My last insight looked at the schoolboy error a leading UK retailer made in store: a double apostrophe mismatch that turned out to be social media fodder. A minor swathe of negative publicity ensued, following which the signs in question were swiftly replaced and the offending employees no doubt given a ticking off and sent away to gen up on the rules of English grammar.
While this will have been irritating for the organisation, what about smaller businesses that don’t have the luxury of in-house copywriters and marketeers to correct these grammatical misdemeanours?
Take the tattoo parlour in my hometown in the North East. Now, I don’t know much about tattoos but I would have thought that a tattooist’s reputation is as good as the artwork inscribed on his or her clients. Wrong, as my mother – who is also a stickler for grammar – pointed out on my last visit up north. The high street store’s prominent signage was proudly adorned with a series of grammatical errors, which as she commented, “Would hardly make you trust them to ink something on your body.” Fair point.
Now, despite the unlikelihood of my mother sporting a tattoo at any time in the future, this continues to be a major irritant for her. And the story is interesting: think through the likely production process of the sign in question. Somebody chose what the text was going to read. And then this copy was transmitted to email, to paper, or possibly directly onto the sign itself. I would expect there were at least a couple of opportunities for a good old proofread throughout its inception, but no one caught the glaring typos before the sign was carefully varnished and put on display.Then, think of the footfall outside the shop, which stands on a pavement on a busy thoroughfare in this market town. How many people have walked past and clocked the sign? And how many have silently contemplated its use of English? Maybe some passers-by have helpfully pointed these typos out. Whatever its story, the sign may have increased awareness of the tattoo parlour, but largely, I suspect, for the wrong reasons.
Now, I’m well aware that this is a small company that may well have bigger pressures than the sign hanging outside its door. And so will many of its customers. But, this account highlights just how widespread the misuse of the apostrophe is. In fact, this is one of the most common and long-standing mistakes in English – so much so that it was the first of the eight ‘elementary rules of English usage’ that legendary grammar guardian, William Strunk, cited in The Elements of Style:
“1. Form the possessive singular of nouns by adding ‘s. Follow this rule whatever the final consonant.”
Before giving some clear exceptions to the rule, Strunk helpfully provides some examples for the reader’s reference:
the witch’s malice.”
Yes, the language is a little formal, and, as of next year, the book will be a century old. Yet with Time magazine listing it in 2011 as one of the 100 best and most influential books written in English since 1923, Strunk is worth a little airtime.
As communications channels grow, language has become more and more diluted, constantly opening the margin for error. It’s worth remembering that for every typo that slips through the net, there’ll be a raft of eagle-eyed consumers at the ready to scrutinise these. And however annoying it might be to spot overlooked errors after the print run, the businesses that have the chance to rectify these are the lucky ones.
Top tips for watertight copy:
- Spellcheck on your PC but beware of anomalies.
- Use online proofreading tools such as Grammarly to catch these and any grammatical hotspots within your copy.
- Read once. Then read again – aloud.
- Get a colleague to proofread copy.
- Take a break if you can before you publish, press ‘send’ or print. Overnight is always good for weighty or important pieces.
- Relearn the basics. There are many modern alternatives to The Elements of Style, and the internet is a fount of insight for ironing out ambiguities.
- If in doubt, hire a copywriter!