Back to basics: the grammar every writer really should know
[Image courtesy of stockimages at FreeDigitalPhotos.net]
When you write for a living, you can’t help but notice all the little mistakes out there. Each one is like an itch that you’ve got to scratch. And sometimes, it seems as if I spend my life scratching.
You may not think these little things matter, but they do when it comes to corporate communication. Sloppiness or lack of attention to detail in writing can be symptomatic of bigger problems. And even if they’re not, they send out a negative message to people who pick up on these things.
And though those people are few and far between, all it takes is one tweet or post, and the word is out. Your company can’t spell, can’t write a decent email, can’t even be bothered to get a slogan right.
So here, in the first of an occasional series, I’m going going back to basics: scratching a couple of those itches that keep me awake at night.
Me or I?
When you’ve had a chance to review the PowerPoint presentation, please let John and I know what you think.
Does that look right to you? I’m thinking specifically of John and I. Would it sound better if you said John and me?
Many of us nowadays would hesitate. For some reason, John and I sounds more ‘correct’.
The reason is simple. Think back to when you were a kid. You said something like:
Me and John went to the swimming pool on Saturday.
And your teacher/parent said ‘Not me and John – it’s John and I.’ And so it is, in this particular instance, because you and John are the subject of the sentence: in other words, you’re the people who are carrying out the action.
The trouble is, this correct version has sneaked its way into other areas, where you and John are no longer the subject of the sentence, but the object.
The PowerPoint sentence above is a perfect example. The person you’re writing to is the subject, and you’re telling them to let you and John know. So you and John are the object of the sentence.
In that case, you have to say John and me. There’s a simple test to see whether it’s me or I: just omit the first person (John), and what do you get?
Please let I know what you think.
Which is clearly wrong.
So the rule is: if in doubt, take the other person out. If I sounds wrong, it’s wrong in all instances, not just when it’s on its own. Add one person or a dozen, it’s still me that you need.
This phenomenon is what linguists call hypercorrection: correcting something that sounds wrong, but which is actually right. Another very common example of this is between you and I.
It’s or Its?
Does this sentence contain a mistake?
Each department should review its budget and see if
if there’s further room for savings.
Yes it does. But it’s not the its.
Instead, it’s the repetition of if (at the end of the first line, and the start of the second one – a sneaky trick, I grant you, but one that shows how essential proofreading is).
Its and it’s cause endless difficulties, but there’s a very good reason for it. You see, we’re used to the idea that when a thing belongs to somebody or something, we put an apostrophe before the s.
So it’s the department’s budget or the manager’s PA or the campaign’s ROI.
So when we see it, and want to make it possessive, we add an apostrophe and an s.
Which is completely logical. Unfortunately, it’s also completely wrong. It is one of those words that defy logic: the possessive is its. It looks wrong, but it’s actually right.
Adding an apostrophe is yet another example of hypercorrection.
And what about it’s? Well that’s simply a contraction of it is.
Neither of these errors is serious in itself. It’s really what they say about the bigger picture that matters, especially in a corporate context.
If it’s a personal tweet, email, or IM, who really cares? But if you’re tweeting from a corporate account, you’re making a bad impression in 140 characters. Repeatedly.
Which is an itch that you really need to scratch. And right now.
Make sure your writing doesn’t hide your meaning
Just the other day, a client picked me up on something I’d written in a case study.
Productivity increased dramatically, though costs went up only marginally.
“Shouldn’t that be costs only went up marginally?” he said tentatively. He was sure, he said, that it sounded wrong.
He was right – it did sound wrong. But in fact, it was right.
Getting in touch with my inner pedant (it doesn’t take much searching) I explained that the adverb (only) should directly precede the word it modifies – in this case, another adverb (marginally).
There was a short pause on the line, as he took this in. And then brushed it aside.
“OK,” he said, ” I see your point, but can we change it to costs only went up marginally?”
And that’s what we did.
In this case, it didn’t make any difference. Wherever the word only went, the sense was unchanged. And more often than not, people put it in the ‘wrong’ place. But it sounds right, and that’s all that matters.
When it comes to copy, anything that slows the reader down, makes them stumble or read something twice should be avoided.
It all comes down to the golden rule of copy: write as you speak.
Client 1. Kevin 0.
More or less (or fewer)
That said, pedantry isn’t always misplaced. Often, paying attention to the little things makes a big difference. It’s all a question of balance.
Take less and fewer. In most cases, you can use them interchangeably without affecting the meaning.
(It’s worth noting that it’s always best to try to get it right. Somewhere out there, somebody will be put off by these small things, which they think are indicative of bigger ones – customer service, attention to detail, follow-up of enquiries etc.).
The rule is pretty easy to remember: less is always followed by a singular noun, fewer always by a plural. So less waste but fewer expenses.
Less units were sold than we expected is wrong, but it’s not a show-stopper. It can still be understood by your readers, as there’s no ambiguity.
Sometimes, however, it radically alters the meaning of the sentence.
Here’s an extract from an article from The Times talking about the positive effects of the recession. The journalist is quoting Nicholas Taleb, the author of the must-have-but-soon-forgotten business book of 2008, The Black Swan (the bold is my addition):
Taleb also looks forward to “less confident businessmen on cellphones in trains, airplane lounges and restaurants, less arrogant bankers and economists needing to prove they are not parasites by paying attention to the material world”.
So let’s see: is that businessmen who are less confident, or fewer businessmen who are just as confident as before? And the same goes for the bankers – less arrogant, or not as many of them?
There’s no way of knowing.
Cutting a dash
The same confusion can be caused by the humble hyphen. Most of the time, it doesn’t matter whether you use it or not. You can leave it out without affecting the meaning.
As I did just last week, when I put together a long piece on search engine optimisation. Each time I wrote the phrase, I cringed a little to myself. It should really be search-engine optimisation, but nobody writes it like that.
So hyphenless it remains, and the meaning is still clear.
But that’s not always the case. A client of mine a while back had a website that was peppered with the phrase risk free hosting.
He read it as a statement: hosting without risks. I read it as a command: Take a risk on free hosting! (no cost, no guarantees, you get what you pay for – and you pay nothing).
When I pointed this out, there was a sharp intake of breath. And the quick addition of a hyphen, so it became risk-free hosting.
The same problem cropped up with child health researcher, a phrase I saw in source material I was reading for a white paper. Immediately, I imagined a 10-year-old kid with a clipboard interviewing people about their medical problems.
In the white paper, I changed it to child-health researcher – somebody who specialised in the area of paediatric care, and whose age is largely irrelevant.
I encountered a similar problem with copresenter, in a US client’s copy aimed at the UK market. I saw somebody who didn’t like policemen (cop resenter). She saw somebody who shared the stage with a colleague (co-presenter).
We added a hyphen.
It’s not about you
The key consideration with all copy is how easily it can be read by your reader. And for that, you can either stick to the rules, break the rules or just bend the rules.
But here’s a rule you should never forget: simple copy works best.
As soon as you try to dress it up, you’re sending a message out. This is about me, you’re telling your readers. Just look how clever I am.
If in doubt, leave it out. And that especially applies to foreign, obscure or high-flown expressions. Here are just some of the toe-curlers I’ve seen recently in marketing copy:
- Pyrrhic victory to mean a minor victory. A Pyrrhic victory is one where your losses are so heavy that even though you won, you’re virtually ruined. It’s a technical win, not a real one. So when a marketing agency boasts of a Pyrrhic victory, run for cover.
- Beg the question, followed by a question. This doesn’t mean the same as raise the question or pose the question. It means to use circular logic (‘We don’t need a nuclear deterrent because we’ve never had to use it.’).
- In extremis doesn’t mean in extreme circumstances, or when the going gets tough. This now-ubiquitous Latin expression means that you’re at death’s door, so you should probably have ‘extreme unction’ (where a priest anoints you with holy oil before you pop your clogs).
The message is clear. Pay attention to the little details, and strive for absolute clarity. Tell a simple story in simple language and put your ego in your pocket.
That way, you’ll win over the reader.
…and when is a quote not a quote?
It’s been a while since I let pictures take the place of words, so here we go again with Copycam.
It’s my occasional series on copy that’s caught my eye and addled my brain, captured with my trusty Nokia (still in my Top 40, by the way).
First up is this, which I saw at Marks & Spencer:
Found the mistake? Or should I say mistakes?
First the glaring one: the apostrophe.
It’s such a tiny little thing, but it causes endless confusion. The general rule is that it’s before the s if the word is singular, but after the s if it’s plural. So that gives us:
- The boy’s coat.
- The boys’ coats.
So far so good. The trouble arises when that boy grows up to become a man and is looking for something to wear in the evening.
Irregular plurals are treated just like the singular. So you get:
- The man’s coat.
- The men’s coats.
So hats off (evening hats, of course) to M&S for effort. They got the general rule right, but in this specific instance, it’s wrong. And what’s more, wrong in 600 stores up and down the land. Oops.
Still, at least they tried. Unlike Sainsbury’s, who opted for the maxim if in doubt, leave it out. This time, we’re talking 500 stores throughout the UK.
It’s only an apostrophe, you might say. Does it really matter?
Well yes and no.
The meaning is clear, but the mistake still niggles. Small things suggest bigger things: if organisations don’t care about apostrophes, what else flies under their radar?
It may not even be a conscious thought, but it affects people’s perceptions. And somebody somewhere will notice (especially here in Cambridge, where every other person you bump into has a PhD.)
It’s an image thing. It’s a brand thing. It’s an attention-to-detail thing.
And it’s something that’s worth getting right.
Speaking of which, what else is wrong with the M&S example? Well first, eveningwear isn’t one word – it’s two. Whoever wrote it was thrown off-track by menswear, which (a) is one word and (b) doesn’t have an apostrophe.
And the last thing that’s wrong isn’t related to grammar, spelling or punctuation. It’s the small print, which reads:
* Applies to products with mens’ eveningwear stickers only. Excludes cufflinks. Savings are applied to total price when items are purchased individually. Items in this promotion cannot be refunded or exchanged individually. All items must be refunded or exchanged together in order for a refund or exchange to be processed although you may be entitled to a refund on individual items in accordance with your legal rights.
Come again? Here’s what I got from this mumbo jumbo:
- You have to buy these items individually to qualify.
- But if you do, you can’t refund/exchange them.
- Even if you don’t qualify for a refund/exchange, you probably do under law.
Oh dear. I feel a little bit grubby after reading that. I think I’ll head for the gents (note: no apostrophe) to freshen up.
Don’t quote me on that
If apostrophes bamboozle us, then quotation marks (also known as inverted commas) are double trouble. And recently, they’ve been proliferating.
Again, the rule is simple. Quotation marks go around something that somebody actually said. It’s a quote (the clue’s in the name).
Here’s an example:
“Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few.”
“I’m going to say this again: I did not have sexual relations with that woman.”
Easy, isn’t it?
And yet quotation marks are everywhere these days, often with entirely unintended consequences.
A couple of weeks ago, I saw this in the window of a shop in Cambridge:
Really? Who said that?
The answer, of course, is nobody. The quotation marks are being used for emphasis – which is not what they’re intended for. For emphasis, we have bold, underline, italic or a combination of all three. Plus CAPITALS, colours and fonts.
There’s no shortage of choice. Go ahead – knock yourself out. But save quotation marks for quotes.
It could have been worse.
Quotation marks are often used with sniper-like precision to home in on one particular word or phrase, which immediately makes you think of the opposite.
So it’s not really open? It’s a joke? The door sticks? It’s not open when you think it is? It’s open but the entrance is elsewhere?
The possibilities are endless, but all undermine the intended meaning. And this insincere, does-it/doesn’t-it quote is everywhere nowadays. Somebody’s even set up a website called The Blog of Unnecessary Quotes.
Or to give it its proper title, The “Blog” of “Unnecessary” Quotes. Hilarious examples include:
- We value “you” as our special patient
- “Deal” of the week
- “Wet” paint
- “Special” Mongolian beef $5.95
Check it out, and you’ll never, ever use quotation marks again without asking yourself whether you really need them. I “promise”.
The wheel of fortune
To add insult to injury, the bicycle shop was closed.
It was 3pm on a Thursday afternoon, but the lights were off and the door locked. I checked the opening hours, and they were indeed supposed to be open. But instead, they were “open” (i.e. closed).
Outside, several prospective customers peered into the gloom, saw the sign, and looked puzzled.
And went elsewhere, probably never to return.
Find out more:
Though we can just about get our heads around commas, full stops and hyphens, it’s the apostrophe that trips us up more than any other element of punctuation.
As Lynn Truss pointed out in her book Eats, Shoots & Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation, there are lots of apostrophes around – it’s just that most of them happen to be in the wrong place.
The humble apostrophe caused nationwide embarrassment for a major toothpaste brand in the UK in early 2005.
Can you spot the mistake? If you can’t, read on. And if you can, read on anyway.
One of the commonest mistakes is to use an apostrophe to indicate plurals. It’s called the greengrocer’s apostrophe, because it’s at the greengrocer’s that you’ll see them: apple’s, orange’s, pear’s, banana’s.
The Daily Telegraph, a UK newspaper, ran a story on this phenomenon a few years back, and managed to confuse even itself, referring to the greengrocer’s apostrophe and the greengrocers’ apostrophe in the same article.
The rule for plurals is straightforward: no apostrophe. Even plurals of initials (MP, PA, ID) generally don’t take apostrophes nowadays.
So when should you use apostrophes? Here’s a quick, no-nonsense guide:
In the singular, an apostrophe is always placed before the s to indicate possession:
- the girl’s computer
- that man’s shirt
- Jane’s bicycle
In the plural, the apostrophe generally comes after the s:
- the boys’ CDs
- the members’ ID badges
- the performers’ instruments
The exception to this rule is irregular plurals (where s is not added to form the plural). In that case, the apostrophe once again comes before the s:
- the women’s applications
- the men’s rejections
- the children’s video games
- the oxen’s hooves
Singular words that end in an s have caused endless debate, but the generally accepted principle is that an apostrophe and another s are added:
- Jesus’s disciples
- Sibelius’s music
But the debate continues, and you’ll still see Jesus’ disciples and Sibelius’ music. As with MP’s and PA’s, it’s a grey area (or, if you’re in the US, a gray area).
Pay special attention to the possessive of the word it. Logically, it should be it’s, but English isn’t all that logical, so you use its:
- the council sacked its suppliers
- the choir took a bow, led by its director
Apostrophes are used to indicate a missing letter in a contraction (when words are joined together). So it is becomes it’s, they are becomes they’re, and I am becomes I’m.
Pretty simple, isn’t it? Yes and no. From those examples, you might think the apostrophe comes between the words. It doesn’t. Remember, it replaces the missing letter, so is not becomes isn’t (not is’nt) and does not becomes doesn’t (not does’nt).
So where did Colgate go wrong? Whoever wrote the copy put an unnecessary apostrophe after theirs. Possessive pronouns (mine, yours, his, hers, ours, yours theirs) never take an apostrophe.
The writer was probably thinking about dentists’ teeth, and thought an apostrophe was needed somewhere.
As Lynn Truss says, there are lots of them around.