"Everybody Does It This Way!"

But wait--
Is a C- image good enough for you and your business?

Much of the popular style in writing is based on uncritical acceptance of whatever may be printed in magazines, newspapers, and advertising material. As a result, all kinds of writing errors spread quickly and easily. These errors become so common that many people are surprised to find that they reveal poor communication skills, and may suggest low overall quality.

Tool's CD's Smith's

Consider the pervasive misuse of the apostrophe to form plurals. In stores, you see signs like "Tool's" (something that a tool possesses). Likewise, "CD's" means "belonging to the CD", not "more than one CD". On front lawns and mailboxes, it's common to see "The Smith's", presumably meant to announce that the members of the Smith family live there. Instead, the apostrophe indicates that one person named Smith owns something. To indicate that the home belongs to all members of the Smith family, the apostrophe must be placed for plural possession, as "The Smiths' ". To signify that more than one Smith lives there, the correct designation can only be "The Smiths".

In fact, there seems to be no circumstance in which an apostrophe can be used correctly to indicate the plural. In a title like "Music of the 1950's", the apostrophe isn't right, because "of the" already indicates that the music belongs to the years of the 1950 decade. If the title were "1950's Music", the apostrophe would be okay, but it wouldn't be quite clear whether the music belongs to 1950 only, or to the decade. In this case, "Music of the 1950s" would be both correct and clear.

This widespread ignorance of the apostrophe is surprising, since its use is so simple: it either shows possession, as in "The dog's nose is black", or indicates omitted letters, as in "G'day, mate! What's happening?"

Teachers exclaim, "The comma always goes inside the quotes!", but we disagree.

Notice that the commas and periods following the quoted phrases above were put there to punctuate the sentence, and are not part of the quoted material. Punctuation belonging to the sentence should never be forced into a quotation. Unfortunately, many teachers and editors don't seem to think about this, insisting that punctuation always goes inside a closing quotation mark. This leads to awkwardly-formatted writing in which punctuation marks incorrectly appear to be a verbatim part of quoted material. This is a problem in any writing, but is particularly troublesome for technical and legal work. (Incidentally, in the "G'day ... What's happening?" quotation above, the question mark is inside the closing quote because it does belong to the quotation, not to the containing sentence. This is also true for the exclamation point in the headline of this paragraph.)

What's this binding hyphen problem all about?

Another trend in popular writing errors seems to be propagated by authors and editors who don't know that a hyphen is required to bind two or more words that act as a single modifier. Instead, they just leave them out, resulting in confusing sentences like the headline above. As it is, the sentence seems to be referring to a "hyphen problem" that binds something in some way. That doesn't make much sense. If I'd written "binding-hyphen", you'd know immediately that the sentence is actually about a problem concerning a hyphen used for binding purposes.

Here's another example: "The Japanese built part of the car was needed by the weekend." At first, you'd probably think the sentence is about the Japanese who built part of a car. But upon seeing "was needed", you'd have to stop. The sentence makes sense only if you insert the word "that" in front of "was needed", or insert a hyphen to bind "Japanese" and "built" into a single modifier. Under the first correction, the sentence is still about the Japanese, but the second correction makes the sentence refer to a Japanese-built part. Without additional information from the context of the sentence, you wouldn't know which correction to make.

Quality (maybe the Devil, too) is in the details.

I could give only a few examples here, but I hope it's enough to show that popular usage is a poor guide to writing, even when seen in print. Rather than insist on good writing, many writers, editors, and publishers often take the easy way out, saying "Everybody does it this way." But those who take the trouble to avoid popular writing errors demonstrate that they know quality is acheived only by careful attention to details.

--Essay by S. L. Sanders, 1996.

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