The Grammar Factor – apostrophes, pole position, squeezed middle

March 2012

Readers’ questions


Question: Do I need an apostrophe in the following phrase because the ‘needs’ belong (possessive) to the developments?

… servicing the needs of industry and urban development’s.

Answer: You don’t need an apostrophe because ‘of’ has indicated the possessive and developments is just a plural. I wonder if the sentence would read better with singular ‘development’, i.e. treating the word as a collective noun.

… servicing the needs of industry and urban developments.
… servicing the needs of industry and urban development.

Question: Do you need an apostrophe in ‘two nights accommodation’?

Answer: I think the apostrophe here is optional because the meaning is more ‘for’ than ‘of’, i.e. descriptive rather than possessive. Descriptive apostrophes are tending to drop out (e.g. girls school = schools for girls). However, you would not be wrong to use an apostrophe.

Poll or pole position?

Question: It seems that even the most authoritative publications use the word ‘pole’ for ‘leading’, as in ‘Lauda is in pole position on the grid’. But surely the word should be ‘poll’, which means head, not ‘pole’, which generally has nothing to do with heads or leading?

Answer: I had never heard the expression ‘pole position’, but apparently it comes from racing, where the term refers to the track nearest the inner boundary. I guess that is a good position to be in!

Which and that

A reader asked about the difference between which and that. I covered that in my new daily grammar blog at:

Oriented and orientated

A reader asked what the difference is between oriented and orientated. Here’s what Michael Quinion says:

‘We have a minor oddity here, in that both orient and orientate come from the same French verb, orienter, but were introduced at different times, the shorter one in the eighteenth century and the longer in the middle of the nineteenth. There’s been a quiet war going on between the two of them ever since. I tend to use oriented and orientated pretty indiscriminately myself, choosing the shorter one when it seems to fit the flow of the sentence. Robert Burchfield, in the Third Edition of Fowler’s Modern English Usage, says “one can have no fundamental quarrel with anyone who decides to use the longer of the two words”. But all this is a British view, since here orientated is common; in the US it is less so and considered much less a part of the standard language. So, as always, it’s as much a case of who you are writing for and where you are doing so.’

Readers’ contributions

‘Has Microsoft Word affected the way we work?’

John Naughton says: ‘My hunch is that using a word processor makes writing more like sculpting in clay. Because it’s so easy to revise, one begins by hacking out a rough draft which is then iteratively reshaped – cutting bits out here, adding bits there, gradually licking the thing into some kind of shape.’

He goes on to say that we fail to edit thorougly once we’ve shaped the clay.

Read the article at:

Buzzwords are a load of bull

An article in The Sydney Morning Herald maintains we sound smarter if we use plain language rather than buzzwords. Examples given of buzzwords include ‘you’re on my radar’ and ‘push the envelope’.

Read the article at:

The article mentions 2010 research by Jochim Hansen and Michaela Wänke. This research found that statements are regarded as more likely to be true if written in concrete, not abstract, language.

Buy the article at:

Stephen Fry’s kinetic typography

If you enjoy kinetic typography, take a look at:

Funny English from around the world

A reader sent me these examples of mangled English – I can’t verify their source, but they are amusing.

  • On the main road to Mombasa: Take notice: when this sign is under water, this road is impassable.
  • In a city restaurant: Open seven days a week and weekends.
  • In a cemetery: Persons are prohibited from picking flowers from any but their own graves.
  • On the menu of a Swiss restaurant: Our wines leave you nothing to hope for.
  • In a Tokyo bar: Special cocktails for the ladies with nuts.
  • Airline ticket office, Copenhagen: We take your bags and send them in all directions.
  • In the lobby of a Moscow hotel across from a Russian Orthodox monastery: You are welcome to visit the cemetery where famous Russian and Soviet composers, artists and writers are buried daily except Thursday.


A reader commented that many novels are no longer using speech marks for dialogue, which makes them harder to read.

His conclusion: Bring back punctuation.

A reader stated that she hates two words ending with -ing in a row. For example, catching flying bugs.

Quote of the month

‘I love deadlines. I like the whooshing sound they make as they fly by.’
Douglas Adams

Word of the year

Oxford Dictionaries Word of the Year 2011: squeezed middle.

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