Apostrophe’s aint important?


The English Language evolves. It moves with the times. Writers and others are constantly bending the language, adding new words, and creating new forms: ‘How very dare they?’

But can punctuation be adapted at will, in any circumstance? Have apostrophes had their day? Why, there’s even a website named killtheapostrophe (please don’t google it).

I am prompted to write this diatribe (sorry, objective and calmly argued opinion piece …) by the recent redecoration of the façade of our local bookshop. I noticed it while driving to the railway station the other day and I was saddened to be reminded that four years ago – almost to the day – Waterstone’s decided that it would be ‘a more versatile and practical’ spelling of their company name if the apostrophe were dropped. The façade now reads Waterstones.

Now I actually don’t mind too much in the case of a company name (think Toys’R’Us, revenues $12.4bn …). But in general writing, and certainly in the worlds of publishing and editing, I would argue, the apostrophe should be protected, defended, safeguarded.

My position is not one of grammatical pedantry or Luddism, for I am a firm believer in allowing the language to develop, to adapt, and to reflect the societies in which it is used. It is simply that if apostrophes are not used in the standard manner, then readers are quite likely to get the wrong end of the stick, which helps no one.

A simple example – albeit one that appears to condone polygamy – comes from Kingsley Amis:

Those things are my husband’s [i.e. Those things belong to my husband]
Those things are my husbands’ [i.e. Those things belong to several husbands of mine]
Those things are my husbands. [I’m married to those men].

The position of an apostrophe can change the meaning completely:

We should preserve the people’s customs.
We should preserve the peoples’ customs.

In many such cases (not all, I admit) apostrophes clarify and they render unambiguous. And by doing so they allow a reader to follow a writer’s train accurately and seamlessly, without confusion, pause or interruption.

Some people do get in a muddle with apostrophes. I was, perhaps, lucky to have a very straight-forward and articulate English teacher at Glenbervie Primary School, for it was he, Mr Alastair McCorquodale (splendid Scottish name), who taught me all I needed to know about apostrophes. ‘It’s very simple,’ he said, ‘you use an apostrophe when you omit some letters, as in don’t or shouldn’t, or you use one to indicate the possessive case, as in a soldier’s uniform. … That’s it. All you need to know.’

Perhaps, of course, we can allow occasional lapses? I wouldn’t want to upbraid greengrocers every time I see their advertisements for courgette’s or banana’s. This has become part of the national culture, an error so deeply ingrained that it would be a great shame to lose it. (By the way, I think the nicest example I have ever seen of the stallholder’s art was at a Lancashire market around 1983, where one confectioner was doing a roaring trade in Mar’s Bar’s.)

Inserting apostrophes in simple plurals is nothing new. People have been making this particular mistake for centuries. In Kendal in 1806, for example, an advertisement in the local newspaper tells us that one James Newby had recently set up a shop ‘where he Makes, Sells and Repairs all kinds Of Watch’s & Clock’s … and sells all sorts of Gold, Silver Plate &c. &c. in the Newest Fashion’s …’

So, the apostrophe is, and has long been, a character misused, misplaced and misunderstood. Does this really matter now, any more than in Kendal in 1806?

I believe it does matter. Having been an editor and publisher for the majority of my years since leaving Glenbervie I believe that ‘incorrect’ (I prefer the term ‘non-standard’) punctuation can say a lot about a writer. I do know, for instance, that when interviewing candidates for publishing jobs it’s one of the things that recruiters notice. It might not be crucial to their decision, but they do notice.

So if you work with words, or if you’re in publishing … if you aspire to become an editor, or if you’re writing an application letter for a new job … if you’re composing a report for your new boss, or even if you’re updating your social media profile, I think it is worth taking the trouble to check that your apostrophes are all present and correct.

Thank you, Mr McCorquodale. And, please, let’s hear no more about the redundancy of apostrophes.


Getting a job in publishing

A typical publisher of old might appear in one’s mind’s eye as a middle-aged, bespectacled man, perhaps in a faded smoking jacket, eccentric, with ink-stained forefinger and thumb. He sits behind a mahogany desk that is groaning sadly out of shape after years of service supporting an improbably large pile of musty manuscripts, each bound loosely but carefully with tape. He will be located in a hard to find, dimly lit office (oak-panelled, or with peeling plaster), perhaps in the vicinity of St Paul’s churchyard in the City, at one time the haunt of nearly all of Britain’s book-dealers and publisher–entrepreneurs, or perhaps above a clothes shop in Edinburgh’s New Town, or behind the porter’s office of an august Oxford college.

Occasionally, the said publisher might consent to take in an eager and earnest well-read son or daughter of a friend-of-a-friend, as a lowly paid apprentice (nowadays, ‘intern’). After many years of loyal and uncomplaining service, editing the copy, marking up the proofs, or sending out notices of new publications to book dealers or private clients, the apprentice would gradually metamorphose into his now aged employer, metaphorically if not literally donning his smoking jacket, adopting his mannerisms, and inheriting the pile (perhaps even the same pile?) of scripts.

And that’s how people got into publishing …

Behind such stereotypes there is often a grain of truth: until the 1980s the recruitment culture within the narrow world of book publishing could be somewhat amateur, the mechanisms by which many young people gained entry to the industry informal or nepotistic. At a London Book Fair seminar two or three years ago, the senior industry figures on the panel shared their experiences of gaining their first publishing job. Nearly all of their stories shared a narrative: ‘I didn’t have any qualifications. I just sort of fell into it.’

In recent decades, however, the industry has become ever more professional and in many ways more conventional: more like other ‘professions’. It is also more international and global in outlook and reach. And, while internships and work placements are still widespread in the industry, there is a growing trend toward paying interns and, overall, a more professional approach toward staff recruitment.

The corollary of this is that new staff are increasingly required or expected to have some form of industry-specific training or experience: a good Honours degree, even a First, can be regarded as a bare minimum. The gradual expansion of publishing courses, particularly in the Higher Education sector, is a reflection of this increasing professionalism.

Recently I have been busy researching this whole topic while helping to design and develop a new Master’s programme.

Here I do not intend to compile a checklist of dos and don’ts for applying for publishing jobs. Although I have interviewed many candidates for my own publishing business over the years, I am no recruitment expert, and there is plenty of general advice available elsewhere.

The tips that I would give here are:

learn about the industry:

When one thinks casually about ‘publishing’, one tends to think of the latest fiction bestseller, such as Harry Potter, or that much derided E.L. James novel. Books such as these can sell so many copies that they can single-handedly distort the bestseller lists, and they can generate enormous amounts of media coverage, turning their authors into global celebrities. Fiction sales of UK-published books, stand at almost £600 million per annum. However, according to statistics published by the Publishers Association, the turnover of fiction titles represents just 18 per cent of total book sales, and it is dwarfed by the £1.082 billion sales (32 per cent of total book sales) achieved by the academic and professional sector.

Overall, significantly more than two-thirds of British publishing is of non-fiction titles, ranging from academic and professional, to biography, to cookery, reference, children’s and schoolbooks, textbooks, travel books, self-help books, etc.

Realise that publishing is a business. Almost all of British publishing is in the private sector, and these business are responsible to their shareholders. If you learn about business (and the legal aspects of business), you’ll have skills that are in demand.

learn about different roles:

You could be a commissioning editor (by the way, almost every job role has the word ‘editor’ in it somewhere, even if precious little editing is done in that role), helping to develop new lists, negotiating with authors and driving the business forward.

You could be a literary agent.

You could become a book designer, a jacket designer, a typesetter.

You could become a production editor (that word again …), helping to organise the production and ‘content development’ phase.

You could become a social media marketer, or a publicity officer.

You could work in sales, or ebooks, or work in a publisher’s legal department drawing up contracts.

You could work freelance (as many do), as an editor, indexer, proofreader, designer, whatever.

You could set up a new publishing business (this is remarkably easy, as you don’t need a licence, nor to pass any exams).

Research and read lots. And use online resources such as bookcareers.com


Go to literary events, book fairs, book launches, etc.

Put together a neat LinkedIn profile and connect (judiciously: you don’t want to bother people too much) with industry professionals.

Get to know people on both sides of the industry: authors as well as publishers.

Join an organisation such as the Society of Young Publishers.

explore gaining a specific qualification:

If you have a degree (in any subject), you might consider one of the excellent post-graduate MAs that are available. Obviously, I’d recommend the new one at Derby that I’ve designed, but a quick internet search will show you that there are several good ones in London and Oxford.

If you are thinking of going to university for the first time, there are one or two institutions that offer English and Publishing, or just Publishing, as a first degree.

Gaining a specific qualification such as a BA or an MA is not essential, but it will certainly help your chances, and it will make it more likely that you’ll advance more quickly once you do find a position.

Good luck. Publishing is a wonderfully stimulating and rewarding career.

A publisher’s blurb

First things first: allow me, please, to apologize for beginning this blog with an Americanism. (I cannot be feeling quite myself.) For, according to the Shorter Oxford ED, ‘blurb’, meaning ‘a publisher’s commendatory advertisement of a book’ entered the language there (in 1924).

Frustrating and fascinating, this language of ours, is it not? It keeps changing. And adding new words: at the latest count the full Oxford English Dictionary has over 301,000 principal entries. In 2015 the lexicon was expanded by several hundred more. Apparently ‘manspreading’, whatever that is, now warrants an entry. As does ‘wine o’clock’, much more to my taste (Brunello di Montalcino or Barbera d’Asti please …).

Anyway, I digress, for my bright, shiny new blog is not about the English language. Well, not entirely anyway. What it is really about it the world of publishing today … the writing, editing and designing of books. And about publishing as a career.

There will be serious posts, for sure, but also some whimsy. For now, and lest you get bored, I leave you with my absolutely favourite history ‘howler’ of all time:

‘Queen Elizabeth I found it difficult to concentrate on foreign policy with Mary Queen of Scots hoovering in the background.’