Jan Andrea's Grammar Primer

I'll admit it... I was a grammar nerd in high school: I memorized all 75 of "O'Rourke's Rules." There are three, however, that people seem to break fairly consistently; these three are explained below. Our society is becoming more and more dependent on the written word; clarity of expression is the first requirement for recognition in that society.

And according to a Quizilla quiz...
Grammar God!I am a GRAMMAR GOD!

If your mission in life is not already to
preserve the English tongue, it should be.
Congratulations and thank you!

How grammatically sound are you?

Jan Andrea's Number One Grammar Pet Peeve:
The Misplaced Apostrophe

Of all the mistakes you can make when writing, the misplaced apostrophe is the most simple to prevent. There are very few rules concerning the apostrophe: here are the main ones:

  1. Possessive versus the Merely Plural:

    When referring to something that belongs to a specific person, it is okay to use the apostrophe-ess ('s). For example, This is Jan's Grammar Page.

    It is NOT necessary to use the 's when you are referring to a quantity of materials: These are Jan's homepages, NOT These are Jan's homepage's.

    It is also unnecessary to use the apostrophe when using pronouns: These web pages are theirs, NOT These web page's are their's. This is also true for his, hers, its, and yours; the possessive is built in to these, and so you don't need to add an apostrophe. This goes DOUBLE for "its" which is further explained below.

    Apostrophes also connote a contraction of two words, such as "you've" for "you have", "I'd" for "I had", and the like.

  2. Related Hash-Mark Troubles:

    The other problem I frequently see in pages and in the real world is the gratuitous use of quotation marks.

    A phrase written as "Please" remove your "shoes" before entering this "web site" just reeks of a bad education; do yourself a favour, and only use quotation marks when they are absolutely necessary.

    (Quotation marks are necessary when writing a conversation -- She said, "This is my web site." -- or when citing a play or a short work of fiction -- "Amadeus" was a good movie, don't you think?)

Funnier explanation: Bob the Angry Flower's Quick Guide to the Apostrophe

Hate apostrophe abuse? Visit this blog for a sad laugh or 12: Apostrophe Abuse

And another, for the "overuse" of "quotation" "marks": The "Blog" of "Unnecessary" Quotation Marks

Jan Andrea's Number Two Grammar Pet Peeve:
The Great "They're" vs. "Their" vs. "There" Confusion

I have seen so many WRONG variants of these homonyms [words that sound alike but have different meanings] that I am going out of my skull! Here they are as they should be used:

  1. There:

    As they say in real estate, "Location, location, location." That is what "there" is for.
    Examples: I put the HTML reference there because I want it to lead to that page over there.
    You ought to follow that link because you can leave your comments there.

  2. Their:

    This is the plural possessive. When you want to say that something belongs to a group of people, this is the form you should use.
    Examples: See that couple over there? Their baby is much uglier than ours! Their stroller is bigger than our first car! And their baby's bottle looks like it's full of Diet Coke!

  3. They're:

    This form is used as a contraction of "they are". As such, you should only use it when you mean to say that a group of entities is doing something.
    Examples: I posted some of my old stories there; they're kind of long, but you might like them anyway.
    They're getting frustrated with the work they're doing.

    The big, all-encompassing homonymic example:

    There are a lot of people with pages on UNH's PubPages; their work is pretty good. They're learning a lot about HTML.

  4. A Related Peeve: "Your" and "You're"

    1. Your:

      Just as above, "your" is the possessive form of "you".
      Examples: This is your grammar page to explore and from which you should learn.
      When I want to learn about your interests, I will visit your home page.

    2. You're:

      Again, as in the apostrophe section, "you're" is a contraction for "you are". PLEASE don't use "your" when you mean "you are!"
      Examples: If you're in need of grammatical help, consult an English teacher.
      You're welcome to read more of my essays if you're so inclined.

Jan Andrea's Number Three Grammar Pet Peeve:
The Horrendous "It's" vs. "Its"

This fits in with the Number One Grammar Pet Peeve above, as it involves a misplaced apostrophe, but it is so common that I decided to give it its own portion here.

  1. Its:

    Its is used when you want the singular, neutral-gender POSSESSIVE -- that is, when you want to imply that an object or critter of unspecified gender has possession of some thing or quality.

    Examples: The neutered cat is playing with its toys.
    The tornado destroyed everything in its path.
    This web site is driving away all of its visitors by criticizing their grammar!

  2. It's:

    This form is really a contraction of "it is" (just as "they're" is a contraction of "they are"). When you're not sure which form to use, remember that for "it's," an apostrophe means a contraction.

    Examples: We should be outside -- it's a nice, sunny day!
    If it's not too much to ask, I'd like you to sign my guestbook. (Please tell me if it's been helpful to read this!)
    It's nice of you to visit me here.

Other People's Grammar Pet Peeves:

To vs. Too vs Two:

Two is pretty obvious; it's the sum of one and one, the numeral 2, and denotes a pair of things.

To vs. too are a little more opaque. To is a preposition, and is used in many different ways. It is part of the infinitive tense: to be, to have, to go, to write, etc. (And by the way, there is no actual rule about splitting infinitives in English -- there is in Latin, but it doesn't apply to English. So "to boldly go" is perfectly fine.) To is also used to indicate a direction of action: "give the ball to your sister," "direct your flames to Jan, that silly grammar geek," and "to whom it may concern" are but a few examples.

Too, on the other hand, is used when one wants to show that more than one noun shares a common trait. "You can have your cake and eat it, too." "She, too, was upset by Jan's grammar posting in the newsgroup." "I'm silly, and you are, too." Too is always offset by a comma, as it is something of a phrase unto itself.

From iphigenia:

1. The phrase is "Hear, hear," not "here, here."
2. The word is "voila," not "viola." (Madolyn has also seen "wala"!)
3. "Discrete" and "discreet" have entirely different meanings. One nurses discreetly, not discretely. ("discrete" meaning "of separate parts" and "discreet" meaning "hidden".)

From Mary:

I really meant to stay out of this thread, but one error I see constantly on the internet, is the confusion between the word lose and loose. It drives me nuts when I read that someone wants to loose weight.

loose=not tight; as in "these pants are loose on me".
lose=not win or that you lost something. As in, "I don't want to lose the game." or "Be sure to keep your money in your wallet so that you don't lose it."

I might add my own minor peeve in that regard: "breath" vs. "breathe." One takes a breath; one pauses to breathe deeply. (Breath being the noun, breathe being the verb.)

From another Mary:

And lay and lie! You lie down with your baby, you don't lay down with your baby. I see that one all the time.

In the present tense, you're always going to be lying down, or laying [putting or placing] something else down. Laying something down isn't very common in everyday speech; the vast majority of the time, you should be using "lie" and "lying" instead of any form of lay.

It's true that "lay" is the past tense of "lie," so that if you're speaking about the past, you would say, "Yesterday I lay down for a little while," and, "I laid [put or placed] the baby down for her nap." That's the confusing part. But most of the mistakes occur in the present tense, where people should be using "lie" most of the time.

The most common error I see is using "lay" in the present tense -- telling the dog to "lay down" (shudder), or saying that they are "laying down with the baby for a while" (shudder). I'd even go so far as to say that if you are speaking in the present tense, you should ONLY use the word "lie" and "lying," because the chance that you actually meant to say "lay" (barring "I will lay [put or place] the baby down for her
nap,") is pretty slim.

From Karen:

Then vs. Than:

This is a largely contextual mistake, occuring most frequently in phrases like "bigger than," "faster than," and other comparisons. When you are comparing two things, you'll want to use "than." Then is a word reserved for timing: "...then add the eggs to the flour," "We visited my mother, then we visited my father."

From Deb:

Okay, let me add to the pet peeves posted by others....

I hate hate hate it when people say somebody "could of" done something or "would of" said something.

I could HAVE chewed nails every time I read that, and I would HAVE said something about it were I not convinced doing so would start a flame war. :-)

Well put, Deb :) I think the "could of" confusion comes from the sound of the contraction "could've," which definitely has a "could of" sound to it.


I hope this has been helpful to those of you in grammaric doubt; I've tried to make it simple without being condescending. Just keep in mind that when you write something on the Internet (pages or Usenet), people only know you by your writing. Poor grammar can make you look uneducated, but it's relatively easy to avoid making the mistakes that stick out the worst. Happy grammar to you!

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