Love them or hate them, they affect the meaning of words so they have to be correct. An apostrophe indicates possession or an abbreviated word.
David’s bag (possession – bag belongs to David).
David’s been naughty (abbreviated form of “David has”.)
David’s very lucky (abbreviated form of “David is”.)
The Uninflected Genitive
This is an exception. Any word immediately preceding the word “sake” NEVER needs an apostrophe.
For goodness sake
For safety sake.
For heaven sake.
For his sake.
For pity sake.
Possessive pronouns NEVER have an apostrophe.
My car, your car, her car, his car, its car our car, their car.
It is mine, yours, his, hers, theirs.
They’re is often incorrectly used instead of their.
(“Their” = “belonging to them”. “They’re is an abbreviation of “they are”).
My son’s rattle (=the rattle which belongs to my son)
My sons’ rattle (=the rattle which belongs to all my sons)
My sons rattle (=they are full of beans!)
“Buy your carrot’s, onion’s and potato’s here!” (Wrong!)
“Buy your carrots, onions and potatoes here”. (Correct)
“Have you any idea’s?” (Wrong!)
“Have you any ideas?” (Correct – it’s a simple plural ending.)
its instead of it’s (“it is” or “it has” – example: it’s gone now)
it’s instead of its (belonging to it – example: its head)
“It’s going to lose its loose head” (is correct).
Dates: should you write “in the 1980s” or “in the 1980’s”.
It’s optional but may be a matter of “house style” so ask your editor.
Incorrect Word Usage
Of (pronounced “ov”) instead of off.
If you write “I just booked a week of work” they will expect you to be working. If you really meant to write “a week off work” it means the opposite
Of instead of have.
I would’ve bought a bag of chips (not “I would of”).
There instead of their (“There” refers to a place – example: “over there”)?Their means “belonging to them” – example: “I took their shoes from over there”.
Brought instead of bought (and vice-versa)
Quiet instead of quite (“quiet” means “not loud” and “quite” means “fairly”).
Caries instead of carries (“caries” refers to decay of teeth or bones)
Weather instead of whether. “I don’t know whether the weather will improve.”
Loose (=not tight) instead of lose (=can’t find).
Phenomena instead of phenomenon. These are Greek words and “phenomena” is plural; “phenomenon” is singular.
Effect instead of affect. To “effect” means to bring about, or to cause, whereas to “affect” means to change or alter something.
The pint of beer affected his driving quite badly.
The new school rules will affect the behaviour of the pupils.
The computer can effect the conversion from dollars to pounds in a microsecond.
His contribution effected the success of the contract, much to the relief of his employer.
Note that this applies to the words when used as VERBS. If its a NOUN, use “effect”.
The effect of the explosion was very bad.
accross (x) instead of across
appologise (x) instead of apologise
grammer (x) instead of grammar
reciept (x) instead of receipt
rediculous (x) instead of ridiculous
recieve (x) instead of receive
Feburary (x) or Febuary (x) instead of February.
seperate (x) instead of separate.
Your spell checker should highlight the simple mistakes listed above.
visa-versa (x) instead of vice-versa (Latin)
ect (x) instead of etc. (abbreviated from the Latin “et cetera” meaning “and so on”. Just remember that it’s an alien word and therefore begins with ET). It’s also a word that’s best avoided if possible. Far better to complete your list than to leave the reader guessing. It suggests laziness.
American or British English
Then instead of than (and vice-versa). It’s usually only Americans who confuse these words. In British English they are pronounced quite differently but in many American dialects they sound the same.
Alternate instead of alternative. Again, a mostly American mistake, although it is spreading around the world.
There are other differences between American and British English, which will stall the reader and, possibly, cause confusion.
Within the beliefs of most all religions of the world.
An American will read this sentence without flinching. A British citizen will probably stall because he would never use “most” like this. In British English the word is “almost”.
He visited with his grandparents.
A British reader might stall, here, because “with” is never used like this.
Oftentimes, he would go and sit by the river.
A British reader might stall because “oftentimes” sounds archaic. British English uses “often” by itself.
They sat in back of the car.
A British reader will stall while he tries to figure out whether they sat in the back of – or sat behind – the car.
One of the words (that is) frequently omitted is “that”. You can see (that) these sentences make sense without the word in brackets but the reader will occasionally stall because the sense of the sentence is lost. This is often impossible for the writer to check because he already knows what he means. However, if time permits, read your article out loud, at least two weeks after you wrote it.
It was so expertly done he had no idea the emotional pain he was feeling had been choreographed.
It was so expertly done that he had no idea that the emotional pain he was feeling had been choreographed.
Sometimes you can get away with omitting words and sometimes not. Try asking someone to read the sentence out loud. If they stall during the first attempt, the sentence needs to be rewritten. Sometimes the simple addition of “that” will fix it and sometimes – especially when the word is repeated – (as above) it makes better sense but it looks clumsy and you might have to rephrase the sentence completely.
Only the experienced reader/writer will avoid such traps. It’s important to read lots of both British and American publications in order to see and understand the differences. An experienced reader will be able to use a word that makes sense on both sides of the Atlantic or restructure the sentence to avoid using the word altogether. (Apologies for ignoring other nations. I believe that Canada and Australia, at least, follow mostly American phrasing and spelling.)
Martin Pickering has a degree in Electronics Engineering. In his early teens he used to read five books per week and, since starting his own mail-order business in 1995, has had to answer customer enquiries where unambiguous English is essential. He writes a monthly blog and has published several technical eBooks for Amazon Kindle. He believes that making your articles easy to understand is more important than adhering strictly to the “rules” of grammar. Martin offers a copy editing service and can be contacted at http://www.your-book.co.uk/copyedit/