Category Archives: Grammar tips

Going bananas over Banana’s for sale

bananas-1119790_640That’s what the sign out the front of the general store said, just like that: Banana’s for sale. It’s wrong. It’s true, there were bananas for sale in the shop, but the punctuation is wrong. The word they were after was bananas. Simple plural form. Banana’s is a possessive form – such as the banana’s skin.

The friend who ranted to me about the banana’s for sale sign when she saw it always points these errant apostrophes out to store owners. She says her butcher now cringes when she walks into the shop. He anticipates that he’s made an apostrophe mistake and asks her what he’s done wrong. “You don’t need the apostrophe in sausages,” she might answer. “They don’t own anything.”

Macquarie Dictionary editor Susan Butler claims that she’d rather see apostrophes done away with altogether than continue to see these errors:

“It would be a far, far better thing if we were to forgo the apostrophe entirely, expunge it from our writing completely rather than let it loose to rampage amongst our plurals.” (p18, The aitch Factor by Susan Butler.)

The rules on apostrophes in modern Australian English may be a little murky around the edges but in the main are clear. Apostrophes do two basic things.

Firstly, they show there’s a letter missing. There’s being a case in point; the missing letter is “i”there is a letter missing. More of this in a minute.

Secondly, apostrophes show ownership – the dog’s legs refers to the legs of one dog. The dogs’ legs, on the other hand, refers to the legs of more than one dog. The rule here is simple – if there are multiple dogs (or cats or budgerigars or workers or anything else) that own the things being considered, the apostrophe goes after the plural “s”. Now, a word of caution, if you don’t need an “s” to create the plural, but are adding one for possession, the apostrophe comes before the “s”. This sounds complicated but isn’t:

Sheep’s clothing

Women’s rights

Children’s responsibilities

Now back to the missing letter apostrophe for a minute. In the previous paragraph, I used apostrophes in contractions a few times:minion-2687629_640

There’s – there is

Don’t – do not

Isn’t – is not

None of these seem to present much in the way of difficulties. But the same can’t (cannot) be said for it’s (it is) or you’re (you are). The problem arises because these forms sound just like the possessive pronouns its and yours, neither of which have apostrophes. Although we give nouns apostrophes to show ownership, possessive pronouns don’t generally have apostrophes in English. Again, this sounds complicated but isn’t. It’s made simple by the fact that we don’t have many possessive pronouns in English – for example, its, yours, hers, his, ours, whose, and theirs. By definition they are possessive. They don’t need apostrophes to help them show ownership. When one is used as a pronoun – for example, one’s own writing –  it is given an apostrophe to differentiate it from the plural ones, as in ones, twos and threes. The  possessive pronoun mine doesn’t appear to cause difficulties, perhaps because it’s always without an apostrophe and only comes in the one form. Your/you’re, its/it’s and whose/who’s seem to be the ones most often used incorrectly. The trick to remembering the difference (that is, to know whether you’re using a contracted form that needs an apostrophe or not) is to play a substitution game. Take the example from the previous sentence:

…to know whether you’re using a contracted form…

…to know whether you are using a contracted form… makes sense and is what was meant, so the apostrophe is correct.

Compare this to:

Your writing will improve if you follow this simple rule.

If you try substituting you are for your, you end up with:

You are writing will improve if you follow this simple rule.

That doesn’t make sense. You are cannot be substituted for the word your in that sentence, so the correct form is your, not you’re.

Honestly, this sounds so much more complicated that it really is. Just remember:

Two jobs for apostrophes:

  1. to show possession (work out who or what is owning the thing to know where the apostrophe goes)
  2. to show a contraction (say the sentence with the words sounded out in full to see if this is the right form.

No apostrophes in possessive pronouns (generally) (his, hers, ours, its, theirs, yours, whose)

No apostrophes in plurals that don’t own something. My friend’s butcher would almost never need an apostrophe in one of his signs.slip-up-709045_640

Simple. Remember those things and you won’t slip up. Nothing to go bananas about.

But if it still seems overly complicated, you could take up Susan Butler’s offer:

“So I would be prepared to lead a ‘Down with the Apostrophe’ campaign rather than suffer in silence while they multiply like rabbits and warren our writing to the point where the reader cannot negotiate any text safely without falling down an apostrophe hole.” (p18, The aitch Factor by Susan Butler.)

Singular they

The only acceptable usage of ‘they’ used to be as a third person plural pronoun; that is, the word you use to refer to more than one person:

Marshall and Warren discovered Helicobacter pylori cause stomach ulcers. They used unconventional research methods.

There’s nothing unconventional about using ‘they’ in this way, but increasingly ‘they’ is seen referring to an individual when the person’s gender is unknown:

doctor-563429_640The doctor looked at the test results. They appeared to be concerned.

In the past, this would have been written:

The doctor looked at the test results. He appeared to be concerned.

It’s likely that when this usage was first established, the vast majority of doctors were male, but the usage wasn’t really about doctors; ‘he’ was the acceptable pronoun to use if the gender of the subject was unknown:

The parent looked at the test results. He appeared to be concerned.

I think we are way past pretending that ‘he’ can justifiably be used to mean he or she. He/she was considered an option for a while and does still get used, but it’s not a great solution. It’s tempting to think of ‘they’ as a modern way around this, but the Australian Government Style Manual says this “type of construction has a long history dating back more than four hundred years, but it has acquired special value recently in the context of seeking inclusive language” (p76). Expect to see it more and more. It was voted as word of the year by the American Dialect Society but its usage is by no means restricted to America; Australia’s Macquarie Dictionary describes it as a solution that is being adopted more and more these days.

In just the same way that ‘they’ can be used in a singular form, so can ‘them’. For example:

The doctor looked at the test results. It was difficult for them to interpret exactly what was going on.

In this case, ‘them’ provides a gender-neutral alternative to saying him or her.

Twenty years experience

I sent a draft to a colleague of a tender we’re working on together. Among the comments he sent back was a query on my use of an apostrophe in 20 years’ experience: “Are you sure there is an apostrophe after years – in this context isn’t years just the plural of year? Or do the years own our experience?” My initial response was to shout out about how much I love working with people who care about apostrophes. But his comment caused me to pause for thought. The interesting thing is that I queried it myself when I typed it. In fact, I didn’t initially put the apostrophe in (I was, after all, talking about my experience, not the years – as in Jill Griffiths’ 20 years experience), but I deferred to Microsoft.

As soon as I type 20 years experience, Word underlines years experience and when I right click on it gives me two options: year’s experience or years’ experience. Given that the years in this case refers to the plural form, if I was going to put an apostrophe in it would go after the s20 years’ experience. So I put the apostrophe in and sent the draft to said colleague, who returned it with kind remarks and the question under discussion, and I replied that I’d look into it.

Style ManualLooking into it involved a simple flick through the Australian Style Manual 6th edition. On page 87 I found the entry: “It was previously conventional to use an apostrophe in expressions of time involving a plural reference, such as:

six weeks’ time

three months’ wages

The apostrophe is now often left out. Again, the sense of the phrases tends to be more descriptive than possessive.”

Not wanting to be a laggard in language usage I quickly decided that I would move with the times and leave the apostrophe out, thus making the 20 years experience my own, rather than belonging to the years. Now, if I was only talking about a single year’s experience, the Australian Style Manual declares I should leave the apostrophe in: “When the time reference is in the singular, however, the apostrophe should be retained to help mark the noun as singular:Style Manual p87

a day’s journey 

the year’s cycle

(also on page 87 of the 6th edition).

I tend to argue for consistency in punctuation and there is something in this – in using an apostrophe for the singular and in omitting it in the plural – that smacks of inconsistency. But I am also a firm believer in letting clarity dictate. At its best, punctuation should work as an invisible guide to the reader. It only becomes obvious when it is incorrect or ambiguous. I fear I could talk myself back around to reinserting that apostrophe in 20 years’ experience. Best to fall back on the rule I try to uphold hard and fast – absolute consistency within a document. So I’ll go back through the tender my colleague has sent back to me and make sure the apostrophes are 100 per cent consistent, whichever way I decide to go.

Do I write ‘the community is’ or ‘the community are’?

Client: Should I write ‘the community is’ or ‘the community are’?

Jill: The community is.Community is

Client: But there are many people in the community.

Jill: But it’s only one community, so the singular ‘is’ should be used.

Client: But earlier I wrote ‘the staff are’ and you didn’t change it.

Jill: No, because I think it is more common usage and to me staff implies individuals whereas community sounds like a single group.

Client: So am I wrong to say ‘community is’ or is it okay to leave it because I like to think of the community as a collective.

Some form of this conversation seems to occur rather frequently when people start looking in detail at the words they are writing. The basic rule is that there must be agreement in the sentence between the verb and its subject. In other words, sentences using singular nouns contain ‘is’ and sentences with plural nouns contain ‘are’. Simple. Right? Yes, that much is simple.

The cup is full.

The cups are full.

But is it ‘the set of cups is full’ or ‘the set of cups are full’?

The agreement here is with the set because we are now talking about ‘the set of cups’ rather than the cups. The set is singular, hence ‘the set of cups is full’. It comes down to whether what you are talking about is singular or plural. Work this out and the rest will follow.