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How To Avoid Apostrophe Fails

How To Avoid Apostrophe Fails

How To Avoid Apostrophe Fails

Remembering where and when to use apostrophes may seem daunting, but there are actually only a few rules you need to know.

by MATT STOKES | DECEMBER 21, 2018

This is an entry in an ongoing series of examinations of writing mistakes people frequently make and tips on how to be a better writer. 

Being both a professional marketer and a professional grammar nerd, my worlds collide when I encounter signs such as these:

That rogue apostrophe—turning what should be Tattoos and Body Piercing into And Body Piercing belong to somebody named Tattoo—was likely written by somebody over-correcting for rules about plurals and possessives that can be confusing. And for that, this tattoo shop has now spent good money on an embarrassing sign.

They could have easily avoided this mistake if they’d looked up the rules about apostrophe use. Because, while they can be a little baffling, there are some easy things to keep in mind about when to use apostrophes.

Singular Possession: When it’s one person or thing, add an apostrophe + s

This is the most basic apostrophe rule, and the most important to remember. When you’re talking about possession, add an apostrophe + s to the noun:

This is this website’s blog.
This is Matt’s blog.
This is Matt Stokes’s blog.

This rule even applies when words end in s, which is a rule that is not widely honored—and as somebody with the last name Stokes, I’ve even had to correct members of my own family about this.

There are exceptions to this rule (and all rules detailed in this post), most notoriously with regard to the word it. When you need to show that an object belongs to it, you should add an s without an apostrophe:

Give the dog its bone.
Its screen is broken.
I saw the movie, and its acting is wonderful.

Plural Possession: When it’s more than one person or thing, add an s after the apostrophe

When plural words end in s, and you need to show possession, you simply add an apostrophe after the s.

the kids’ playground
the parents’ date night
the dogs’ leashes

But this can get complicated when a word refers to something plural, but acts as an individual unit itself. The word children, for example, refers to more than one child, but the word is considered to be singular.

the children’s hospital
the people’s champion
the women’s restroom

And when you’re talking about a last name that ends in s, it can get even more cumbersome. To make my own last name plural, I need to add an es to it:

There are too many Stokeses in this house.

…and to show possession on multiple Stokeses, I’d need to add an apostrophe after the final s:

Welcome to the Stokeses’ house.

Plural: If it’s not a possessive, you should almost never add an apostrophe

This is the rule I often see violated on signs. “Hot donut’s now,” and the like. But remember: Apostrophes don’t make words plural. I think people are over-correcting for grammar rules they can’t quite keep track of. The thing to remember is that you don’t need to add an apostrophe to a plural when it’s not possessive:

burgers and fries
senators and representatives
nouns and verbs

The one exception to this rule is that apostrophes are sometimes used in plural, non-possessive words to avoid confusion about the word:

Cincinnati has two c’s, three i’s, and three n’s.

Because nothing can be simple, an optional exception to the exception is the phrase do’s and don’ts. To be consistent, you would either have to write dos and don’ts, which looks odd, or do’s and don’t’s, which looks even odder. The accepted spelling, adopted for everyone’s convenience and sanity, is do’s and don’ts.

Contractions: The apostrophe goes where the removed letters and numbers would have gone

Apostrophes are also used in contractions in an entirely different function from showing possession. As grammar blogger Scott Crosby puts it, “The ancient elders of the English language should’ve come up with a different punctuation mark for this, but they didn’t, so we’re stuck with this wave-particle duality of nature.” He’s right, and it’s useful to think of the contraction apostrophe as totally distinct from the possession apostrophe.

With contractions, the apostrophe simply goes where the missing letters or numbers would have gone.

do not = don’t
cannot = can’t
1970s = ‘70s
would’ve = would have
shouldn’t’ve = should not have

Contractions are going to be the only times you’ll use non-nouns and non-pronouns with apostrophes. As a general rule, you should never use verbs with apostrophes:

Sit’s
Run’s
Walk’s
Live’s

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2 + 1 =

When should you say ‘that,’ and when should you say ‘which’?

When should you say ‘that,’ and when should you say ‘which’?

When should you say that, and when should you say which?

Don’t make the mistake of saying which when you mean that.

by MATT STOKES | NOVEMBER 20, 2018

This is an entry in an ongoing series of examinations of writing mistakes people frequently make and tips on how to be a better writer. 

While proofreading, one of the most common mistakes I encounter is writers incorrectly using the word which when they mean that.

For example:

“Workfare will result in an increase in employment opportunities over those opportunities which would otherwise be available.”

The problem is that the sentence uses the word which within in a restrictive clause. In other words, “which would otherwise be available” is essential to the meaning of the sentence—in order to properly communicate the meaning of the sentence, the clause must be included. And because it’s a restrictive clause, it should use the word that, not which.

Is this really a rule? It seems silly. 

Is this arbitrary? It is indeed! But aren’t all rules of writing and grammar arbitrary? What makes them work is that they are widely accepted and adopted. For that reason, that is used in sentences that contain restrictive clauses, while which is used in sentences that contain non-restrictive clauses—parts of the sentence that can be removed without altering the sentence’s meaning.

Moreover, the word which is always preceded by a comma.

The incorrect switching of that and which can cause utter confusion and chaos. See, for example, these two sentences:

My laptop that is missing a space bar is on my desk.

My laptop, which is missing a space bar, is on my desk.

In the first sentence, the implication is that I own more than one laptop, and I am distinguishing one laptop from its laptop brothers and sisters. In the second sentence, I am merely adding some extraneous details about the machines, details that could easily be cut from the sentence entirely.

If this is the rule, then why do so many people get it wrong?

The problem is that it was not the rule until the 20th century. Up until then, that and which were generally used interchangeably when introducing restrictive clauses. But in 1906, the Fowler Brothers published The King’s English, the foundational text for modern English grammar. In it, the Fowlers standardized the proper uses of that and which.

That’s why so many pre-20th-century texts use which in ways we’d now deem incorrect. For example, the United States Constitution:

But this long history of which-usage does not die off easily. Modern writers either don’t know about the rule or they don’t care.

The only thing scary about this Stephen King book is its not respecting restrictive clauses.

Can you just sum this all up for me so it’s easy to remember?

Sure! Here’s what you need to know: That is used in restrictive clauses—when the information is necessary, go with that. When it’s not, and when you use a comma, go with which.

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5 + 14 =

5 reasons you should only type one space after a period.

5 reasons you should only type one space after a period.

5 reasons you should only type one space after a period.

Forget what you were taught in high school… you should never follow a period with two spaces.

by MATT STOKES | NOVEMBER 14, 2018

This is an entry in an ongoing series of examinations of writing mistakes people frequently make and tips on how to be a better writer. 

In a not-exactly-scientific poll I posted on Facebook, more than three-quarters of my respondents indicated that, when typing, they follow a period with two spaces rather than one.

These people are wrong.

Why do so many people incorrectly believe that periods should be followed with two (sometimes more) spaces? The answer probably goes back to typing practices that arose with the widespread use of the typewriter, a technology and technique that has been obsolete for decades. But this is not as simple a story as an old habit dying hard, because the old habit isn’t so old, and was never actually a rule.

Here are five reasons you should only ever type exactly one space after a period.

1. It’s the rule.

According to every major style guide, such as the Chicago Manual of Style, the number of spaces that should follow a period is always one. And according to typographers, one space has been the rule since a uniform system of typography first emerged in the early 20th century. Before these rules were established, there was much inconsistency in spacing, such as that on display in this New York Times article from 1903:

Highly amusing, indeed.

As you can see, sometimes a period is followed by two spaces, sometimes three, and other times somewhere in between. The one-space rule brought order to a world of chaos. Until, that is…

2. The two-space practice came about because of typewriters.

As Farhad Manjoo writes in his excellent 2011 essay on the two-space problem, “Most ordinary people would know the one-space rule, too, if it weren’t for a quirk of history. In the middle of the last century, a now-outmoded technology—the manual typewriter—invaded the American workplace. To accommodate that machine’s shortcomings, everyone began to type wrong. And even though we no longer use typewriters, we all still type like we do.”

You might be arguing that computers are just electronic versions of typewriters, but that is not true at all. The classic typewriter used monospaced type, meaning that every character took up an equal amount of space. But the printing industry at the time did not use monospaced type (see the New York Times article above)—just like today, it used proportional type.

Because every keystroke on the typewriter created a character with equal width, the two-spaces-after-a-period convention was adopted to add more readability, to make it clearer when sentences ended. But with the advent of electronic typewriters in the 1970s, proportional spacing became the norm for all typewritten documents. Computers would later replace typewriters entirely. But the habit of using two spaces after a period lived on long after it was necessary, passed on from the typists of the ’50s and ’60s to succeeding generations.

3. Books and newspapers use only one space after a period… and have for a century.

One need only compare a typewritten document from, say, 1950, to any other printed material from that time to see the difference.

Open any book you own and see for yourself… a single, elegant space separates a period from the sentence that follows.

4. Internet publishers will, by default, remove your extra spaces anyway.

Internet platforms such as WordPress (the software used on this website) will automatically remove extra spaces after periods when you publish. Overriding this feature often requires some back-end reconfiguration. I tried putting an extra space before this sentence, for example, but WordPress wouldn’t let me.

5. Typing one space is easier… Or at least, it’s easy to fix if you can’t break the two-space habit.

Hitting the spacebar once instead of twice doubles the amount of time you spend depressing your thumb when ending sentences. Think of the time wasted!

Seriously, though, the two-space habit is not impossible to break, and I speak as somebody who spent the first 25 years of his life assuming the two-space rule was correct and following it stridently. But if you find it difficult to convert, there are workarounds available.

If you’re sophisticated enough with Microsoft Word to create a macro that automatically converts two spaces after a period to one, I encourage you to do that. But otherwise, a simple Find and Replace will do. Simply hit CTRL+H to open the “Replace” dialog box. Type a period followed by two spaces in the “Find” field, and a period followed by one space in the “Replace” field, and you’ll instantly remove all those extraneous spaces.

Is this the most important problem in the world? No. But you want to make your best impression with your writing, and you don’t want to miss out on opportunities simply because your work looks outdated. “Nothing says over 40 like two spaces after a period,” entrepreneur Jennifer Gonzalez says. That may or may not be true, but what is true is that it’s never too late to learn the rules of writing and grammar, and the one-space rule is a major one.

PS: This rule applies to all punctuation—only one space after an exclamation points and question marks.

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14 + 13 =

The Most Important Thing You Should Be Doing On Social Media

The Most Important Thing You Should Be Doing On Social Media

The Most Important Thing You Should Be Doing On Social Media

Being consistent and posting engaging content is important, but if you’re not interacting with people on social media, your efforts aren’t worth it.

by MATT STOKES | APRIL 13, 2018

Most businesses are investing in social media marketing, and they’re not containing their efforts to Facebook and Twitter, but also venturing into Instagram and, increasingly, Pinterest.

A presence on social media is crucial to your business’s success. By regularly posting content, you’re at least letting people know that you’re still around. Even better, by putting out engaging content, you’re helping interested people get to better know your brand and humanizing your company.

But if you’re not interacting with other people on social media, you’re doing it wrong. A great social media post without interaction is like a tree falling in the middle of a sub-Arctic temperate coniferous forest. Which is to say: No one’s going to notice it.

Why you need to interact on social media

Simply put, the more people you interact with, the more your social web will expand.

A Tweet or Facebook post that you publish will be seen, at most, by people who already follow you. But by drawing in another person, there’s a chance that every person connected to that account will see your post. That second person can in turn draw in more people, and the reach grows very quickly.

How you can interact on social media

It may seem anathema to automatically send a “Thank you for following” message to anybody who follows your company’s social media account, but is this any different from sending an automated email? It is not, and it will seem more personal to the recipient.

Every time somebody new follows you, you should realize an opportunity to connect with that person. Whether it’s a simple “thank you” or a personalized message that includes a discount code, a giveaway, or a promotional item, you can try to make them feel special. Even if they don’t respond or never even read your message, they will at least know that you bothered with the effort.

Another way to interact with people online is to search out posts that are relevant to your business and promote them, either by “Liking” or even re-Tweeting or re-posting them. Doing this will definitely get the attention of the original poster, who might become curious and take a few seconds to check out your brand’s social media account (Make sure you have your best content front and center for occasions like this.).

Better still is to answer questions people have about something related to your business. Social networks have search functions you can narrow geographically—so if, for example, you are a dentist’s office, you can search for people in your zip code who are talking about dental hygiene. If somebody asks how often they should get their teeth cleaned, you can respond with a link to a video or brochure that you have available for free that answers their question. Or, better yet, answer their question directly, without making a sales pitch. The goodwill you generate by helping people out will eventually circle back and reward you.

 

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7 + 2 =

Researching keywords using Google is easy… and free

Researching keywords using Google is easy… and free

Researching keywords using Google is easy… and free.

Google AdWords has a free tool called Keyword Planner that you should always keep in mind when marketing online.

by MATT STOKES | APRIL 6, 2018

You’ve probably heard of Searach Engine Optimization (SEO)—it’s the practice of putting words and descriptions onto your website that attract the search engines and ultimately help your site rise in search result rankings. But almost every marketing effort you make online can be optimized, including YouTube videos, podcasts, and even social media posts.

A great way to come up with ideas for Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn posts for your business is to preemptively answer a question. It’s easy to find out what people are asking and how they’re asking it by using Keyword Planner, Google’s free keyword research tool. If you have a Gmail account, you can access Keyword Planner at this address: https://adwords.google.com/um/Welcome/Home#oa 

How to use Keyword Planner to see what questions people are asking

Once you’ve signed into your AdWords (Gmail) account, you’ll be taken to the AdWords Dashboard. If you’ve been using AdWords for other purposes (such as paid Google ads), you’ll see your activity on your Dashboard. Keyword Planner can be accessed by clicking on your “Tools” icon and then selecting “Keyword Planner.”

You’ll be brought to Keyword Planner, which opens with a simple input field. This is where you’ll research your topic. Type in your topic—let’s go “Missouri divorce” (You’re a Family Law Attorney in Missouri, in our scenario.). Your results will look something like this:

You’ll get tons of results, so you should use some filtering options to get a better idea of what you need. To begin, you might want to adjust the geography of the results:

You can adjust the search results to only show you Missouri, or a particular location within Missouri. Next, you can filter out results that don’t include your subject word, “Divorce.” Click on the “Filter” symbol,

…then select “Keyword text,” choose, “contains,” and type “divorce.” That way, you filter out results such as “legal separation in missouri.”

If you sort these results by “Avg. monthly searches,” you’ll get your most important metric: popularity. The first result is just the word “divorce,” but the second is “divorce papers,” which is an interesting phrase. This is a phrase used more in the non-legal world than the legal world, so perhaps it’s a good idea to write a blog post explaining what is meant by “divorce papers,” or to do a simple social media post along the lines of, “What are divorce papers? They include a…”

This is the mere tip of the iceberg for what Keyword Planner can do, but it’s a great way to brainstorm about ways to connect people online with your business.

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15 + 2 =