It’s no secret that incorrect use of grammar harms credibility. Take the case of a recent public tussle on Twitter, in which a critic called out a celebrity for his stand on a controversial issue, closing with this charge: “Your wrong.” The celebrity, who had a firmer grasp of grammar, had only to answer, “My wrong what?” to win the argument in the court of public opinion.

Your writing may not receive the same level of public scrutiny, but inattention to grammar in any professional communication is a huge mistake. Poor grammar undermines your message by muddying its meaning and implying that what you’re saying isn’t important enough to get right. Even worse, it makes you look uninformed. In a business setting, where your expertise is a key asset, the consequences may include not just lost credibility but also lost customers, donors, or contracts.

Poor grammar undermines your message by implying that it isn’t important enough to get right.

In this first of an occasional series on grammar and other elements of effective writing, we review one of the most pervasive sources of error: possessives and the use of apostrophes. Many of these errors will sneak under the autocorrect radar, but they’re easy to avoid if you know what to look for.

Contractions vs. possessives

Probably the most common mistake in using possessives is confusing its with it’s. Even pros sometimes slip up with these words, but the rule here is very simple. Its indicates possession (as in, “This website is not fulfilling its potential”). It’s is the contraction for it is, or occasionally it has. (“This website is not fulfilling its potential because it’s full of mistakes.”) If you’re not using a contraction, put away the apostrophe and you’ll be right every time.

Apostrophes should similarly be shunned when using other pronouns that signify possession, such as her, his, your, their, our, and whose. Although some of these words are virtually mistake-proof (few would write “That account is his’s”), others seem to invite confusion:

  • Whose vs. who’s. Whose indicates possession (“Whose grammar book is this, and can I borrow it?”). Who’s means who is (“Who’s up for learning more about grammar?”).
  • Your vs. you’re. Your indicates possession (“Your letter will have more impact if its grammar is correct”). You’re is the contraction for you are.
  • Their vs. there vs. they’re. Their is the possessive (“Customers have short attention spans because their time is valuable”); there is a location, while they’re, of course, is the contraction for they are.

We know you don’t want to get into the difference between possessive adjectives and possessive pronouns, so just remember that the above rules govern both—for example, our and ours, your and yours, her and hers. With or without the s, it doesn’t want an apostrophe.

Plurals vs. possessives

You’d think a simple thing like plural nouns wouldn’t be a source of error, but they cause a surprising amount of confusion. Many writers seem to follow the mantra, “When in doubt, throw in an apostrophe.” To ensure proper use of grammar, substitute this: “Never use a possessive when simply adding an s will do.”

Cake-ad-with-bad-grammarMost of us have chuckled at signs advertising hot dog’s or sofa’s. Yet we often seem to go wrong with words that are unusual in some way—e.g., those that are foreign, abbreviated, punctuated, or trademarked. Even with these words, a plural is just a plural. You can enjoy your Lamborghinis, iPods, Guccis, hors d’oeuvres, and Ph.D.s unencumbered by extraneous apostrophes.

The inevitable exception in this case is that an apostrophe is acceptable if the plural form of a word would be confusing or difficult to read without it. For example, you spell Gucci with two c’s—note the apostrophe—because it’s not immediately clear what “two cs” means.

More fun with possessives

Possessive pronouns aside, possessives usually take an apostrophe. The key to getting typical possessives correct is to pay attention to whether they’re singular or plural. Again, the basic rule here is simple. For a singular noun, add an apostrophe followed by an s, while for plural nouns use only an apostrophe:

Singular: My grammar book’s rules on apostrophes are a little confusing.
Plural: Our clients’ appreciation for our work increases when we communicate clearly.

So far so good, but remember that the latter rule also applies to plurals that end in -es or -ies:

Our stories’ impact will increase if we make sure they’re well written.

Naturally, this being English, exceptions apply:

  • Irregular plurals. With an irregular plural, or one that doesn’t end with an s, treat the word as if it were singular to make a possessive: men’s, women’s, people’s, etc.
  • Words that end with a sibilant sound. For words that end with an s, z, or x, you have a choice. Some people treat the possessive form of these words as plurals, adding only an apostrophe, while some use  ’s, as with other singular words. We prefer the latter in most cases to keep the apostrophe from dangling like a lost participle, but either use is OK:

The fax’ message is unclear. (Correct but odd looking.)
The fax’s message is unclear. (Also correct and less distracting, at least to our eye.)
Miles’s notes are impeccable. (Correct, although some would decry the double s.)
Miles’ notes are impeccable. (Also correct.)

Putting your best foot forward

Good grammar is like good manners: You get no kudos for it (at least once you’re an adult), but its absence will almost certainly be noticed and held against you. Just as good manners signal that you’d be a pleasant person with whom to work, good grammar tells clients, partners, funders, and other business associates that you’ve got something valuable to say.

Who knows? It may just make the difference between getting that big contract and being relegated to the recycle bin.

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