Tag Archives: grammar

Keeping them Straight – A few common misused word pairs

Pair of pearsOften when writing, there are certain words that our fingers insist on typing or writing, even when our brains are well aware of their proper usage. Therefore, as we line edit and proofread, we must be vigilant in seeking them out and fixing them.

Here are a few:

It’s vs. Its

It’s is the contraction for it is or it has. To test to see if it’s is correct, read your sentence substituting it is or it has for it’s. If it sounds right, it is. Keep it’s.

Its, however, is a pronoun and signifies possession; it owns something. If it is or it has doesn’t make sense, chances are you want to use its. To confirm this, think about whether your sentence is talking about something belonging to it or owned by it. If it does, its is correct.

For more information, see Dictionary.com‘s definition of its and its discussion of how it’s confused with it’s.

Your vs. You’re

Your and you’re are cousins to the its and it’s. To decide which is appropriate in your sentence, follow the same advice. Read your sentence substituting you are for you’re; if it sounds right, you’re is the correct word. You’re is the contraction for you are.

According to Dictionary.com, your shows a possession owned or possessed by you, one, or, informally, all members of a group as in your clothes, your best best, or take your average Joe, for example.

If you are doesn’t make sense in your sentence, your is your best bet.

Now you’re a former you’re misuser from yore.

And just in case you’re tempted, yur is just a text-message abbreviation and is never appropriate in prose.

Except vs. Accept

One time, I got a chuckle out of a sign they kept showing on our local nightly news that said “Donations Excepted.”

According to Dictionary.com, “Excepted” means excluded or left out…

What I think the club probably meant to say was “Donations Accepted.”

According to Dictionary.com, “Accepted” means “generally approved” or “usually regarded as normal, right, etc.”

Stay tuned in future weeks for more unruly word pairs (or groups)!



Photo by Moyan Brenn, Flickr Creative Commons: https://www.flickr.com/photos/aigle_dore/5849712695/
Photo by Moyan Brenn, Flickr Creative Commons: https://www.flickr.com/photos/aigle_dore/5849712695/

One of the major grammar mistakes I see when line editing is matching plural and singular sentence subjects with their respective plural and singular pronouns. These are easy mistakes to make but they are also easy mistakes to correct.

If a subject within a sentence is singular, meaning the sentence is talking only about what one person, place, or thing did, the pronoun must be singular as well. If the subject is gender neutral, use it. If the subject is male, use he or his; if female, use she or her; if it has a gender but you don’t know or it doesn’t matter if the subject is male or female, use she or he or his or her. Granted, writing he or she all of the time can make the piece feel cluttered and reading tedious so it is tempting to use they or their. Don’t do it. If you are writing he or she too many times, make the subject plural so you can use they, their, or them, etc. properly.

As mentioned, perhaps the easiest way to get around the whole he or she dilemma is to make your sentence’s subject plural and use the more easily-read they or its derivative. Sometimes, however, it won’t be so clear cut. Perhaps the subject to which your pronoun refers isn’t contained in the same sentence. The rule is still the same: if the subject to which you are referring is plural, use the they pronoun. For example, from Missing Emily: Croatian Life Letters on page 20 with underlining to hopefully make it clearer which pronouns go with which subjects:

“Within a few hours, I knew the whole story. Aunt Shari had taken Emily for a walk in her stroller to the park in her neighborhood. When they left to walk back home, Aunt Shari Buckled Emily into her stroller. When they reached the intersection a block away from the park, Aunt Shari pushed the street light button and waited for the walk signal. The moment she stepped into the intersection, an unlicensed sixteen-year-old girl riding with her friends swerved around the cars stopped at the red light and struck Emily’s stroller.” (“They” refers to Aunt Shari and Emily.)

It can also get tricky when your sentence has multiple subjects or contains some descriptive words between the subject and verb. The rule is still the same: match the verb to the subject about which you are writing. They, them, and their also applies to inanimate objects or places as well as gender-neutral subjects, which also can make them easier to deal with. But in the interest of interest, change your work up at times. Find a synonym for your subject or use the he or she (properly) occasionally.

Of course, if you are talking about only yourself, use I. If you are including friends in your sentence talking about yourself, use the collective we. The good news is if you are talking directly to someone else (second person), you is proper whether you are addressing one person or a whole crowd.

Even if you know this rule about singular or plural subjects and pronouns, it is easy to slip up when you are cranking out a draft, making it that much more important when it comes time for line editing so read your work carefully and think through your sentences to ensure your grammar is correct.

The Comma Sutra – Position One

The “Comma Sutra” posts were by far the most popular on my first blog, so I thought I’d repeat this one originally posted on September 1, 2012.

CommaSutraThe comma so perplexes me in writing and line editing that I think a whole book could be written on the topic. It is used in so many different ways and its usage is different depending on what you are writing and what you intend to say. I’ve gone from being a comma-abuser to a comma-avoider to everywhere in between.

Because of the complexity, I will concentrate on comma usage in a particular minute instance, and maybe one day, I’ll have it mastered. This week – the list.

I grew up hearing you always use a comma between the second to the last item in a list with three or more items and the conjunction (“and” or “or”) appearing before the last item in the list (unless, of course, a semi-colon is appropriate which is a whole other topic). Then when I became a paralegal, I was told this was wrong – you should leave out that comma. And then I read somewhere you should use the comma when writing lists in fiction but you should leave them out when writing non-fiction. Even when reading a Harvard Business School case for a class, I noticed there were no commas between the last two items in lists in the text – “proving” the fiction vs. non-fiction distinction.

To solve this confusion, I turn to the “experts.” According to A Pocket Style Manual, Fifth Edition, on page 58, by Diana Hacker, you should follow the advice I received in grade school of “use a comma between all items in a series of at least three, including the last two.” Hacker acknowledges the paralegal no-last-comma camp but indicates “most experts advise using [the comma] because its omission can result in ambiguity or misreading.”

According to The Associated Press AP Stylebook and Briefing on Media Law, 2009 Edition, you “do not put a comma before the conjunction in a simple series” which appears to consist of three similar items (p. 355). The Essentials of English, 6th Edition, by Vincent F. Hopper, Cedric Gale, Ronald C. Foote, and Benjamin W. Griffith appear to agree with Diana Hacker though it does admit it is “not absolutely essential” (p. 114). The Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association, Sixth Edition, also agrees with the comma-always mantra (p. 88).

So what will the Wordsy Woman do? Well, unless someone asks me specifically to leave it out, I will insert a comma between the second-to-last item and the “and” or “or” in my list of three items or more.


Source: Kristian Bjornard, https://www.flickr.com/photos/bjornmeansbear/3331168376/
Source: Kristian Bjornard, https://www.flickr.com/photos/bjornmeansbear/3331168376/

One of the biggest writing errors you can make and one of the easiest to correct when line editing is the proper usage of the words they’re, there, and their. Even though I know how to use these words properly, mistakes still show up in my writing. Apparently, my typing fingers have minds of their own…

An easy way to correct these mistakes in Microsoft Word is through a “Find” search. (In later Word versions, it’s on the “Home” tab under “Editing” – to the far right on my computer.) Search each of they’re, their, and there separately to double check if the correct word was used. If you can’t tell, try these tricks.

They’re is the contraction for they are so read the sentence substituting they are for they’re; if it sounds right, keep they’re. If it doesn’t, try there or their.

Their shows possession for the group they or them. If your sentence is describing something owned by they or them (like their wares), then their is correct.

There is a little bit trickier. According to Dictionary.com, there can mean “in or at that place; at that point in an action, speech, etc.; in that matter, particular, or respect; into or to that place; or used by way of calling attention to something or someone.” In my mind, there refers to a place or location but not necessarily a physical location. If the sentence isn’t talking about possession and they are doesn’t make sense, chances are you want there. To triple-check, decide if the Dictionary.com explanation applies.

Happy their, they’re, and there hunting!