Get Published: The Nuts and Bolts of Good English, and How to Impress a Publisher (3)

A well-punctuated approach letter may make the difference between acceptance and rejection by a publisher's commissioning editor. In this article, I'll look at just one small, but often bothersome, piece of punctuation: the apostrophe.

One of the biggest problems that writers face when it comes to punctuation concerns this seemingly insignificant little squiggle. This article will show you how easy it is to use, for the rules are few and simple.

When I edit books for print publishers, I find that the apostrophe is one of the most niggling problems for writers when it comes to punctuation. It needn't be such a challenge, and, when you've read this short article, you'll probably wonder what all the fuss is about.

There are many useful punctuation and grammar tips in a downloadable book I co-wrote on how you can get yourself published very quickly, You Can Write Books (at www.youcanwritebooks.com), although its main focus is on how to get your work before a publisher. Here, however, I'll deal with this one, potentially trying, little fella.

There are jokes about the so-called "greengrocer's apostrophe." That happens when one of these little tadpole's appear's in word's in which it is not supposed to appear -- as it did in three words in this sentence (you spotted them!). It's called the greengrocer's apostrophe because you often see handwritten signs saying, "pea's ..." and then the price per pound or kilo, or "carrot's ..." or "potato's ..."

So, if it's a simple plural, don't use an apostrophe.

You'll have seen it used as it is in less formal writing in this article so far: in words such as it's and you'll. It's been used where there's a missing letter: you'll is short for you will, for instance; there's is short for there is.

The apostrophe's biggest use, though, as I'm sure you know, is for possessives. These are simply words that indicate possession (they're also called genitives). But here many writers run into problems.

If you want to show that a book belongs to Joe or Jane, you write "Joe's book" or "Jane's book." If that car belongs to that guy over there, you write "that man's car." If a hat belongs to a boy, you write "the boy's hat."

I'm probably not telling you much you don't know, but where many writers come unstuck is when they get a plural, and they want to make it a possessive. What if there are two or three boys? Simple, you move the apostrophe to after the s: "the boys' hats."

So you'd write "the mens' cars," right? Er, no. This is where the complication begins, but I'll give you one simple rule and, if you remember only this, you won't go far wrong. The rule is: if the plural ends with s, put the apostrophe after the s. That's all you need to remember, because, if the plural doesn't end with s, then, quite simply, you don't put the apostrophe after the s: you leave it before the s.

Words such as sheep, cattle, men, women, children, and people are plurals, but they don't end with s. So leave the apostrophe where it was for the singular: sheep's, as in "that sheep's fleece", becomes ... well, sheep's, as in "those sheep's fleeces". Don't write "those sheeps' fleeces." Similarly, write "the cattle's drinking trough."

You often see captions or headlines in catalogues or signs in shop windows saying "childrens' wear" or "womens' fashions." At least they've bothered to use the apostrophe, so let's give them two marks out of ten. However, the plural of child or woman isn't made by adding an s, so write children's and women's.

I have a final word of warning, though, on a small word that traps many writers. You'll have seen the word it's used a lot in this article. It's short for it is, of course. Although we use apostrophes to indicate possession, it is an exception: the possessive is its. Write down this sentence and use it as a mnemonic: "It's good in its way."

Who said the apostrophe was difficult? It isn't. Just keep this article handy, and you'll never have a bad-apostrophe day again.

Andrew John is co-author of You Can Write Books, a no-nonsense downloadable book from http://www.youcanwritebooks.com that will get you into print if you follow its advice. He and his co-author, Stephen Blake, have written more than a dozen print titles (details on http://www.youcanwritebooks.com). Both are writers and editors, and You Can Write Books is crammed with advice you can trust.


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