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The Seven Deadly Sins

Ask ten proofreaders or editors their seven pet hates, and no doubt you’ll end up with seventy rather than seven examples. In fact, we had quite an argument here at Sunset as we tried to narrow the list down to just seven! Here’s what we ended up with:

1. Lead/led

2. Everyday/Every day

3. It’s/Its

4. Alright/All right

5. Stationery/Stationary

6. Foreword/Forward

7. Separate/Seperate

The elusive apostrophe

Author: The Sunset Team

Pity the poor apostrophe. Once well understood, it is now unwelcome in its rightful lodgings and seems well and truly lost, popping up in the most unlikely places.


DOs and DON’Ts

Let’s get one thing straight: the apostrophe does not exist to denote the plural. If there is more than one of something, all that is needed to indicate the fact is the addition of an s. Therefore, when your local hairdresser puts out a sign announcing Discounts for Pensioner’s, he or she has it wrong. The sign should read Discounts for Pensioners. Neither is it correct to include an apostrophe(s) when speaking of the early 1900s or bargain CDs and DVDs.

Just as common is the omission of the legitimate apostrophe. Apostrophes have two functions:

1. To denote the possessive case, i.e. to indicate that something belongs to something (or someone) else:

Mary’s house
Lewis’s job
the car’s tyres
the tree’s leaves

If there is more than one ‘owner’, i.e. the word is plural, the apostrophe is placed after the plural s:

the trees’ leaves
the Thompsons’ son

If, however, the plural word does not end iwith an s, e.g. children or women, the apostrophe is again placed before the s:

children’s
women’s

Where possession is shared by individual persons (or things), e.g. by John and Mary, place the ’s after the last ‘owner’:

John and Mary’s children

 2. To indicate a missing letter or letters in a word (known as a ‘contraction’), e.g.:

we’ll      won’t      isn’t      you’ve      you’re      it’s

Be warned, however, that your and you’re are not interchangeable, and neither are its and it’s:

This is your book. You’re not reading it.
The cat is licking its fur. It’s a sad state of affairs.

The pronouns your and its are not the same as their soundalikes, the contractions you’re and it’s. Confused? Fortunately, there is an easy way to tell which is which. If the sentence still makes sense when the suspect word is ‘expanded’, you know you need that apostrophe; if it doesn’t make sense, leave the apostrophe out:

This is YOU ARE book. That certainly sounds strange, so your must be correct.
YOU ARE not ready. That sounds fine, so you’re must be correct.

Try the same exercise with the its and it’s examples above.

These brief guidelines on apostrophe usage cover the basics and should keep you out of trouble; however, for more comprehensive coverage – and some very amusing images of misplaced, misused and abused apostrophes – check out the website of The Apostrophe Protection Society: http://www.apostrophe.org.uk/.


Do we really need the apostrophe?

The widespread confusion surrounding the correct use of the apostrophe has prompted a small number of academics to suggest that it should be abolished. Aside from the fact that the apostrophe is far easier to understand than this argument implies, we believe there are more important considerations. Would the apostrophe’s disappearance hinder or enhance readability? To present the examples of she’d and shed, we’ll and well, and he’ll and hell is to answer the question. Drop the apostrophe and each of these words would need to be examined within its context in order to determine its meaning and, hence, pronunciation. The apostrophe performs an important function in avoiding ambiguity and should be retained.

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