That odd plural apostrophe: a simple way to figure it out

People often come to me asking whether an apostrophe is needed for a plural word. It’s always in relation to that slightly odd time-, money- or distance-based possessive apostrophe. Three months pregnant; two hours’ respite; four pounds’ worth. Etc.

The rule is difficult to explain in grammatical terms. Language has evolved such that there are inconsistencies. Technically, all of the above should carry an apostrophe: pregnant by three months; respite of two hours; to the value of four pounds.

But modern usage must be adhered to.

So. The best way to figure it out is to make it singular. If the singular version needs an S, then it needs an apostrophe, as does its plural equivalent. If it doesn’t, then you shouldn’t use an apostrophe.

  • One month pregnant. An S would be madness. So no need for an apostrophe: three months pregnant
  • One hour’s respite. The S is needed. And so we need an apostrophe: two hours’ respite
  • One pound’s worth. The S is again needed. And so we need an apostrophe: four pounds’ worth.

Of course when used, the apostrophe needs to go in its normal position, which will depend on whether you’re in plural or singular mode.

Posted by Dan, 9 April, 2014 under Rules

Insubordinate conjunctions

In certain situations, the word “that” seems to be falling by the wayside.

The following sentence in the BBC’s article about the tragic death of a 14-year-old as a result of an alleged dog attack prompted the post:

Early indications were two of the dogs put down were bull mastiffs and two may be Staffordshire bull terriers, officers said.

Now traditionally, you’d see the word “that” after the word “were”: Early indications were that two of the dogs…”

Technically speaking, what we’re talking about is a subordinating conjunction. And my view is that the addition of the that helps with the flow of the sentence. Its omission can have you retracing your steps to make sure you’re interpreting the sentence correctly.

I’ve read many a technical spec. and business plan of late, and the same seems to be happening after the word “ensure”.

We will ensure services are restored with minimum disruption.

Ten years ago, that would never have stood. Back then, we would have ensured that services were restored. But it’s becoming more commonplace not to bother with the that.

I can’t say I like it. But I guess [that] over time, the shorter version will become the norm, and that eventually, the traditional inclusion of the word will come across as stilted and archaic.

Posted by Dan, 26 March, 2013 under Grammar | Rules

The change from read to red, with associated changes

Yesterday my friend Paul suggested evolving the English language to change the perfect tense of the verb “read” to “red”. This change has been endorsed by the Brit. Eng. language committee, and will come into effect, incorporated with the necessary and associated changes below, on 1 July 2012.

  • Red: Despite possible confusion with the colour, the perfect tense of read will change to “red”. This brings it in line with the verb lead/led. “I am not going to read that book because I have red it already.”
  • Insted: To avoid people mispronouncing words ending in “ead” that rhyme with “red”, the “a” will be removed. These include, but are not limited to, insted (instead), sted (stead), ded (dead), hed (head), led (lead, as in the metal; leads for dogs will remain unchanged), bred (bread), tred (tread).
  • Mead and bead will remain unaffected by the change.
  • To avoid confusion, present-tense verbs containing “ed” will be changed to incorporate an “a”, their pronunciation changing accordingly. People will wead, but will have wed, and people will attend weadings. And the slang term for “bedding someone” will become “beading”.

Full details of the change can be red by writing to the Hed of the British English society, or insted on their website.

Posted by Dan, 13 May, 2012 under Rules

Are you trying to write a letter?

At work the other day, someone was writing a letter. A traditional, formal letter on letterhead and everything. It was to a client, for audit purposes. Hence the formality.

There was question about which valediction should be paired with “To whom it may concern”. (Yours faithfully.) And then discussion turned to questions of format: where to put the date, how much space to leave before the sign-off name, how many spaces thereafter before any enclosures were listed etc.

My view is that in letters, most things are stylistic rather than formulaic. That is, how you structure things is your call. There are, however, a few things that are sacred.

  • Your own address should either be part of the letterhead or should appear at the top, on the right-hand side
  • The recipient’s name and address should appear on the left, either beneath the letterhead or lower on the page than your own address details. Basically, it should be positioned to hit the window of a DL envelope when the A4 page is folded into three, even if a different delivery mechanism is being used
  • If there is a subject, this should appear directly beneath the salutation
  • The valediction should be in keeping with the salutation. Dear Sir/Madam or To whom it may concern should be paired with a Yours faithfully. Letters to a named individual can be paired with anything.

To me, Yours sincerely is no longer necessary. A more friendly valediction can be used without causing offence. But Yours faithfully is still sacrosanct. I often simply use Sincerely, which softens the harshness of the traditional version, and puts emphasis on the sentiment (sincerity) rather than the formal construct.

Whether you put the date on the left or right is a decision of style, as is spacing.

Posted by Dan, 28 January, 2012 under Rules

That vs. which

That and which have become interchangeable in certain aspects of their use. Take the sentence below.

We have overtaken the car that/which was holding us up.

Either is fine. Traditionalists, and those over 60, will default to using which. But many style guides have moved to endorse that.

My preferred style is to use that. My loose rule: which follows a comma, that does not. Take the two sentences below.

We have overtaken the car that was holding us up.

We have overtaken the car, which was holding us up.

While the two sentences are pretty similar in their sense and meaning, there’s an important distinction. In the former, the car that was holding us up is, in its entirety, the object of the sentence, modified by what’s known as a restrictive clause. In the latter, the car is the object, a subsequent clause (called non-restrictive) giving some further information about its annoying slowness.

My view is that while the comma distinguishes between the two sentences, further distinguishing them by using opposing pronouns can do nothing but good.

Posted by Dan, 14 January, 2012 under Rules

The Natural History Museum’s em dash faux pas

The Natural History Museum has followed Expedia’s bad example in their use of the dash to indicate date ranges.  Remember, kids: en dash for ranges, unless the latter date is not yet fixed (e.g. for living people), in which case use an em dash.

Decode: 8 December 2009 — 11 April 2010

Posted by Dan, 10 March, 2010 under Grammar | Rules

I Gotta Feeling. So very wrong

I embrace the evolution of the English language.  But I think that its rules and regulations differ from one medium to another.  Certain contractions (e.g. OMG, FTW, WTF, gotta) are acceptable in instant messenger conversations and text messages, but shouldn’t be used in more formal forms of communication.

But if you’re going to use such contractions, use them properly.  Gotta is a contraction of got to; it’s not a contraction of got a.  And so it should be used.

“I gotta go to the toilet” is fine.

“I Gotta Feeling” is not, Black Eyed Peas.

That said, it didn’t seem to bother Joe Public, as it was the biggest selling track out of the first one billion downloaded from iTunes.  And I bought it, in spite of my grammatical disappointment.

Posted by Dan, 7 March, 2010 under Rules

Time separators

I use colons, as opposed to periods, to separate time units. Periods are the same as decimal points, which can cause confusion. Periods should be used after the number of seconds to indicate the decimals thereafter.

The couple met at 9:30am.
He went to bed at 11:45pm.
Schumacher’s 1:34.236 was the best lap time of the practice session.
He ran the marathon in 3:25:23.

As well as avoiding confusion, the above style is somewhat quaint.
Update: when working in business, the 24-hour clock should be used exclusively, with no separator between the hours and the minutes. (Thanks to Paul Clarke for highlighting this clarification.)

The meeting will take place at 1330 GMT (0830 EST).

Posted by Dan, 1 March, 2010 under Rules

The space line continuum

The space immediately after a link should never form part of the link itself. And the space after a portion of a sentence emphasised via a different fount should never share that of the emphasised portion.

Laziness through double-click and “intelligent” drag selecting gives an outcome that jars. With me at least.

Posted by Dan, 7 February, 2009 under Grammar | Rules

Apostrophe madness

Now I love the apostrophe as much as the next man, assuming of course the next man is an apostrophe-crazed fool. But there is one use in particular that aggravates the shit out of me: when people head documents Do’s and Don’ts. Or Do’s and Don’t’s. The latter may be worse, with two faux pas, or better as at least it’s consistent. If you have to use the phrase, Dos and Don’ts, please. Thank you.

Posted by Dan, 16 June, 2008 under Grammar | Rules

I’ll be with you momentarily

A recent trend, one that was particularly prominent in New York, is to use the word momentarily to mean “in a moment”. I’ve always frowned upon this use, believing it to instead mean “for a moment”.

So my view is that the former of the uses is correct, while the latter is wrong:

  • She muted the call momentarily to cough up a lung
  • I’m just going to mute the call to cough up a lung, but will be with you momentarily seems to ratify my view.

Posted by Dan, 19 June, 2007 under Life | Rules