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Apostrophe Rage, or: How I learned to love the Oxford comma

Who else gets apostrophe rage? Or there/their/they’re, your/you’re, or should of/should have rage?

For writers, grammar rage can be a very real thing. There was even a TV series in the early noughties which referenced it – The Kill Point*, starring Donnie Wahlberg (yes, NKOTB Donnie Wahlberg) and John Leguizamo. Stay with me. Wahlberg plays a police negotiator – Captain Horst Cali – brought in when a bank heist goes wrong. The police and SWAT teams use a local café as command central, and several times, Cali asks one of the officers to get him a spray can. A few episodes in, Cali asks to speak to the owner; he wants to know if he is Marco. He is. Then he asks whether he runs the café alone, or with other men, also called Marco. He runs it alone. You see, the café sign said “Marcos’ Restaurant”. Cali goes outside, spray can in hand, sprays over the incorrect end apostrophe and resprays it to say “Marco’s Restaurant”. It obviously struck a chord as, 13 years on, this is still one of the main plot points I remember!

At our first introduction to Cali, he criticises his SWAT team leader for having once started a sentence with ‘but’ – saying, “in this job, one misplaced word can cost lives”. While a misplaced apostrophe, other punctuation mark, or misspelled word might not cost lives in the bid industry (if it does, you are working for the wrong organisation!) it could legitimately mean the difference between a win and a loss. For an evaluator or the client, it can affect readability or suggest a lack of attention to detail, undermining your professionalism and ‘expert’ authority.

Grammarly will check for spelling, grammar, punctuation, sentence structure – and even plagiarism

Learning difficulties and disabilities are, of course, a daily issue for many people and I’m not looking to undermine or underestimate that in any way. If you, or your other contributors, struggle with grammar and punctuation (or if you’re just looking to make sure on your writing), there are some great tools available to support you. Grammarly is probably the most well-known, and is available as a free add-in to word processing, email, CRM and social media packages, or as a quick online check. While word processing packages may pick up some issues, Grammarly will check for spelling, grammar, punctuation, sentence structure – and even plagiarism, which could be useful in our industry.

But apostrophes aside (yes, I start sentences with ‘but’, Captain Cali would not be happy with me…) what about the other common punctuation marks – the dashes, colons, semi-colons, and (eek) Oxford commas. Are you sure you’re using them in the correct way?

  • Dashes: While there are three types of dash, the most common are the en dash and em dash. The en dash separates number/time ranges (e.g., pages 11-12, 13:00-14:00), and the em dash replaces other punctuation such as commas or parentheses, denoting a pause or highlighting emphasis. I recently came across a piece of writing of four lines across a normal desktop screen. It was one continuous sentence, containing eight em dashes**. I almost had to go and lie down in all honesty.
  • Colons: Colons introduce information or a series of points. They can pre-empt a list, a quote, or point to further clarification. For example, our key differentiators are: speed of response, quality of advice, and global coverage.
  • Semi-colons: The easiest way to think of the semi-colon is that it links separate, but closely-connected thoughts – too closely-linked to be separated by a full stop. For example, “I watched the sunrise; it was beautiful”. You can also use the semi-colon in a sentence list, e.g., Paris; Berlin; London; Rome, or as bullet point separators.
  • And my personal favourite, the Oxford comma: When you list items in a sentence, each should be separated by a comma. When you have three or more items, whether you place a comma before the penultimate word (and before the ‘and’ or ‘or’) seems to be a point of some debate amongst writers! There is no right or wrong, rather it is a personal or stylistic choice – but it should be consistent throughout your document. Personally, I love an Oxford comma! I think it gives a hint to the reader they’re coming to the end of a writer’s thought.

You may have an in-house style guide, which sets out naming conventions, abbreviations, whether you use commas or full stops in bullet point lists, or UK or US English for example. If you don’t already have a style guide, think about creating one; they are really useful in ensuring all contributors write in the same style, saving you time at review.

And, be like Captain Cali. Have the spray can – red pen, huge marker, or delete key – ready.

*Currently streaming on Amazon Prime for those wanting to get their NKOTB/grammar-loving vibes on.

**I ran the “sentence” through Grammarly’s online checker; it highlighted seven different issues across grammar, punctuation misuse, sentence structure and style.