Apr 052012

When you have a baby, everyone has an opinion about the best way to look after it.

Your mother will tell you how she did it in her day. Your mother-in-law will tell you something else. The midwife will give you the current thinking (which contradicts everything else you’ve heard) and your friends will do something never advised in the baby books.

And all this leaves you, the new parents, totally confused. What do you do? How do you decide what’s right and what’s not?

Whenever there’s conflicting information we get confused. That’s why the Grocer’s Apostrophe has caused confusion for writers down the generations. It’s very common but never appears in English Usage books.

 What is the Grocer’s Apostrophe?

The Grocer's Apostrophe

The Grocer’s Apostrophe is the little, suspended comma that mysteriously appears on signs, typically in green grocers’ shops. It shows up when vegetables go plural. One apple; many apple’s.

It was named for the greengrocers who brought it into common usage. You’ll find plenty of examples of the Grocer’s Apostrophe along the racks of beautiful fruit and vegetables. Look out for: potato’s, tomatoe’s, cauli’s, carrot’s, banana’s and more.

So what’s wrong with it?

Why is it incorrect (what is an apostrophe anyway)?

Technically it is the wrong use of an apostrophe. Strictly speaking, an apostrophe has only 2 uses:

1) To show missing letters

2) To show possession

Let’s take a look at those two examples:

 1) To show missing letters

In spoken and written English we often run two words together. So did not becomes didn’t, he will becomes, he’ll. The apostrophe tells us there is one or more missing letters.

Didn’t (the apostrophe marks the missing ‘o’)

He’ll (the apostrophe marks the missing ‘wi’)

That brings us to the second use of the apostrophe.

 2) To show possession

You can use an apostrophe as shorthand for ‘belong to’. Instead of, The coat belongs to Jack, we can say, [i]Jack’s coat.

You never need an apostrophe just to show the word is a plural.

So by adding apostrophes to plurals, grocers are accidentally making their vegetables possessive. And possessive vegetables are something we don’t need!

Grocer’s Apostrophes pop up in all sorts of writing, not just on signboards. How did this catch on so widely?

How has it confused generations?

It is a universal truth that when unsure, we tend to look over our shoulder. What is our neighbour doing? We learnt this in school. If in doubt, copy your neighbour. Yes it was frowned on, sometimes got us in trouble, but it beat handing in a blank page.

Seeing the Grocer’s Apostrophe scattered liberally around sign boards up and down the high street, is it any wonder that it has crept into annual reports, sales copy and articles?

The question is, does it matter?

Who cares about apostrophes these days?

Grammarians get very upset about the Grocer’s Apostrophe. They cry foul and lament the decline of language and standards in public life.

But language is about communication.

I’ve grown up with the Grocer’s Apostrophe. It hasn’t impeded my vegetable buying efforts. In fact I feel quite nostalgic about it. So I say let it stand……but only in the green grocers’.

I don’t recommend using the Grocer’s Apostrophe in your sales copy or article writing. Iit gives conflicting messages. They confuse people. Confusion is best avoided when talking to customers (as it is when looking after babies!).


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Mar 292012

Once upon a time in olde England we used to say thou and shalt. We don’t anymore. Language and style evolve. Yesterday I had a discussion with associates in Canada, about capital letters in headlines.

In my article writing, I use sentence case. That means I only use a capital at the beginning of the heading or subheading. And for proper nouns like names of people and places. It’s the same way I use capitals in an ordinary sentence.

Lets take an example. When you use sentence case in a headline, it looks like this:

Why black cabs in London are iconic

The first word has a captial letter and the place name London does too. Yesterday, during our discussion, I realised others take a different view!

Jack uses capitals all through his headlines and subheads, but not for every word. So he would write the same headline like this:

Why Black Cabs in London Are Iconic

This is known as title case. All the main words in the title have a capital letter.

Notice the in doesn’t have a capital letter. Words of less than 3 letters generally don’t start with a capital letter, even when you use title case.

So who’s right?

Both of us! A quick check online reveals that there is only one rule. And that is, be consistent! Neither style is right. Fashions change. It used to be, book titles used title case. Articles in journals and magazines generally did not.

Today some newspapers like The New Yorker use title case, others don’t. If you glance across the titles of the books on your bookshelves, you’ll see a wide variety of styles including no capitals at all, ALL UPPERCASE, and a MIX of UPPERCASE and lowercase.

I took the decision to drop title case because I found it hard to be consistent. Words like and made me trip. To capitalise or not? And always looks funny with a capital letter, even at the beginning of a sentence!

There was good reason to use title case in headlings before it was easy to change formatting. Capital letters made a headline or subhead stand out from the body of the text.

Now we can easily embolden, colour and enlarge our headline or subhead. It stands out. The capital letters on top, just make it look cluttered. Sentence case looks cleaner.

So the decision is yours. Use title case or don’t. Just stick to one golden rule, thou shalt be consistent!


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Why clarity is essential for good copywriting

 copywriting, Style  Comments Off on Why clarity is essential for good copywriting
Nov 302011
Sharp focus brings clarity

Blurred hawthorn berries by Juliet Fay

Ugh, this image is blurred. Your brain scrambles because  it can’t make out the hawthorn berries. You want to get away from this image.

Lack of clarity in your writing can also have undesired consequences.

It can send people away. Bringing clarity to your business writing means making it clear and distinct. A clear web page is easy to read, easily understood and engaging. Clear writing shouldn’t be confused with simplistic thinking or childlike writing.

Clear writing can communicate complex ideas effortlessly. Bringing clarity to your writing does not mean avoiding long words, on the contrary finding just the right word helps make your meaning  unambiguous.

Why does clarity matter?

Being clear and distinct is not just a courtesy to your reader it can have a big impact on how people respond to your writing. When writing sales copy or a business presentation your aim is to persuade the reader to take a specific action. Clarity gives you a much better chance of success.

Consider the builders’ merchant who wants to attract the general public yet speaks only of the Trade Counter and Trade discounts when calling the reader to action. The intention may be hidden in there, but the invitation is not clear, so the public go elsewhere.

Worse, as Oliver Strunk quips in The Elements of Style, ‘tragedies are rooted in ambiguity’. Think of the hours of frustration that result when instructions fail to give clear directions for assembling a chest of drawers or lovers part unnecessarily because one or other could not make their feelings clear.

Who falls into this trap?

Experienced and inexperienced writers can end up mired in muddiness and ambiguity. If you are prone to writing long sentences, you have to be careful that your meaning doesn’t get lost half way through.

When does confusion and misunderstanding commonly affect writing?
Muddy thinking leads to confused writing. Ideas can be unruly. That’s why planning your writing is essential. An outline helps marshal those ideas into a logical flow.

Sometimes the research has not been completed and so vague claims, incomplete theories and missing facts can lead to an incomplete, murky piece that only hints at the benefits of your product or service but doesn’t quite deliver the whole picture.

Young or inexperienced business writers want to assert their seriousness, intelligence and grasp of the subject. This can lead to a particular type writing which is designed to cloud the clear, simple, incisive thinking the writer wants to display. Thanks to concerted efforts by The Plain English campaign, this type of writing is disappearing from the web pages of public sector organisations. The main culprits now are consultants who love gobledygook, like this:

At base level, this just comes down to facilitating administrative projections.

Jargon. Banish jargon

Jargon is insider speak, used confidently by those in the know but like a foreign language for anyone outside your industry. Jargon alienates, confuses and does nothing to help convey your message. Ban it or if you must use it, explain it.

SEO – search engine optimisation. Giving your web site the best chance of being found by the visitors you want to attract. 

Bring clarity to your sales copywriting and articles everywhere, but especially on your:

  • website
  • sales letters
  • brochures
  • press releases
  • emails
  • catalogues
  • blog

How can you avoid confusion and misunderstanding and bring clarity to your writing?

  • Outline – plan your writing
  • Say one thing at a time
  • Break up unwieldy sentences
  • Use connecting words and phrases to link thoughts

To improve clarity in your writing

Read more. Look out for clear writing. Analyse how it is done. Imitate the styles you like and the tools used by the writer.

Ruthless editing. Plan your writing to allow time for ruthless editing. Read the piece out loud. Cumbersome sentences will jump out. Lost sentences that have meandered into the bog will be exposed. Disconnects, when one point does not logically follow another will have no where to hide.

Practice writing. Take time to learn more about it. Take pleasure in improving and achieving good writing.

Sharp focus brings clarity

Keeping your writing sharp and clear makes it easier to understand

Clarity is a courtesy to your reader and essential if you want good results from your sales copywriting. Go now and check your latest piece of writing for clarity.

How did you do?

© Juliet Fay 2011.
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