the reader. Use paragraphs to break up your text and make it more accessible. Each paragraph should express a particular idea/thought/point.

No paragraph should contain more than five or six sentences, if at all possible. Much more than that and it becomes too dense.

If appropriate, use sub-headings to break up the text. These can act as signposts to guide the reader through what you have written.

So, there you have it. Five common mistakes and how to avoid them. Cut these out and you’re well on your way to being a better writer.