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How apostrophes can get you arrested

Rosemary Gillespie - Saturday, January 31, 2009

Apostrophes are everywhere. Especially in the wrong places. Often called greengrocer’s apostrophes, these are well-meaning but unnecessary apostrophes in plural words, anecdotally favoured by shop owners who feel compelled to add an apostrophe to the end of any word that ends in "s" on their display placards. You know the sort of thing:

• Banana’s $4.99kg
• Fresh carrot’s
• Todays special’s.

A recent article in the Sydney Morning Herald suggested that despite their 300-year existence, apostrophes are under threat. According to the article, the forces behind the move to abolish apostrophes are the "knuckle-dragging illiterates" who staff lower-level government jobs and a clique of modern grammarians who argue that apostrophes "hold children back".

While I see little evidence that apostrophes are dying out, it's not just greengrocers who don't know their apostrophes from their brussels sprouts. If you are one of the many people who are not quite sure how to use them, you’re not alone (there's a quick overview below). Many of my clients quietly confess that they are confused about when and where to use apostrophes, especially with "its" and "it's.

Another common example is, "she was born in the 1960’s…", or "since the 1970’s…".  These may be examples of apostrophe misuse, but at least they show us that people understand apostrophes have a purpose. 

I take comfort from the Apostrophe Preservation Society and my good friend Liz, who confessed last year that she seethes when she sees apostrophes misused, or, even worse, not used at all. She’s not the only one who gets annoyed. Last year, SBS World News reported on two Americans who were cycling around the U.S. correcting publicly- displayed typos. (Don’t try this at home: I later read they were arrested for defacing public property.)

The rules surrounding the apostrophe are not as daunting as they might first appear. Here’s an overview.


1. To show ownership or possession.

(a) When one thing owns another, the apostrophe goes before the ‘s’. For example:

I have borrowed Damian’s car.
We walked Andrew’s dog.
It is the company’s policy.

(b) When more than one thing owns something, the apostrophe goes after the ‘s’. For example:

The three schools’ results were impressive.
The two dogs’ owners got together after the training class.

(c) When a noun ending in "s" owns something, the apostrophe goes after the "s". For example:

Chris’ book
Rufus’ friends

(d) When two things share joint ownership of something, you only need to add one apostrophe at the end of the second "owner". For example:

Mum and Dad’s house
His mother and father’s legacy
Will and Toby’s restaurant

2. When referring to time. For example:

Six weeks’ time
Three months’ worth
A day’s trip from Sydney

3. To show letters have been left out

When you are shortening a word, or combining two words into one, the apostrophe replaces the missing letters. For example:

it is /it has = it’s
do not = don’t
should not = shouldn’t
what is = what’s
that is = that’s
cannot = can’t
you are = you’re


1. To indicate a plural

A plural doesn’t have an apostrophe, unless it owns something. For example:

Incorrect: Here are some photo’s for you.
It should be: Here are some photos for you

Incorrect: Todays special’s
It should be: Today’s specials

The exception to this rule is when you are referring to plural letters of the alphabet. For example:

Mind your p’s and q’s.
Read the t’s and c’s.

2. When you are using a pronoun

A pronoun is a small word that represents a thing or a person – such as: I, me, she, he, him, it, its, we, us, our, you, your, their, or them. 

The most common mistake happens with “it’s”. Just remember: only use the apostrophe if you are talking about “it is”.

The following are all incorrect:

The dog was their’s.
It’s nose was red.
Their’s is the house on the hill.
It’s eyes were blue. 

They should be:

The dog was theirs.
Its nose was red.
Theirs is the house on the hill.
Its eyes were blue.

3. When writing about an official Australian placename

In 1966, the Geographical Names Board decided that Australian place street and road names would not have an apostrophe:

Kings Cross
Saint James Station
Mrs Macquaries Chair

4. After an acronym or "initialism"

When many words are shortened into one, and referred to as a series of letters or pronounced as a word (e.g. TAFE), there is no need to include an apostrophe.

For example, the following are incorrect: MP’s, FAQ’s and CEO’s.

They should be: MPs, FAQs, CEOs.

5. When referring to a decade

Many people incorrectly insert an apostrophe when referring to a period in time – 1960’s, 70’s. It is correct to use 1960s, 70s.

For more on avoiding grammatical errors and word confusion, download our free guide
Do You Makes These Mistakes in English?

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Get a Great Verbal Brand

Rosemary Gillespie - Saturday, January 03, 2009

"What’s a verbal brand?" I hear you ask. The answer: your elevator pitch. None the wiser? Read this and it will all make perfect sense.

If you've ever worked with a tender writer, proposal writer, sales copywriter or marketing copywriter, you'll know how important it it to describe in writing the key benefits you bring to your clients.

Well, there's also something called a verbal brand, or elevator pitch. A while back, Carolyn Stafford of Connect Marketing interviewed me about my verbal brand for her book Small Business Big Brand. Here’s what she wrote, and what I said:

Put simply, a verbal brand is your 5 to 10 word statement on what you do and is most often used when someone asks you the stock standard question: “What do you do?” Many people also refer to it as the ‘audio logo’. Think how many times a week you must be asked this question - at a party, at a networking function and by other parents at your kid’s school. Do you say, “I’m a financial planner”, “I’m an accountant”, “I’m a dentist”? If you do, all I can say is "boring"!

It’s a big mistake to be so literal because you’ve just missed one of the biggest marketing opportunities ever and it was presented to you on a platter. In fact, what you have just done is either sent that person to sleep or given them the opportunity to change the subject entirely.

The biggest problem with how we respond to this type of question is that we focus on what we do and our process, not what’s in it for the person who actually asked you the question.  So next time, instead of telling that person you are a financial planner, tell them that you "make your clients fabulously wealthy". Instead of telling them you’re an accountant tell them that you "help your clients pay the tax man less money".  Instead of telling them you are a dentist, tell them you are "the only dentist in Baytown that kids actually love coming to visit".

Audio logos like this can give people a smile and let them know you that you really care about your customers’ well-being and not your own pocket. They can also kick-start a conversation that turns into a genuine connection, leading to an exchange of business cards that could ultimately turn into mutually satisfying business.

I have had a number of business owners say that the audio logo can often sound a bit gimmicky. Two things here – work on it until you find an audio logo you are comfortable with and get used to it! And then practice, practice, practice. If you don’t do it, you are simply missing out on potential business.

But the verbal brand extends beyond the audio logo. The other verbal brand you must develop for your business is the "elevator pitch". Imagine you are in an elevator with a potential client, or at a formal networking function, and you have 30 or 60 seconds to tell your audience about yourself and your business. Could you do it in an entertaining, eloquent and engaging way that would make your business stand out? Could you do it in a way that would get people wanting to know more about how you can help them?

Basically, your elevator pitch must answer these questions:

• Who you are
• What you do
• Who you do it for (type of clients)
• WIIFM (what’s in it for me?) factor
• How you charge
• What experience customers can expect.

Don’t forget to end with a question about them so you can find out more and of course, let them know you would love to continue the conversation later over coffee.

Lastly, if your staff don’t know your audio logo or aren’t religiously using the elevator pitch too, then you could be missing out on lots of new business. As a small business owner you can’t afford for your staff not to be marketing your business. Sit down and work on your pitch with your team. Get them engaged and practice it with each other. Make it fun and check out other people’s response to your pitch before narrowing and refining it.



Rosemary Gillespie runs a copywriting and editing business based in Sydney. Whilst she works with words in print rather than the spoken word, she believes that many businesses need to pay more attention to what they say about their business, and not just what they put in print.

“We were asked at a recent networking breakfast to give our elevator pitch in 60 seconds. I’d already honed my pitch and used it a few times, so I felt comfortable about presenting myself and my business,” she said.

“I noticed that some of the other people seemed embarrassed about talking about their business. They were almost apologising for what they do.  But there were lots of good elevator pitches. Those that stood out spoke slowly, clearly and confidently, and they smiled. So they came across as professional, yet warm, not pushy or arrogant. 

“That’s what makes a good verbal brand for me – a clear, succinct description of what their business does, and how it helps their clients. And brevity is an asset.  No one wants to listen to a long, boring spiel.”

It was while she was crafting her elevator pitch and audio logo that Rosemary realised that in the past she had undersold herself and her skills.

“My elevator pitch made me focus precisely on what I do, and, more importantly, how I help my clients.  It made me clarify my brand and the benefits I bring to my clients.

“It did feel strange saying it to people at functions, and even to acquaintances in social situations.  Even reading it on paper makes it sound strange, but I’ve found that the more I use it, the easier and more natural it sounds.  And I always alter it slightly, depending on who I’m talking to.  The main thing is to know it inside-out, so that I always cover my main points. 

“It’s such a fantastic way to present my business.  As well as generating an enormous number of contacts, using my elevator pitch has directly lead to new work projects. I’ve just finished one for a new client that I met at a Melbourne Cup lunch who heard my elevator pitch after they asked me, “What do you do?

“I really believe that a business can’t be a business without an elevator pitch – as long as it’s succinct, clear, and spells out the benefits that the business brings to its clients.

“And audio logos are a great opener for a conversation.  When people ask me, I say that I make businesses lively, interesting to read about and I make them jump off the page. That always generates a quizzical look, which leads me into my elevator pitch.”

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