The kids are back in school now and learning that it’s “I before E except after C.” For the rest of us, our grammar skills tend to erode as the years go on and we let auto correction and spell check do the heavy lifting. We want to help you start off the school year with some pointers for avoiding some of the most common grammar pitfalls that can hurt your credibility and distract readers from your message.
The Unnecessary Apostrophe
The years of writing possessives like Mike’s and Georgia’s have unfortunately trained some of us to slap an apostrophe in front of ever trailing “s” that comes after a proper noun. But in many cases, that apostrophe has no business showing up where it does. If your family name is Miller and you want to talk about what your family has been up to, it should read “The Millers went fishing” and not “The Miller’s went fishing.” Now, if you are talking about a family reunion, you can take the possessive out of the equation altogether by calling it “The Miller Reunion,” but if you must use an apostrophe, be sure to use it in the right spot, such as “The Millers’ reunion with their distant cousin.” You can save the s’s business for when you’re trying to create a possessive of a singular noun that happens to end in an s, such as “the duchess’s family reunion.”
The Which/That Distinction
This one is pretty simple to remember, although it’s a rule seldom taught explicitly these days. If there’s a comma, which is fair game, as in “The baby cried, which was upsetting.” If there’s not a comma, then you should probably opt to use that, as in “The baby cried and that upset everyone.” Of course, sometimes which can appear even if it does not follow a comma, such as “I wasn’t sure which was more annoying, the baby crying or that person correcting my grammar.”
It’s Its Own Worst Enemy
The contraction for it is and the determiner its are easy enough to confuse since they use the same three letters in the same order. But make sure you’re using your apostrophes wisely. Here’s a simple trick, if you could swap it’s with ‘tis (as in, ’tis a shame people make that error), your apostrophe should stay put. But if you couldn’t replace it’s with it is you’ve probably seasoned your sentence with an extra apostrophe.
Extraneous Quotation Marks
Quotation marks obviously come in handy when you’re quoting someone, but they also get used to emphasize certain words in a sentence, usually indicating that something is novel or that something should be interpreted somewhat sarcastically (such as when you use air quotes during a conversation). So, unless you actually think it’s a rip off, there’s no reason to call it Your “Original” Five-Alarm Chili recipe.
They’re Going to Regret Their Mistake Over There
Just like our nemesis the its/it’s brothers, they’re, there and their are a trio that sound the same but mean something completely different. So, make sure you’re talking about “Their first day of school” and “They’re off for the first day of school” and not the other way around.
Obviously the list of grammar hints and reminders could go on and on. What’s most important to remember is that despite our electronic devices’ doing us a favor by fixing things on our behalf and underlining a questionable item in red or green or blue, there’s no substitute for giving your work a proper review after you’ve typed up your latest awesome blog post.
Do you have a grammar pet peeve that gets under your skin or a mistake you just can’t seem to shake? Tell us about it in the comments section below.