There may still be many purists who disagree with me on this, but personally I feel that grammar has become less rigid in the world of free-form writing, expression and style. I am not overly concerned with whether a comma was inserted into the right place, or whether or not you committed a cardinal sin with a misplaced semi-colon.
The simplest reason is that those things never really take away anything from what I am reading. I am far happier allowing a writer to express themselves freely and in their own style as long as the quality of the piece shines beyond that.
I do however feel that certain writing rules are important because at the end of the day a fantastic idea or piece can get overshadowed by writing errors and subsequent mistakes in meaning, which do actually detract from a piece or distract the reader.
There are many common writing errors that I come across on a daily basis. These may arise due to English not being the writer’s native language or due to confusion regarding the underlying principles of the language.
I am going to examine some of the very basic and common writing errors out there and try to assist in helping you prevent them – if at all relevant to you.
It’s & Its / Your & You’re
Among the most common of the writing errors I see, it’s easy to get confused over whether you should or should not include the apostrophe (‘) in the above set of words.
Always remember the golden rule. When you insert the apostrophe (‘) into a word for the purpose of shortening or contracting it, you are actually combining two words.
“It’s” is short for “it is” while “you’re” is short for “you are”.
Take the following sentence:
Example 1: It’s a bad day
Example 2: Its a bad day
In Example 1, the sentence is correct because you are saying “it is a bad day.” Example 2, however, is incorrect because you are referring to something as a bad day, which doesn’t make sense.
It would only work if you had said something like “the dog gets over its bad day by chasing a cat”. In this case, the bad day belongs to or is associated with the dog.
Let’s look at the reverse.
Example 3: The dog chases its tail
Example 4: The dog chases it’s tail
In the above, Example 3 is correct because the tail belongs to the dog, you are referencing that the dog is chasing its own tail. “Its” is a possessive term in the same way that “your” and “my” are possessive terms. The bird flapped “its” wings is right.
In Example 4 you’re stating that the dog is chasing “it is” tail, which is wrong.
It’s exactly the same concept with “your” and “you’re”, but let’s use an example anyway to cement the difference and leave nothing to ambiguity.
Example 5: You’re heartbroken
Example 6: Your heartbroken
In Example 5 you are writing “you are heartbroken” which is perfectly right. However in Example 6 you’re using a possessive term, so the sentence would only make sense if you said, for instance, “Your heartbroken friend called me…”
“Your” is used in contexts of reference or possession. Your clothes are dry. Your food is ready. The moment you type “you’re” you are changing the word to “you are”.
There / Their / They’re
This is another common mix up that writers make and it’s actually a very easy one to avoid if you understand the underlying principle behind each word.
“There” is a noun or adjective, while “their” is a possession word. Finally “they’re” is simply shortening “they are” in the same way that “it’s” and “you’re” shorten words.
Using the below examples you’ll understand the difference between each.
Example 7a: You need to go over there.
Example 7b: You are always there for me.
Example 7c: There is no point in doing this.
Example 8a: Those guys never share their food.
Example 8b: Their questions went unanswered.
Example 9: They’re a happy couple.
Example 7 is pretty straightforward, but confusion should be avoided with Example 8, as the word ‘their’ is always used when you are referencing something that belongs to someone or something, in other words the context is ownership or possession.
As you can see, the food belongs to those guys, and the questions are asked by them. It is “their” questions. The sentence would not make sense if you had said “there” questions, unless you change the sentence to say that “over there in that classroom, questions go unanswered.”
Alot / A lot
This is another extremely common mistake, but it’s the easiest out of all to avoid. The reason is because “alot” is not actually a word. It’s an incorrect way of typing “a lot”.
“A lot” is always two separate words, as in “a” and “lot”.
There is no legitimate word “alot” in the English language!
Is / Are – When to use either?
This error can give many a writer a mighty fine headache, especially because there are so many contexts in which you’ll need to decide which to use.
The basic principle is that if the noun is singular, you need to use “is”, and if the noun is in plural form or there is more than one noun, you need to use “are”.
Let’s start with some simple examples to get the blood flowing.
Example 10: The player is great at the game.
Example 11: The players are great at the game.
Example 12: The player and their coach are great at the game.
As you can see in Example 10, we use “is” because there is only one single player. In Example 11, the moment we refer to multiple players, we need to switch to “are”. It would be totally wrong if you wrote “the players is…” Finally in Example 12, even though the nouns are singular, there are two nouns, namely the player and their coach, and therefore you need to use “are”.
But this little rule can get tricky when you start talking about collectives, such as “that group of supporters” or “this series of movies”, and knowing whether to use “is” or “are” typically depends on whether you are emphasising the individual or the group.
Let’s look at a few examples to put this into context.
Example 13: That group of supporters is annoying.
Example 14: This series of Netflix’s shows is awesome!
Example 15: A small number of chapters are released online at a time.
You may be scratching your head at this point if you typically struggle with this. But if you examine the examples above you may note that in Example 13 and 14, even though there are collectives, we are emphasising an individual thing in both cases. In Example 13 we are referring to one particular group, likewise in Example 14 we are emphasising one particular series on Netflix, and therefore “is” will be correct.
In Example 15, however, we are emphasising the chapters, which is plural, and therefore you need to use “are”.
When in doubt always go back to the basics, but in the fringe cases where this may get confusing a good practice is to say the sentence out loud and listen to whether it sounds correct or not. If that fails, ask a fellow writer for an opinion!
To spell it with ‘s’ or ‘z’ / To spell it with ‘c’ or ‘s’
It’s easy to wonder why on earth some people spell words with an ‘s’ or a ‘z’ or a ‘c’ or ‘s’ in weird and changeable places. It actually has a super simple reason behind it!
How you spell words such as the ones I will make examples out of below depends entirely on whether you’re learning under American English or British English. Here in South Africa, we conform to the British way of doing things.
Example 16a: Specialise [British English]
Example 16b: Specialize [American English]
Example 17a: Defence [British English]
Example 17b: Defense [American English]
It really is that simple. There is no conspiracy other than that Americans and British folk have a dire need to believe they’re speaking different languages.
The final common writing error that I will tackle is that of the possession apostrophe, and I’ll hopefully provide you with a very simple way to always get it right.
The possession apostrophe is that nasty business concerning adding “‘s” to the end of a word to show ownership. The important rule to remember is that you only add the apostrophe if you’re actually showing possession, or in other words that something belongs to a particular person or thing.
The good news is that most nouns simply require you to add an apostrophe (‘) and an “s” at the end of the word, but there are some caveats.
Example 18: Paul’s mistakes are the worst in the entire world.
Example 19: The burger’s patty was under-cooked.
Example 20: We met the Potters at Platform nine and three quarters.
Example 18 is your most common usage, where you’re simply showing that mistakes, belonging to Paul, are the worst. They’re Paul’s mistakes. Similarly in Example 19, the patty you’re referring to belongs to the burger. It’s the burger’s patty.
Example 20 can sometimes trip people up, but there’s no reason to be confused by it as there is no possession being used in this sentence. You met the Potters, as in the Potter family, at the platform. You need only make this plural.
But what is one to do if the word already ends in an ‘s’? Is all hope lost?
Absolutely not! There is actually an extremely easy and convenient way to make sure that words that end in ‘s’ already never bother you in your lifetime.
The secret technique is that most schools of thought are perfectly fine with you simply adding an apostrophe (‘) on its own to words that end in ‘s’, if you want to show possession. You don’t need to add another ‘s’ into the mix. Although there is actually a defined rule for adding in another ‘s’.
Examples shall do this justice!
Example 21: The bus’ wheel was flat.
Example 22: The bus’s wheel was flat.
Example 23: The sharks’ fins were worth millions.
In Example 21 the word already ends in ‘s’, so simply adding an apostrophe at the end is perfectly acceptable. In Example 22, you can see that I did end up adding another ‘s’, and that’s because there actually is a writing rule about this as I mentioned above.
The rule states that if you are going to actually pronounce the extra ‘s’, then you may add it. For example, when you add that extra ‘s’ you’re going to say ‘bus-es’ when you speak out loud, likewise with the word ‘dress’ you’re going to say ‘dress-es’ once you add that extra ‘s’ at the end. For a word like ‘marbles’, you’re not going to say ‘marbles-es’ because that sounds ridiculous, so you’ll just add an apostrophe without the ‘s’.
I find that it’s far simpler and easier to always just add an apostrophe only to words that end in ‘s’, and not bother with thinking about pronunciation at all. Any time I want to show possession for a word that ends in ‘s’, such as dress, bus, Simpsons, workings and so on and so on, I merely add an apostrophe at the end and move on with life.
Lastly, in Example 23, you can see that rule helps you a lot because you’re referring to multiple sharks and their fins, so it makes life worth living if you do it this way.
The Conclusion – English Lesson Over
That concludes this little exercise concerning the beautiful nightmare that is the English language. I truly hope that you derived some small benefit from this, and that life seems a little less cruel and unusual after learning how to deal with these common writing errors.
The only parting advice that I can give you is that if you follow what I have explained above to the letter and Microsoft Word still dares to underline your work in blue or red, you right click on that squiggly line and tell Word to be ignored!