Misused apostrophes cost UK businesses billions

Posted on November 7, 2011

 

Most UK businesses are aware of the lost man hours they suffer as a result of such things as Facebook, staff checking personal emails and generally throwing sickies whenever the mood takes, but few are aware of the lost man hours caused by wayward apostrophes in the English language.

It sounds strange, but go with me on this.

An inherent lack of understanding of the correct use of apostrophes is responsible for the loss of countless hours by staff members hitting the apostrophe key on their keyboards far too many times. All of these unnecessary apostrophes could be saved up and shipped to countries with apostrophe shortages, such as America, where only four place names in the whole of the United States contain apostrophes due to the inhabitants’ lack of understanding them.

While this may seem like a small amount of time to me and you, the time adds up for the UK economy, and what it costs UK businesses. Plus, the physical time wasted on the keystrokes punching unnecessary apostrophes isn’t the only drain on UK businesses; there’s also the problem of employees deliberating over when their fingers should fall on the punctuation keys, agonising over what exactly is a possessive apostrophe and what the difference is between an apostrophe and a comma.

Many people who simply do not understand the usage of apostrophes are often aware that something should be used, that some form of punctuation is needed… but the rules for such usage are unknown to them.

For example, a former colleague of mine once told me of how, when he worked in a bar, he watched the landlady write out a specials board in chalk, completely free from any form of punctuation, before standing back, pondering for a while, and then adding random apostrophes, commas and semi-colons sporadically throughout the board. She knew not where these different types of punctuation should be used, only that some of them should be used somewhere.

It is this sort of time that errant apostrophes cost UK businesses. The thought process in the landlady’s mind must have waivered back and forth over whether to bother and, if she were to bother, where the punctuation should go, before eventually deciding to waste further time incorrectly editing her work.

Wayward apostrophes and inaccurate punctuation aren’t the exclusive domain of specials boards in pubs however, as every business suffers from apostrophe induced time wastage. The below screenshot comes from the website of a leading courier firm in the UK, where whoever wrote the copy, for whatever reason, decided that the word ‘starts’ needed an apostrophe before the letter s.

YODEL

Wayward apostrophe on YODEL website

There is no excuse for this. It is wrong. Yet, even on a business website’s front page, errors such as this exist.

Is it any wonder that councillors in Birmingham decided, only last year, to ban the use of apostrophes in their road signs? They knew that too many hours were being lost by staff and sign writers deliberating over whether there should, or should not, be an apostrophe in a particular sign, so they just did away with them altogether.

Birmingham road sign

Birmingham bans apostrophes

This particular action caused uproar with people who are able to use punctuation, such as John Richards, the Apostrophe Protection Society chairman. John seethed at the time, commenting:

“It is setting a very bad example because teachers all over Birmingham are teaching their children punctuation and then they see road signs with apostrophes removed. I think the council would be better advised to make sure the right apostrophes are in rather than removing them.

“It’s a bad example to children and teachers. It’s a simple rule and so many people get it wrong.”

John is, of course, correct. Removing apostrophes from our language isn’t the way forward. Instead, a higher standard of education would seem a more suited response. The use of punctuation is vital for the expression of our language, and plays an important part in communication and even search engine optimisation. If Google, which is nothing more than a collection of functions on a series of servers, can determine what is and what is not correct punctuation, then surely we, as human beings with infinitely more complex brain synapses, should also be able to know when and where to use apostrophes.

A better educated workforce that can use punctuation will be far more productive that one that doesn’t understand whether a simple plural should, or should not, feature an apostrophe.

Darren Jamieson

Technical Director at Engage Web
Darren is Technical Director at Engage Web, as well as being a co-founder of the company. He takes a hands-on approach to SEO and web design, helped by more than 15 years’ experience in these fields.

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