Apostrophe Now: Mechanical Errors in Writing (Part 2)

by John Robert Marlow

As mentioned in Part One, writing mechanics are dull, but essential—like checking the oil and brake fluid when you’d rather be cruising down the coast. You can’t do one without keeping an eye on the other. So let’s take a look at another batch of common mechanical errors…


Apostrophes are often misused. It’s hard to tell whether this results from inattention or misunderstanding, but here’s the rule: with few exceptions, apostrophes signify contractions and possessives—and nothing else.

Contractions are shortened words: that’s for that is, wouldn’t for would not, could’ve for could have, you’re for you are, that sort of thing. By far the most troublesome word in this category is it’s, a shortening of it is. The confusion likely stems from the fact that, unlike other contractions, it’s looks like a possessive.

Possessives are words that signify possession. Some of these—his, her, their—sport no apostrophe. Others do: John’s, Marie’s, Smith’s, Jones’, building’s, truck’s (“The fire truck’s front end was buried in the building’s north side, where John Jones’ office used to be”).

Its is a possessive with no apostrophe: “The fire truck was on its side.” “The fire truck was on it’s side” makes no sense; what this actually says (because it’s is a contraction) is that the fire truck was on it is side. It’s and its are so commonly misused that it’s worth the effort to do a search on your finished work, and eyeball every instance of each word.

Further confusion arises when the word being designated as possessive already ends with an s. Is it Jones’ or Jones’s, fortress’ or fortress’s? A simple apostrophe after the s is better form, and makes for an easier read. (Technically, you can do the same with words ending in z, but that tends to look silly without a concluding s.)

Exceptions are debatable, and typically relate to things that aren’t really words: 1940’s—which can also be written as 1940s. The latter avoids the appearance of being a possessive.

“There were two hundred Jones’s in the phone book” doesn’t look good (but does look like a possessive, which it’s not)—but then neither does “Joneses.” In this case, consider using Miller instead of Jones, and the problem goes away. Or, if you’re stuck on Jones, rearrange the sentence: “There were two hundred listings in the phone book under Jones.”


It’s been said that the hardest languages to learn are English and Mandarin Chinese. It’s easier when you’ve grown up with one or the other—but even native speakers find some things confuddling. Herewith, another round of confusingly similar and often misused words…

Farther/Further: Though frequently confused, each has its own distinct meaning: farther always refers to physical distance; further never refers to physical distance. So while the goal line on a football field may be farther away than ever after the quarterback is sacked in his own end zone, his goal of being named most valuable player is further away.

Far, on the other hand, can be used in either situation: “How far is the goal line?” or “He’s a far worse player than you can possibly imagine.”

Effect/Affect: An effect is a result of some kind: “He spoke with great effect.” Affect denotes influence: “The audience was greatly affected by his speech.” You can even use both in the same sentence, though this can look a tad silly: “The effects of the nuclear detonation adversely affected the city.

Appraise/Apprise: To appraise something is to estimate its value or quality: “When Tiffany had her wedding ring appraised, she discovered that the diamonds were fake;” “Sergeant McGillicuddy appraised the situation on the battlefield.”

To apprise is to inform or convey information: “Tiffany was apprised of the ring’s true quality;” “Sergeant McGillicuddy apprised his superiors of the situation.” Again, you can use both, but it looks odd: “Sergeant McGillicuddy appraised the diamond, and apprised General Tiffany of its value.”

Adverse/averse: Adverse means unfavorable, hostile or harmful: weather can be adverse, as can circumstances or side effects. People are never adverse.

Averse means unwilling, opposed, or disinclined toward. This word does apply to people, and is always followed by the word to, which is in turn followed by whatever it is the person finds disagreeable: “Baby Finster is averse to Brussels sprouts;” “The new CEO has an extreme aversion to honest labor.”

Ordinance/ordnance: Ordinances are official rules and regulations: “There’s a city ordinance against sleeping in the park.” Ordnance refers to military hardware, and is most often used to mean explosives of some sort: “There’s enough ordnance here to orbit the Washington Monument.” Wars only work with ordnance; replace that with ordinance, and all you’ve got is a city council meeting.


Most novels are written in third person, past tense: “Amos wrestled the alligator in the swamp.” A few are written in first person, past tense: “I wrestled the alligator in the swamp.” Fewer still are first person, present tense: “I wrestle the alligator in the swamp. He bites my arm off.” Screenplays are almost universally written in third person, present tense: “He wrestles the alligator in the swamp. It swallows him whole.”

Second person narration—in which the main character is referred to as “you”—is seldom used in English-language tales.

In all cases, problems arise when the writer slips from one tense into another, as in this example from character dialogue: “What the hell do you think you were doing?”

Here, do is present tense, were is past. So to be consistent, the sentence must read either: “What the hell do you think you’re doing?” [present tense], or “What the hell did you think you were doing?” [past tense].

In this example, we switch from present to past tense: “If there is [present] one thing Frankie knew [past] to do, it was [past] how to cover his own ass.” The grammar here is also in trouble, and there seems to be a word misplaced or missing.

What the writer wanted to say was this: “If there was one thing Frankie knew how to do, it was cover his ass.” Grammatically, even this could be improved—but it would likely lose “punch” in the process.

Things can also go the other way—from past to present: “One thing Mark couldn’t [past] stand is [present]…” (Which, of course, needs to read” “One thing Mark couldn’t stand was…”) Another example: “The least the devil could have [past] done was [past] to make sure that the air-conditioning is [present] working.” (This should end with “was working.”)

Occasionally, writers will mix past and future tenses: “Mrs. Branch and Prince Juniper were [past] flying to Spain tomorrow [future] to meet with the owner of a partially-constructed treehouse they were [past] interested in buying.” Or: “The test wasn’t [past] starting [present or—in this case—future] until noon.”

Another example: “He’ll find out eventually that she’d duped him.” He’ll (he will) is future, she’d (she had) past. This needs to read either: “He’ll find out eventually that she’s duped him,” or “He’d find out eventually that she duped him.” (And, really, each sentence would read better if it began with “Eventually.”)

Sometimes, a writer will bounce between tenses: “I noticed [past] that incongruously, he is [present] wearing a double-breasted wool suit in the Sahara, which appears [present] to be one of the hottest places on earth. The suit probably explains [present] why he keeps [present] the air conditioning on an icy blast. He turned [past] back to me, and seemed [past] surprised [past] I was [past] still there.”

There are a number of problems here, but what concerns us now is this: the entire passage should be written in past tense.

Some sentences are so badly mangled tense-wise that they’re either impossible to salvage, or not worth the effort: “I’m here only because a judge ordered this visit so that I could assure you someone knew what happened to you, and I could make sure you aren’t being abused.”

In such cases, a total rewrite is called for: “I’m here because a judge ordered this visit. He wants to assure you that the court is aware of your situation. I’ve been instructed to ask if you’re being well-treated.”

Be particularly careful when you use the word had, or any other word ending in ’d, because it’s easier to slip up when one of these is present. “It had been a long time since she was intrigued by a guy,” for instance, should be: “It had been a long time since she’d been intrigued by a guy.”

Often—but not always—the presence of had in a sentence requires the use of a ’d word, or another had. Seldom will the word was appear in the same sentence as had. (“She’d already told him she was a leper, and so she failed to understand his surprise when things started falling off,” would be an exception.)


It’s surprisingly easy to find yourself on the wrong end of a singular—or plural, for that matter. Singular-plural mix-ups are fairly common, and look like this:

“Anchovies, as I recall, was on your wish list.” And this: “Hers were one of many.” And this: “Samantha liked the architecture in this part of Dubai; lovely modern buildings, each their own signature piece.”

The first two are fairly simple. Because anchovies is plural, the writer must use were (which is also plural) instead of was (which is singular): “Anchovies, as I recall, were on your wish list.” Likewise, one is singular, and were plural—so when referring to one of many, the writer must use was: “Hers was one of many.”

In the first two examples, it’s immediately clear what’s being referred to: anchovies and one. Which makes it a simple matter to choose between was and were.

The third example is a bit more complicated: what are we really talking about here—architecture, or buildings? Neither, as it turns out; the specific word being referenced here is each. Because each is singular, the last part of this sentence should read: “each its own signature piece.”

How do we know that each is the key word here? By asking this question: “What is a signature piece?” Is architecture a signature piece? No, that’s too broad. Modern buildings? No again; how can “modern buildings” be “a signature piece?” What about “each?” Eureka! Each “modern building” is a signature piece. And because each is singular, we must use its (also singular) and not their (which is plural).

But, really—in this case, at least—we don’t even have to go through all of that. The answer is contained in the question: “What is a signature piece?” A signature piece is singular (signature pieces would be plural)—and so it must be referring to something else that is also singular: each.

Whatever is being most directly referred to determines whether the sentence should employ singular or plural words. Here, the sentence is referring to “architecture” in a general sense, and “modern buildings” in a collective and indirect sense—but “each” is clearly the main focus.

Think of it this way: you’re traipsing through the Alaskan wilderness. Majestic, snow-capped mountains rise in the distance. Sunlight glitters off a nearby river. Gorgeous pine trees dot the landscape.

It’s all quite beautiful, really—but the thing you should be concentrating on is that charging grizzly, and whether he has a buddy. Because if it’s one bear, your biographer will write” “The bear was hungry.” And if it’s two bears, he’ll write “The bears were hungry.”

Sometimes, the problem is a simple typo: “He detested the lack of compassion most detectives had toward the victim[s] and their families.” Occasionally, it’s hard to see how the wrongness was arrived at: “Frank spoke softly to the man, “Your eyes were scooped out like a grape.”” Even then, however, the fix is clear: ““Frank spoke softly to the man. “Your eyes were scooped out like grapes,” he said.”

Finally, two perilous situations that often lead writers astray. The first has to do with people (or other creatures or things) standing beside something—usually a doorway.

“A soldier stood on both sides of the door.” For this sentence to stand as it is, the soldier would have to be in two places at once—the left and right sides of the door. A soldier is singular; both is plural.

“A soldier stood on each side of the door” may be grammatically correct, but—owing to the unintended double meaning—presents the same absurd image in the reader’s mind.

The solution is to abandon the sentence structure entirely, and instead write something like this: “Two soldiers stood by the door.” Most readers will assume that means one soldier per side—but if you want to get specific, say: “Two soldiers flanked the door.”

The other situation often arises in connection with arms. (The kind attached to characters.) A typical example: “He edged out over the roof. His stomach churned. His arms were limp at his side.”

With two arms on one side like that, he might just lose his balance and fall off. When referring to a character’s arms (or anything else there’s more than one of) being at his sides, always double-check to be sure you didn’t say side instead.


We all know the typo. Fingers flying over the keyboard, we hit the wrong key (or several wrong keys). Or we forget to hit the right key (or several right keys). Occasionally, the results are amusing or embarrassing; more often they’re not. And they always make us look sloppy.

Typos are like beetles; there are so many different kinds, it’s hard to keep track. Most, though, fall into a few broad general categories: wrong letters, extra letters, missing letters; wrong words, extra words, missing words.

And then there was the guy who accidentally hit a macro key, and put his lonely-hearts personal ad in the middle of his manuscript.

Mr. Lonely Hearts aside, the trouble with typos is this: we, as authors, know how the words are supposed to read—and so we tend to see what should be on the page, rather than what’s actually there. Our cranial spell-checkers autocorrect spelling errors, fill in missing words, subtract extra ones. (We sometimes do the same with plot elements—but that’s, uhm, another story.) Of course, this “magic-seeing” only works for us.

The moment someone else reads the thing, every error stands out like a spotlight, illuminating our seeming incompetence. At best, we look lazy; at worst, illiterate. In either case, the result distracts the reader and interferes with his or her enjoyment of the tale being told.

The solution is simple: first, run a spelling and grammar check. This will catch many errors, but won’t come close to catching them all. (It may also flag things that aren’t errors, or suggest some fixes that shouldn’t be made.)

Next, hand the finished work to someone else to read, and ask them to mark every single error they spot. Needless to say, they should have a firm grasp of the language you’re writing in, and should also be willing to take the considerable time necessary to do this.

Make the appropriate corrections and repeat as needed, with a new reader each time. Then take a fresh look at it yourself; often, a little time away from the story can help you to spot things you missed in a previous read.

Finally, finances permitting, consider sending the finished work to someone who makes his living spotting and correcting writing problems—a professional editor.


Again, not exactly pulse-pounding stuff—but stuff you can’t ignore. Because it’s hard for readers to enjoy the ride when there’s a racket under the hood, caused by a dozen untended mechanical problems. You want your story running like a well-tuned Maserati.


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