Beware The “Illiteratives”, Part I: Apostrophes and Pronouns
As a manager and team leader, I was often called upon to review written submissions or proposals before passing them on to senior management. It was striking to me the number of common grammatical and usage mistakes made by the various authors. In today’s text- and tweet-happy world, it is easy to get comfortable with expressing ourselves with in whatever manner feels the most direct. But in formal writing, it is important we be able to express ourselves with maximum clarity and attention to grammatical detail.
Unfortunately for us, many people fail to make a distinction between the message and the messenger when evaluating our writing. If your point is obfuscated by awkward sentence construction or obvious grammatical errors, the impact of your writing will be lost. More importantly, the reader’s perception of you an individual can be negatively affected. That’s why we need to avoid what I call the “illiteratives” – usage and syntax mistakes which can make you appear uneducated to your reader. When submitting a proposal which might lead to a promotion, crafting a letter of introduction, or writing our resumes, it is crucial we look for any illiteratives which might lead to a negative perception of our abilities.
Don’t rely on your word processor to catch your mistakes; most of the wrong examples here were not flagged by Microsoft Word as incorrect. Keep an eye out for some of these common errors, and look for more writing tips from us in future posts.
Apostrophe was not a Greek goddess – The apostrophe is probably one of the most frequently abused punctuation marks in the language. Here are some common mistakes:
Plurals: “Apple’s $1.00” – You may see that sign in a grocery store and wonder what that apple is going to do with its dollar. If you are making a word a plural, you don’t use an apostrophe (except for certain special occasions). Proper nouns can confuse people; “They finished the race ahead of the Simpsons.” Not Simpson’s, or Simpsons’, or worse yet, Simpsons’s. We are just referring to multiple people with the last name Simpson, so an “s” is all that is required.
Possessives: This can get a little confusing for some. “I was paid $12 for the day’s work.” Some people wouldn’t think to put an apostrophe on days, but the amount of work “belongs” to the day. Word order can also add confusion. Most people would naturally write, “That is the dealer’s car,” but they might miss, “That car is the dealer’s.”
Part of the difficultly stems from translating speech into text. Consider, “We spent two nights at the hotel, and we always had a good night’s sleep.” The punctuation is insignificant until we want to write it down.
How far apart are your contractions – Here are three big mistakes people make when using contractions:
It’s = It is: Its is the possessive form of it, and it’s always means it is.
Don’t do what this writer did, “It’s great we are going to the pool today. It’s been so long since I’ve been swimming.” The first sentence is correct, but the second sentence is incorrect. In the first sentence, it’s replaces it is – which is fine – but in the second sentence, it’s is replacing it has. It’s is not acceptable as a contraction for it has in formal writing.
Of vs ‘ve: “I should of gone home instead.” What the author meant to write was, “I should’ve gone home instead.” This is true with all conditional words (should, could, would, might, etc.).
Referents material – Pronouns can be a useful way to avoid repetition, but they can also create confusion rather than add clarity. Most people immediately recognize the problem with, “Julie spoke with Cindy about the new product, and she has some questions.” Which she has the questions – Julie or Cindy? This doesn’t happen only with names. What about this one, “Management worked closely with the sales reps to increase their profits.” Whose profits were increased – management or the sales reps? We can often eliminate confusion with a simple rewrite. “Management’s profits were increased by working closely with the sales reps,” or, “Working closely with management increased the sales reps’ profits.”
Hopefully these pointers will help you present your most articulate self to others in the business world. More tips to come!