A, an

As a general rule, use “a” when the word starts with a consonant sound and “an” when it is a vowel sound. E.g. A United Nations resolution, an MP. Use “an” before a silent H, e.g. a hero, an hour. “An historic building” is grammatically correct, as is “an history book”, but neither will look or sound right to readers.

Apostrophes

The apostrophe has two uses: to denote a missing letter, such as can’t (cannot) and to indicate the possessive, as in: We got in Mary's car. Note: Farmers’ markets and magistrates’ courts take a plural possessive apostrophe.

Many businesses do not use apostrophes in their names when it sounds like they should, eg.  Barclays Bank, Brands Hatch, Crufts, Earls Court, Ladbrokes (bookmakers), Lloyds Bank, etc. Always check the official spelling of company names and use it.

However, beware of common mistakes with apostrophes (especially in advertising). These do not take an apostrophe: TVs, CDs, l990s, under 16s, etc.

In some phrases the first and last letters of the word and are replaced with apostrophes, e.g. fish ‘n‘ chips, rock ‘n‘ roll and mix ‘n‘ match.

Capital letters

You should always use capital letters for proper nouns (the names of people, places and organisations). You should also used them for titles of official positions, such as the Chief Constable of Kent or the Prime Minister.

However, they tend to be overused in press releases. Job titles do not need to have capital letters, neither do council committees and minor office holders, e.g. Medway Council's planning committee, or Medway Council's director of regeneration.

Colons and semi-colons

Use a colon to introduce a quote, e.g. Mr Jones said: “I agree.” The colon may also be used to introduce a list of items. “Magistrates could be given power to impose the following sentences: up to six months’ imprisonment; a fine of up to £100,000; or community service of up to 500 hours.”

In headlines a colon is always followed by a capital letter, e.g. Mandy: Police find body.

Semi-colons help break up long lists, and rank higher than commas. “Winners of the competition are: Fred Towers, of The Hill, Charing; Sarah Spade, of Dig Road, Wormshill; Arthur Daly, of Secondhand Drive, Leigh.”

Commas

Used to separate part of a sentence, or divide a list of three or more things.

  • Lists: Commas are used to separate items in a list, but be careful about how this can affect the meaning. This is fine: "I went to the shop and bought wine, grapes, and cheese." But be careful of sentences like: "I met my mum, Emma Watson, and Daniel Radcliffe." That could be interpreted as meaning that my mum is Emma Watson. Better to write: "I met my mum, Emma Watson and Daniel Radcliffe".
  • Separating clauses I: Commas can also separate two parts of a sentence. "The cat ate all the rats, which had hidden in the kettle." The first part of this sentence would make sense even if everything after the comma was deleted. But be aware of what happens when the comma is removed: "The cat ate all the rats which had hidden in the kettle" sounds like there could be more rats in the toaster and under the fridge which the cat decided not to bother with.
  • Separating clauses II: Commas can also be used to divide a sentence mid-way through, e.g. "The cat ate all the rats, which had hidden in the kettle, and then went to sleep in the garden." Remove everything in between the commas and the sentence is still a complete, meaningful whole. Sometimes writers forget to put the second comma in, which can make meanings vague.

A, apostrophes, capitals, colons, and commas