- Books, Literature, and Writing
Death to Common Grammatical Errors - Contracted Words
- Consider the sentence: 'The mouse ate its food.' In this case we can see that the word its acts a possessive determiner, replacing hers or his. We can very easily see that its is correct because it refers back to the mouse, just as if we were to rewrite the sentence as, 'Martha ate her food,' the her would refer back to Martha. The key thing to remember is that its is correct when an association is involved. I like to think of the line, 'its refers back to something' or 'its makes an association,' where I use the final s of the word refers, or the double s of the word association, to remind myself that its also requires an s that is not apostrophised.
- What about the sentence: 'It's stormy today.' We can immediately see that this it's doesn't refer back to anything, and so it requires the apostrophe. However, the easiest way of determining this is to simply read the sentence in its uncontracted form to see if it makes sense. We know that it's is short for it is, and so we can test the relevancy of it's in a sentence by using the longer form. For example, 'It is stormy today' makes perfect sense, proving that it's in this case is indeed a contraction, and therefore requires the apostrophe, whereas 'the mouse ate it is food,' does not make sense, ruling out the apostrophe in the above sentence.
The apostrophe forms a part of English grammar that often presents exceptional challenges for both foreign and native speakers alike. However, given both its prevalence in the English language and the importance of achieving fluent, coherent writing, it is also a piece of punctuation that cannot be ignored. Whilst many may be familiar with the rules behind this pesky piece of punctuation, having a good system for quick editing and recognition of mistakes may not come as naturally. However, with a bit of study and practice, I'm confident that everyone can feel more comfortable using this important punctuation mark. Here are some of the tips and tricks I use when proofreading work to ensure that I'm catching errors before they go to print:
1. Its vs It's
This one presents many problems for those who struggle with contractions, or indeed even for those who don't carefully edit their work, simply because the words its and it's appear with such frequency in the English language, allowing for ample opportunities to make a mistake. I'm sure most of you are familiar with the rules behind contractions, and therefore I won't spend too long dwelling on the fact that 'it' becomes 'its' when making an association, and becomes 'it's' when forming a contraction of 'it is', but will rather endeavour to focus upon some quick tips for recognising mistakes centring around these words, and for not making them in the first place. I will briefly mention that apostrophes in English are used, among other reasons, for turning two words into one word by placing the apostrophe between the end of the first word and the contracted form of the second, but I do urge you, if at all in doubt about the general usage of apostrophes, to seek clarification on this matter before reading the tips I'll offer here. It's important to adapt these tips to your own learning style or to come up with entirely different ones that suit you, but these are two of the tricks that work for me, and that might therefore aid you along the path to smoother, quicker writing and editing. The first revolves around a recognition of an association between two things, whilst the second focuses upon reading the sentence aloud in a slightly altered way, to see if it sounds correct.
- If I say, 'Is it your book?' or 'Your house is lovely,' we can immediately see that your is correct, as it refers to a noun: a book in the first example and a house in the second. It also links to the person the speaker is addressing, to reveal ownership of the nouns. You can use the letter r in the word refers to remind yourself that if an association is occurring, you need to use the your with the r on the end.
- If I say, 'You're beautiful,' I'm still referring to the person I'm addressing, but the word you're in this case is followed by an adjective - beautiful - rather than a noun, as ownership is no longer occurring. We can see that the apostrophe has been inserted to contract the words you are, because if we read the sentence aloud, 'You are beautiful,' makes sense, whilst, 'Is it you are book?' does not.
2. Your vs. You're
This is another word that is one of the most frequently spoken within the English language, making it easy to see why apostrophes begin to present problems for those who have difficulty using them correctly. The good news: once you've mastered the rule for its vs it's, you're probably going to have very little difficulty distinguishing between your and you're, as I personally use the same technique for both examples, making it easy to learn them both at the same time. As in the above scenario, your represents an association between two things, usually referring to the person the speaker is addressing, but occasionally referring to anyone in a general statement. You're, the version with the apostrophe, however, forms a contraction of you are, and can easily be spotted by reading the sentence aloud in its standard form. Additionally, the re ending of you're is easily recognisable as a shortened form of the word are, perhaps making this pair even easier to distinguish.
- 'Where is my phone?' Clearly we're here inquiring about the location of something, and so we know that where is the correct word to use. If ever in doubt, just think of the rhyme: Where? There! As both these words refer to location, and as where is used to frame a question, you know for sure that you're making an inquiry.
- 'We're going to town today,' however, is a contraction of we are, as it doesn't inquire about location, and as the standard sentence, 'We are going to town today,' makes sense.
3. Where vs We're
You're probably getting the hang of things by now, but I'll persevere and deliver the full list of five, just in case you're eager to prove to yourself that you are indeed now a master of the contracted word. Simply put, the word where indicates a place or position, and should therefore be used when inquiring about or referencing the location of something, whilst we're is a contraction of the words we are. As in the above example, you might find it easy to spot this contraction, as the re ending is clearly linked to the word are, hopefully simplifying the editing process. Also bear in mind that where's is a contraction of where is, still used in reference to location, for example: 'Where's the kitchen?' as opposed to 'Where is the kitchen?' so try not to get confused.
- 'Whose turn is it?' I might ask if I get distracted whilst sitting down with a group of friends around a Monopoly board. Clearly I'm asking a question, and yet the sentence, 'Who is turn is it?' doesn't make sense, so whose must be the correct choice in this situation. Also, I'm clearly referring to one of my company, so another association is being made.
- Alternatively, if I ask, 'Who's going first?' when initially sitting down with a group of friends around a Monopoly board, or 'who's gone first,' if I miss the first move, I'm asking 'who is going first' or who has gone first.' Because these sentences make sense, who's is correct. You might like to remember that who's ends with an s, just like has and is.
4. Whose vs Who's
Again one that engenders many problems for those who experience apostrophe troubles, and possibly more difficult than the words with the re endings, whose and who's are very important to get right if you want to add professionalism to your writing. Just remember that whose is an interrogative word. It will frame a question and will be associated with a person. Alternatively, who's is a contraction of who is or who has, and therefore, as with all other examples, a sentence requiring who's will make perfect sense when substituted for its standard form. Although both of these words are interrogative, perhaps complicating their usage, with a bit of practice you should be able to easily distinguish between them. Just remember that who's can be a contraction for two different words, and that both who's and whose are interrogative, meaning you have to look extra carefully when editing these words.
- 'It's over there!' Remember above how I used the rhyme: Where? There! Feel free to use it in this scenario as well, as it accurately reveals the fact that there is a word that refers to a location or position.
- 'It's their cat' or 'the cat is theirs.' There is the correct form in this sentence, as it explains ownership of the cat. It will always refer to a noun, and is easy to remember when you consider the phrase: I can share. Because you can only share something you own, and because their contains the letter I, you can easily remember that the their with the I refers to 'I share', and that sharing refers to ownership.
- 'They're on holiday.' I'm sure you've got the hang of this by now, but when you read the standard form, 'They are on holiday,' you can see that it makes sense, meaning that they're is correct in this case.
5. There vs Their vs They're
Ah, yes, the tricky one. Not two versions, but three, and ones confused by both children and adults alike. No matter how many times I write these words, I'm always going to confuse them at some point, which is why it's so crucial not only to be able to recognise the mistake during the editing process, but also to minimise the number of times you make the mistake in the first place. It's very important to firstly understand that there refers to a location, their refers to ownership, and they're forms a contractions of they are. There are a number of tricks I use to help me with these three words, but, as above, look for the link between re and are, and, of course, recognise that any sentence with they're must make sense when converted to they are. If it doesn't make sense, it's not correct! Although these three can be quite confusing, the more you practise the easier they'll become to identify, and eventually sentences using the wrong version should begin to look wrong before you've even figured out why.
Words to Remember
Which combination trips you up every time?
I hope you all found this helpful and developed your own little hints and tricks along the way. Just remember that everything becomes easier with practice, and that apostrophes are no exception to this! Good luck!