Category Archives: Grammar

How to Get the Grammar Police Off Your Back, Part I: It’s vs Its

There’s a reason we language folk enjoy haranguing you about your grammar skills. And here it is.


We don’t enjoy it one little bit — we KNOW it’s unwelcome and persnickety and potentially flat-out impolite. So why do we do it? Because we are broken. Or extra fixed. Or booby trapped. Or something because believe it or don’t, NOT CORRECTING SIMPLE ERRORS IN GRAMMAR AND PUNCTUATION IS PSYCHOLOGICALLY PAINFUL.

OH, it sucks. Wanna know why I love Kindle? Because I can highlight and make inline comments. So I can correct the errors. I am not making this up. What, traditionally published books have errors? Oh, you bet your bippie they do. In fact, here is an offer for you: if a traditional publishing house has produced your book, send me an electronic copy of it and I will tell you how careful your proofreader was. #shamelessfishing forfreebooks #butI’lltotallydoit

In our defense: most of the time we do have your best interest at heart, in a well-meant-but-annoying-and-a-little-condescending way. It’s sort of like reminding you to floss. We floss, and we know that it’s a pain to get into the habit, but once you do it feels really great and there are many benefits aside from the obvious “keeping your teeth” ones. Wait, that doesn’t…  no, we’re not going to knock out your teeth if you don’t mend your egregious apostrophic ways. #althoughdeepinourhearts…nevermind

Also in our defense: as it turns out, a lot of people would really like to avoid these errors IF ONLY TO GET US TO SHUT UP ALREADY!! If you fall into this noble category, I have some tricks for you. I’ll start with an easy one. It’s vs its. And, by extension, you’re vs your and they’re vs their. (Sorry, this trick will not help you with their vs there. But please, for the love of all that is holy, please figure that one out on your own.)

First of all, here is why these constructions are so easily confused:

One of the uses of an apostrophe is to stand in for one or more dropped letters in a contraction such as “can’t” (a contraction of “cannot”,* which  can only be said by persons wearing starched collars. I think it’s a law.)

However, the most common use of an apostrophe is to signify possession, e.g.** “Lady Starchcollar’s hens cannot lay eggs.”

If we apply the more common use as a possessive marker, “it’s” should mean “belonging to it”, as in “Lady Starchcollar’s hen settled into it’s nest.” And in any sensible language it would. Ah, but this is English, and any sensibility it ever had was left behind long ago.

No, in English, personal pronouns are the exceptions that prove the rule… has exceptions. For personal pronouns, possession is marked by the absence of an apostrophe, isn’t that handy? Thus, instead of “your’s” (which is NEVER right, by the way) we have “yours”. We also have “theirs”, “ours”, and, most famously, “its”.

For personal pronouns, the apostrophe is used to signify a contraction. “It’s” is a contraction of “it is”. “You’re” is a contraction of “you are”, “they’re” is a contraction of “they are”. And herein lies your salvation.

To keep the Grammar Police off your back: never use contractions. On your first pass, that is; you can go back and contract anything you want. But if you start with “it is” and then contract, it’s easy to remember that you need the apostrophe to stand in for the letter you’re dropping.

The same works for “its”. Returning to our earlier example, imagine that you would like to write about poor Lady Starchcollar’s barren hens. (I said “imagine“.) You might start off thusly: “Lady Starchcollar’s hen settled into…” Gasp! What to write?! Well, try both options, sans contractions: “Lady Starchcollar’s hen settled into… its nest”? Well, possibly. Now try the other: “Lady Starchcollar’s hen settled into it is nest.” Oh, ho ho ho, certainly not! Thus we choose the former, “Lady Starchcollar’s hen settled into its nest… and floated into a peaceful slumber, secure in the knowledge that it had been described with admirable grammatical correctness.”

There you have it: When in doubt, un-contract and see which one is wrong. Then use the other one.


*YES, I follow UK rules governing placement of punctuation with quotation marks because US rules are baseless and silly.

**Psst: here’s a trick for remembering the difference between i.e. (“that is”) and e.g. (“for example”). “E.g.” is said as “ee gee”, but if you stick the letters together phonetically, they sound like “egg” as in “egg…zample”. You’re welcome.

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Filed under DfW Holds Forth!, Grammar, Handy Tips! You love those!, Punctuation, Usage

“We Ain’t Homer.”

Yes, even the best of us fumble.


The Baltimore Sun

On Monday, as I was working on the word of the week, coruscating, I was called away from the keyboard. Returning, having forgotten that I had not spell-checked the post, and pressed to move on to something else, I published it with two or three typographical errors intact.

A little later, I got a message from Chris Dinsmore, a colleague at The Sun, saying that he had noticed the errors and fixed them, bless his heart.I lead with this prosaic little episode not because it is in any way remarkable, but because it is entirely typical. This is the way we write now.When I sit at the news desk and look at the incoming copy, I see the misspellings, wrong words, and errors of fact in the online fields and realize with weary resignation that it is all already up on the website. In time, the corrections will take hold there, but the errors are already cached somewhere.This happens for two reasons. The first is our Web-first haste. Get it written. Get it posted. Were like AP, UPI, and Reuters battling to be first by seconds. Clean it up later. The second is the widespread determination to shortchange the editing. “Reduce the touches” i.e., slash the costs has been the cry of the sharp-pencil people throughout journalism and publishing for the past several years.So those of us who write are increasingly on our own, and those of us who are copy editors understand the Augustinian insight that we are all mortal and deeply inclined to error. “Writers are not the best proofreaders and copyeditors of their own work,” Carol Saller says. Even sweet old Homer nods, Horace advised us, and we aint Homer.

via Watch the copy editor fumble –

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Filed under Entertaining Typos, Grammar

NOT Safe for Work… but totally worth it

…although the guy talks so fast you really have to pay attention to hear the naughty words.

Which you’re going to do anyway. Because who can resist our Word Nerd o’ The Day Mac Lethal rapping — with mind scrambling speed and enunciation clear enough to make my Grandma Ridgely swoon — about the difference between “your” and “you’re”?

Not you, that’s for sure. Unless you are so offended by standard expletives (and uncalled-for references to male genitalia resembling trombones) that you’d rather pass this one up… in which case too bad for you, because it is a thing of beauty and a joy forever.

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Filed under Grammar, Nerd Candy, Nerd o' the Day