Pardon my apostrophe: Why a little grammar is important to policy writing

By on Mar 18, 2016 in Policy writing, Public Policy

Small errors can lead to big misunderstandings

Chris Davis, who was sacked as assistant minister by Campbell Newman for speaking out on doctor’s contracts, political donations and changes to the Crime and Corruption Commission, wrote a piece in the Sydney Morning Herald asking “Can Cardinal Pell be judged by 21st century standards?

He tells a personal story of his education, intended to illustrate the effect of changing times and changing circumstances, autres temps, autres mœurs as he says.

He wrote:

My boys’ only school was a place of great good, thanks to some exceptional teachers.

I stumbled. Who are his boys, and what is it about their school relevant to George Pell’s conduct?

I stopped reading. An errant apostrophe had distracted me from Davis’ message.

The distracting power of errors

This is a good example of how a tiny grammatical error can distract your reader from the important message your writing is intended to carry.

The author was not intending his boys to possess – by way of attendance – the school (“my boys’ school”).

He was intending to describe the school as one attended only by boys, to the exclusion of girls.

“Boys” is usually a plural noun. Here it was intended to be an adjective qualifying “school”. It is in fact part of a compound adjective, with “only”, a word that, depending on context, can be an adverb or an adjective.

Noun: school. Which school?

A school that is attended only by boys.

Compound adjective: boys-only.

There was no place for an apostrophe in this sentence.

The apostrophe’s job

Apostrophes signify:

Some examples and observations about apostrophes:

Possessive apostrophes

Possession states a relationship between two (sometimes more) words. The first will be a noun (the person or things that possesses), and the second another noun, or a gerund (a verb that functions as a noun), or a nominal phrase.

Not all possessives have an apostrophe

Possession can be flagged by a possessive pronoun (also called a possessive adjective) with no apostrophe:

Words ending in ‘s’.

When a noun does not end in an s, signify possession by adding ‘s’ and an apostrophe in the appropriate place:

Take care with nouns ending in s (including plurals): there are different rules:

Contractions – something’s been left out

Contractions usually involve a verb and a pronoun or a verb and negation.

It helps to know ’bout modal verbs (like would and will):

The preposition “of” has no place in a contraction

Contractions work differently in speech than in writing. In policy writing, and other formal writing, it is usual (and I think better) to write the words in full:

A bad sign

Misplaced apostrophes are surprisingly common on signs when used wrongly to form a plural noun (known as the greengrocer’s apostrophe):

Policy documents need to communicate clearly to busy decision-making readers.

Small errors leap out and dominate. The reader sees only the typo, the wrongly used apostrophe or whatever. Our hard work comes back with a ring around the bit that seems not-quite-right. We have lost time, have to repeat our efforts, and we risk reputation loss.

A little bit of good grammar can mean the difference between success and failure in our policy endeavour.

My appreciation of the author’s message would have been uninterrupted if this small error had not been made.

My boys-only school was a place of great good, thanks to some exceptional teachers.

Much better. But what was he writing about? I forget …