English is an impossible language. Clients and colleagues frequently ask me to help them out with spelling and grammar issues, and they usually have the same complaint – “why aren’t the rules consistent?!” English is considered to be one of the hardest languages in the world to learn, but luckily for us a huge percentage of children across the globe are taught it from an early enough age that they can pick up a good grasp of it. But even for native speakers, it is a minefield of contradictions and complexities. Someone once told me that it takes a Japanese person until the age of 15 to master the huge variations amongst their writing system to be able to read an entire newspaper. Well, I’ve seen a fair few English newspaper contributors that don’t appear to have fully mastered the English language yet.
The reason for the inconsistencies in rules and spelling variations is that English has a rich cultural history. We have taken elements from Latin, Greek, French, German, Scandinavian and even Indian languages. So “bough” is pronounced completely differently to “cough” because they have completely different roots.
So why does everyone get so worked up about spelling and grammar? Because English is a beautiful, intricate tapestry of language – carefully chosen words can capture your audience’s imagination and affect their emotions, inspiring and influencing them in a multitude of ways. Badly written copy, on the other hand, falls flat and loses everyone’s attention.
With that in mind, here are some of the major issues I see most often and how you can avoid them!
There have been rumours for some time that the apostrophe is dying out – if this happens we’ll descend into chaos. Seriously. Read the above sentence – “well descend into chaos” makes absolutely no sense. Pandas and tigers and bees are all very important, but I implore you to add apostrophe conservation to your list of priorities so we don’t use this humble but hardworking member of the punctuation family.
When to use an apostrophe
“Allegra’s blog post” or “Brighton’s best digital marketing agency”.
The apostrophe comes after the owner – whatever of whoever it is that the other thing in the sentence belongs to.
There’s always an exception, though, and that is when something belongs to a pronoun – my, your, his, hers, its, theirs:
“The dog loves playing with its ball” – “it’s” means “it is” (see below).
Another one is “whom” – Cobb Digital, whose blog is really useful, is a marketing agency in Brighton. Again, “who’s” would be “who is”.
- Missing letters:
“Do not” becomes “don’t”, “cannot” becomes “couldn’t”, “that is” becomes “that’s”, “it is” becomes “it’s” (told you).
When not to use apostrophes
When you put an apostrophe in one of the following, a kitten dies:
- Plurals – cars, carrots, greengrocers, attendees, followers, CEOs… if you’re just adding an s because there’s more than one, you don’t need an apostrophe
- Decades – the 80s and 90s
- Centuries – the 1500s
Apostrophes after an s
If something belongs to a person or company whose name ends with an s, then the apostrophe can go at the end without a second s: “James’ love of bees is unparalleled.” (This will probably only make sense if you’ve met our MD…)
They’re / their / there
They’re You’ve mastered the apostrophe rule now, so you know that “they’re” is referring to the missing letter in “they are”.
Their Something belonging to “they”. “They love their new house.”
There Location. “It is over there”.
Practice / practise and advice / advise
This is simpler than you think – the words with a “c” are a noun (a thing), the ones with an “s” are a verb (an action).
“The doctor has a practice where he gives advice on health issues.”
“I advise you that you need to practise the piano regularly to get good at it.”
Affect / effect
Affect is a verb (an action) – “an increase in budget will affect your results”.
Effect is a noun (a thing) – “the effect on your results is staggering”.
Businesses are always singular – “Cobb Digital is an award-winning marketing agency”.
There are some titles that include two words, but only one of the words is the actual title that needs pluralising. What? Ok, so in “attorney general” the job title is the attorney bit, the “general” is descriptive. So if you’re ever unlucky enough to be in a room with more than one of them, you’re dealing with attorneys general”. Same with “surgeons general”.
While we’re on job titles, you only need to capitalise them if you’re naming a specific one: “Allegra Chapman, Engagement Manager at Cobb Digital, says there aren’t too many other engagement managers about.”
Similarly, “government legislation” comes from “the government”. You only need a capital letter to refer to “the United Kingdom Government”.
You need a capital letter for a name, or proper noun – that’s a person, place or organisation: Allegra,Brighton, England, Cobb Digital.
You do not need a capital letter for any of the following:
- Seasons – spring, summer, autumn, winter
- Relationships – mum, dad, etc. Unless you’re using them as the person’s name: “Hi, Mum, I love you!”
- Directions – north, south, east, west. “It’s cold up north.” Unless you’re talking about a specific region: “The weather is better in the South, but they make better music in the North.”
Still confused? Want some help making your copy the best it can be to entice and persuade your audience? Get in touch and let us do the hard work for you.