Whose apostrophe?

For such a tiny punctuation mark, the apostrophe has an enormous tendency to confuse and irritate people.

The reaction to this all-too-common frustration is generally one of two extremes. The first is to try to cut them out altogether (as Birmingham council recently planned to do). The alternative is to start sprinkling them as liberally as an overzealous Italian waiter sprinkles black pepper. Then, at least, a few of them are likely to hit the right spot.

The problem with such excessive – or minimal – seasoning is that the overall effect of the dish (or document) will be compromised, or even completely undermined.

Possessive apostrophes

One of the apostrophe’s key jobs is to show possession. More specifically, it shows who possesses something. And identifying the ‘who’ in the sentence will make inserting the apostrophe and the -s (if needed – see below) that much simpler: just look to the end of the ‘who’ word, and add them afterwards. For example:

The cat’s top hat and bow-tie were very distinguished.

Here there’s clearly one well-dressed cat. But if there were two, or more, such dapper felines, each with their own outfits, it would be:

The cats’ dinner jackets and fob watches were to die for.

You’ll notice that there’s no need for an extra -s when the ‘who’ in possession is made plural. Though with a word that is inherently plural, you would. So:

The children’s cats’ dress sense was not to everyone’s taste.

So far, so straightforward. But there are a few points of potential confusion left yet.

Possessive pronouns

This is actually quite simple. Possessive pronouns (yours, whose, his, hers, theirs) will never need an apostrophe, because they don’t need any extra help to show possession. You might say:

Whose apostrophe? Certainly not yours.

‘Its’ meaning ‘belonging to it’ can also be put in the pronoun category: it doesn’t need an apostrophe. It’s entirely understandable to assume it would, by following the rule laid out above, but ‘it’s’ always means ‘it is’ or ‘it has’ – where the apostrophe indicates the contraction (missed out letters).

‘S’ names

When a name ends in –s, such as James, Tess or Emphasis, it may not be necessary to include the –s after the apostrophe. Rhythm is the secret here, and sometimes either way is fine. Generally, try saying the phrase aloud to see what sounds best (and what doesn’t make you sound like a snake with a stutter). For example:

Tess’s favourite route to work was down St James’s street. Mind you, Emphasis’ top-notch trainers make it clear that it could also be written St James’ street.

The language of advertising: innovative maverick or language outlaw?

The power of language is often harnessed to persuade. And love them or hate them – it’s usually one or the other – advertisements certainly have a way of getting inside our heads. Not to mention getting us to take out our wallets. But how many rules do they break along the way?

Actually – quite surprisingly – not that many.

For example: ‘Skittles – taste the rainbow’. Well, one might point out that a rainbow is not something you can even get your tongue on, much less taste. But since we all understand the nature of metaphor (as well as the basic red = strawberry code, from childhood), there’s no need for any actual head-scratching.

Similarly, there was no cause for concern when the noun (for soft drink) ‘Tango’ transformed itself into a verb; though we may all briefly have lived in fear of being ‘Tangoed’. After all, this method crops up in modern business language too, where tasks can now be ‘actioned’, even if not everyone is thrilled about it.

Indeed, if we didn’t instinctively understand the underlying rules of language, then the adverts just wouldn’t work. Other such tools on the advertisers’ belt include connotation, word-play and humour.

So, when Herbal Essences fervently promise ‘a totally organic experience’, they may raise a smile. When the makers of SMA follow-on baby milk assure us that ‘we know’, we feel reassured that they do recognise, empathise with and understand all the inherent pressures, panics and pleasures of parenting   – despite them actually saying none of this. They know which blanks to leave for us to fill – in other words, they know their audience.

When a product is extremely well-known and recognisable, of course, it will carry its own connotations that go far beyond the need for verbal or written prodding. If, forty-odd years ago, a slogan merely read: ‘The Coke side of life’, it would have meant precious little to anyone. These days, the drink has such a long-established image that we’ll automatically connect it with being young/picnics/holidays/Christmas – or summer/celebrating/energy and so on. The language of advertising is often difficult to separate from its context and imagery, and it is this combination that makes it such a powerful force.

Our great ability to make sense of, accept and incorporate new words is what makes the dictionaries thicker every year (recent additions to Merriam-Webster include ‘frenemy’ and ‘vlog’). It’s also what keeps the English language alive – even if it is what keeps the advertisers’ bank accounts growing too.

How to beat writer's block

Someone once said that writing is easy. You just sit at your keyboard and wait – till the beads of blood form on your forehead.

For anyone who has ever suffered from writer’s block (and that’s all of us), this will be a familiar scenario.

It doesn’t have to be that way though: you can beat writer’s block. But first you need to realise what causes it.

Fight the fear

Usually it’s down to two things: fear and lack of information.

You don’t have to dislike a subject to fear writing about it. In fact, your document could be about something that you find fascinating and it might still cause you problems.

The trouble is that we worry that as soon as we put fingers to keyboard, reality will set in. We’re afraid that it won’t be perfect, that people may disagree with us or that we’ll mess it up.

Well, here’s the first truth: all those fears might come true. And here’s the second: it doesn’t matter. Yes, it doesn’t matter if it’s not perfect. In fact, nothing is ever perfect. The key is to realise that success is not perfection.

To misquote General George Patton, better to have an imperfect report today than a perfect one in six weeks’ time. Because if you don’t write it at all, it doesn’t matter how much potential your document has.

And what could be more galling than avoiding writing a perfect document and losing out to someone who wrote an imperfect one?

Get what you need

If fear isn’t the issue, then probably it’s that you don’t know what to write. In other words, you lack information.

So get it.

Perhaps you don’t know what your reader expects. If so, then filling out a reader-profile questionnaire should help. (You can download one here.)

And if you’re still not sure, why not ask your reader – or someone who knows them better than you do – some well-targeted questions?

Be sure to think the topic through first though, to show that you’re not just being lazy. Brainstorm all that you know already – with a mind map or some similar tool – then put question marks against all topics that need a little more research.

Whatever it is you need to know, acknowledge that, then go and find out.

A few words of warning though: make sure you really do need to know it, and that you’re not just being a perfectionist. Remember, success is not perfection.

Kick-start your writing

Finally, here are a few practical tips to get you going:

Plan first. Planning can be a great way to ease yourself into the writing itself. Besides, it’s critical to separate the thinking from the writing, otherwise your document could end up a jumbled mess that makes sense only to you. Planning first does exactly that.

Pick a leading task. Sitting and stewing will only increase your stress and muddle your thinking. So pick something that you need to do before you can write – such as launching your word-processing program or opening the folder that contains the information you need.

Then do that first. This will begin to put you in ‘action mode’, and make the writing itself easier.

Planning is a good leading task, incidentally (see above).

Set a time. Pick a time to start writing, and do your leading task just beforehand. As the time to write approaches, you should start to feel energised and able to get going.

Pick an introduction. There are four types of introduction, and picking one of these types gives you (and your reader) an instant ‘in’. For instance, the Historical intro type contrasts what used to happen last year/decade or whenever with what’s happening now, and creates a real sense of movement in your reader’s mind.

Give yourself a time limit. If after all this, you’re still paralysed with fear, then simply set yourself a time limit. Resolve to write for five minutes and only five minutes. This usually works where all other methods fail. After all, how bad can five minutes be?

What usually happens with the last technique is that you start writing more quickly as the time limit approaches – which sets you up nicely for writing the rest of the document.

You need to be honest for this method to work though. So do allow yourself to stop after five minutes if you’re really not happy. Then set a time to do another five minutes. You almost certainly won’t need many five minutes sessions before you’re in full flow.

Sales proposals: remember the reader

So you’ve done the legwork. Over the last six months, you’ve bashed the phone till your ears hurt, driven more miles and eaten at more Little Chefs than you care to remember.

And you’ve spent hours carefully building a relationship with your prospect, all to get them to the point where they are ready to buy. All you have to do now is write the proposal and it’ll be in the bag.

You feel relieved – and justifiably so. After all, you’ve worked hard. So the proposal is just a formality, right?

Wrong. Even if you’re the only supplier in the frame, never forget that many sales founder at this crucial stage. And often they do so for one simple reason: the supplier forgets the reader.

Puffed up

Puffed up with a positive mental attitude, and bolstered by upbeat conversations with the prospect, they compile a dossier that undoes all their hard work.

There’s an old joke about a salesman who stops his car by a country road and asks a farmer for directions. The farmer pauses for a second, puffs out his cheeks and then says, shaking his head, ‘Well I wouldn’t start from here.’

OK, so perhaps it’s not the funniest joke in the world. But it does illustrate a point that many proposal writers forget: your reader can only start their thought process from where it is when they happen to read what you send them – and that could be anywhere.

Yes, they may well have been feeling quite generous and positive about your offering when you last spoke to them. But anything could have happened since then.

Rival supplier

They may have had a call from a rival supplier, who sowed the seeds of doubt about the wisdom of giving you the business. They may have reviewed their budget, and forgotten that actually it makes more financial sense (as you know it does) to spend it with you than to keep it in the bank. Or they may simply have had a bad journey into work or a bad night’s sleep.

Whatever the reason, you have to take them through a logical sales argument all over again, and that means starting from where they are now.

This doesn’t mean leaping in with how great you are as a company, even if you do have a fistful of testimonials to back up your assertion. And it certainly doesn’t mean starting (as a prospective supplier to Emphasis did recently) with your terms and conditions – that is, three pages of reasons not to do business with you.

No, what it means is safe, non-contentious information: where they are now, in other words. It might not be very sexy. But it does mean you’ll get them nodding in agreement, as they realise that you’ve clearly been listening to what they told you and that you understand where they’re coming from.

Remember influencers

This is even more important if your proposal will be read by influencers or decision-makers who have never met you and haven’t had the benefit of all that relationship building. It’s critical that you get these people on side too if you’re to stand a chance of winning the business.

And then, with all of them nodding and knowing that you clearly know what you’re talking about, you can lead them towards the sale with your persuasive sales argument.

Do that, and all that hard work won’t have been in vain.


Last month we announced the launch of our index tracking the use of the words ‘green shoots’ and ‘recovery’ in the newspapers. So where are the press putting us now?

June’s references to ‘recovery’ actually topped May’s (1323 compared to 1185), while ‘green shoots’ held steady.

Merely counting these key words won’t give you the entire story, of course. The articles’ focuses have largely switched, from the general public’s need to put faith into the markets and their restoration to the Government’s failure to do what they must.

The push for positive attitudes is making way for renewed caution and uncertainty, though the Independent (arguably the most optimistic paper) ‘whisper[s]’ about forecasts of “mild global recovery” in 2010.

In fact, according to the Times, optimism itself may now be a taboo word (and attitude) for public figures to admit to. The paper reminded us early this month about the derision faced by Treasury Minister Baroness Vadera for claiming she believed green shoots were visible back in January. (To be fair though, she walked straight into a trap laid by Sky News, who fed her the term and asked her to respond.)

This might go some way towards explaining the Government’s cautious attitude of late.

How to proofread business documents

The meeting room is booked and you’re waiting for your clients to arrive. The reception is strangely quiet and no-one turns up. It’s a mystery.

After 15 minutes, you resort to re-reading the invitation you sent out, and a horrible realisation dawns on you: instead of writing ‘there will now be a meeting’, you wrote ‘there will not’ be one.

Such a costly mistake is down to a simple slip of the fingers that could have been picked up through proper proofreading, of course. But such a simple-sounding process is not so simple to get right unless you know the proper techniques.

Love is blind

As the writer of a document, it’s harder to spot any errors in it. You know what you meant to say, and so your brain will conveniently skip over missing words, typos and jumbled sentences. For this reason, it’s always best to get someone else to proofread your work. But even then, if your colleague doesn’t have a toolkit of proofreading techniques, they can wade through your words without really improving your work.

Whether you’re writing for an internal or an external audience – you need to make sure that your writing is accurate. This means always checking your work (and that of others) thoroughly. A speedy skim before you hit the send button or distribute a document will rarely be enough.

It is one thing for your colleagues or clients to snigger over a humorous typo and quite another to find yourself in legal or financial hot water because of an overlooked error. So follow the tips below to make sure your business writing says what you want it to.

Seven ways to proofreading success

  1. Print out a hard copy while proofreading on screen. Arm yourself with two copies. It’s likely that errors will stand out in one version even if you’ve glided over them in the other.
  2. Ensure the document makes sense. Correcting grammar and punctuation can often seem to be the point of proofreading. But your top priority should be ensuring the document is readable. If it’s difficult to understand, change it. Remember, plain English is best, so weed out all the complicated words and replace them with no-nonsense alternatives.
  3. Use your computer spellchecker. But remember that Bill Gates doesn’t have all the answers. Your spellchecker doesn’t read for sense, only accuracy – it doesn’t know whether you mean mountain ‘peak’ or ‘peek’. So don’t be a slave to it. Always use a dictionary if you’re not sure.
  4. Use a pencil to point to every single word. Scientists have found that in normal reading we don’t scan every word. Instead, our eyes move in little jumps, fixating on key words. Using a pencil and ruler slows your brain down.
  5. Check the title or headline. It’s easy to overlook the most obvious thing on the page and get bogged down in the details. Also, make sure the title is relevant to the document.
  6. Check telephone numbers by calling them. It’s surprisingly easy to transpose numbers when writing them. Misplacing one digit can ruin a marketing campaign, for instance. Don’t waste valuable time and money by sending out documents with incorrect phone numbers.
  7. Make sure you’re not the only person to read the last proof. If the document is important and you’re the only one who’s seen it, hold fire until you can get a second pair of eyes to see it. Show your colleagues these proofreading tips and make sure they follow each one before giving you the go-ahead.

Getting to the good stuff

You now have a beautifully proofread piece of work that’s grammatically correct, accurate and makes sense. But unless it’s written in a punchy style, you can’t guarantee that your readers will sit up and take notice. The next step is to read through and make sure that every word counts. For instance, you may be able to squeeze a whole paragraph into a short newsletter item simply by removing wasteful words here and there. Change ‘It was some time in the long hot summer of 1976’ to ‘In the summer of 1976’ for example. Unless you’re writing a novel (or a piece about the weather), you can take out the adjectives.

Your readers will thank you for getting to the point. And if you improve your colleagues’ work, they’ll no doubt be grateful that you’ve helped them shine. Just make sure you get someone else to proofread your handiwork!

Take heart though because some small errors will always slip through. So, if you’ve done the writing equivalent of skidding on a banana skin, dust yourself off with pride. The meeting can wait – practising your proofreading can’t.

is the Chief Executive of Emphasis.

From proofreading to document structure, the active voice to keeping it short and simple, we can help you write better documents. See our courses for individuals or our courses for groups. Alternatively, send us a message or call one of our friendly advisors on +44 (0)1273 961 810

Police wasting time

The police often have a hand in giving out long sentences. Now they’re writing them.

A potentially record-breaking 102-word single sentence appears in the Association of Chief Police Officers’ comeback to a government report on policing. Here’s the offending passage (note – do not attempt to read this before operating heavy machinery):

“The promise of reform which the Green Paper heralds holds much for the public and Service alike; local policing, customized to local need with authentic answerability, strengthened accountabilities at force level through reforms to police authorities and HMIC, performance management at the service of localities with targets and plans tailored to local needs, the end of centrally engineered one size fits all initiatives, an intelligent approach to cutting red tape through redesign of processes and cultures, a renewed emphasis on strategic development so as to better equip our service to meet the amorphous challenges of managing cross force harms, risks and opportunities.”

If you made it to the end: well done. This kind of meandering, jargon-heavy sentence would almost certainly lose most readers a quarter of the way through: 35 words should be the maximum length in such a document.

Although a spokeswoman did hold her hands up on behalf of the police chiefs’ verbosity, she also posed the defence that the piece was written primarily to persuade civil servants. She claimed it was therefore written in ‘a language familiar to them’.

The civil servants we’ve worked with certainly deserve a lot better.

But if she’s right about ACPO’s audience, it’s little wonder that we’re all prisoners to paperwork.