Festive faux pas to avoid | The Giles Agency Grammar Guide


As Christmas draws ever-nearer, your thoughts may be turning to your Christmas card list, and sending best wishes to friends, family, colleagues, and clients. Whether this involves physical cards and stamps or digital messages and e-cards, holiday comms can be trickier to put together than you might expect.

Numerous potential faux pas crop up at this time of year. Are you prepared for them?

Holiday homonyms

Yule benefit from this warning when wishing your bow a marry Christmas – and giving holiday sound-a-likes a wide birth. The festive season is filled with uncommon spellings and phrasings, many of which sound quite a bit alike – as the previous sentence demonstrates. Such words are known as homonyms: words that are spelled or sound alike, but have different meanings. Avoid embarrassment and ensure you select the right words when writing your Christmas cards this year. (For any grammar-lovers out there itching to correct the first sentence in this section, our homonyms of choice were yule/you’ll, bow/beau, marry/merry, and birth/berth.)

Roving apostrophes and odd plurals

This is a common error around events and occasions that involve greetings cards and messages exchanged between entire families or groups of people. For example, do you wish your loved ones a Merry Christmas from the Jones or the Joneses or the Jones’ or the Joneses’ or the Jones’s…  you get the idea. If your surname ends in a consonant, this is a little easier – Merry Christmas from the Cunninghams or Leungs or Wongs, for example – but it can be a head-scratcher if your surname ends with an s, z, x, or ch/sh. The correct way to pluralise a surname that ends in ’s’, as with the surname of our lovely Founder, Freya Giles, is to add ‘es’: Merry Christmas from the Gileses. The only time apostrophes are needed is to indicate possession, such as when saying ‘Happy Christmas from the Gileses’ house’. Holidays also suffer from this pitfall: is it New Year or New Years or New Year’s? For reference, it’s New Year’s Eve, New Year, and New Year’s Day.

Confusing commas

How do you begin a Christmas card? Dear Mum, Hi Janet – these openers are second nature. However, swapping between ‘dear’ and ‘hi’ isn’t as simple or consequence-free as it seems. Dear is an adjective, while hi is not. To punctuate a ‘hi’ greeting, you’d write: ‘Hi, Janet.’ In other words, this is a complete sentence in itself. ‘Dear Mum,’ is how you’d write this greeting, as you’re describing your Mum as ‘dear’ and indicating that a message is to follow. However, ‘Hi Janet,’ is now so commonplace that it falls into the category of ‘not 100% accurate but good enough’ – in fact, it’s likely that a properly punctuated card might even look strange to you.

To capitalise or not to capitalise?

Do you instinctively write ‘Merry Christmas’, ‘merry Christmas’, or ‘merry christmas’? This is another issue that crops up around specific holidays. For example, you might spontaneously wish somebody a happy Tuesday, but then a Happy Christmas or Happy Birthday. Christmas is a proper noun, so should always be capitalised. However, when used as a greeting, the word before ‘Christmas’ can be capitalised – Merry Christmas, Happy Christmas – but when used more generally, should be lowercase (“We wish you a merry Christmas!”). The same is true for ‘eve’ or ‘day’; if it is part of the holiday’s name, as in New Year’s Day or Christmas Eve, capitalise.

In general, we favour an approach that includes the importance intention over pedantry; if you wish your uncle a happy Birthday, we think he’ll appreciate that well enough despite the less-than-perfect capitalisation! However, as lovers of grammar and language, we find it fascinating to delve into the reasoning behind some of the most commonly used words throughout the festive period – and if you heed our advice, your Christmas cards may just come out on top.