The Elegance of Writing Right

IMG_1850Not long ago I wrote a column highlighting ten common spoken grammatical mistakes. It struck a chord with many readers who appreciated attention to the subject. Although this may be a case of preaching to the choir, I’m following that column here with ten common written errors.

Certainly, the informality of texting, email, and messaging is taking a toll on proper grammar. If we are in the elegant business of continuous self-improvement, as I believe we should be, then we must take it upon ourselves to refine our grammar, especially when the idea seems to be falling out of fashion.

The following errors are all related to writing the wrong word. English can be difficult because of its many homophones, words that sound the same. Most of these errors aren’t obvious when spoken, only when written. Here are ten groups of words that frequently cause mistakes, followed by explanations and examples.

  1. They’re, Their, and There – They’re is a contraction for they are. They’re moving to Colorado. Their is a plural possessive pronoun. It shows ownership. Their house is for sale. There usually refers to a place. If you can point to it, this is your word. Put the sign there.
  2. It’s and Its – It’s is a contraction for it is. It’s hot outside. Its is possessive. This is confusing because we usually use an apostrophe to show possession. The dog chased its tail.
  3. You’re and Your – You’re is a contraction for you are. You’re so sweet. Your is possessive. Your mother is so sweet.
  4. Effect and Affect – Effect is a noun. What was the effect of the discussion? Affect is a verb. The discussion had an affect on me. Here’s a trick: If you can substitute the word influence, you probably need the word affect.
  5. Alot, A lot and Allot. This one is easy! Alot is not a word. She has a lot of friends. Allot is an entirely different word that means to set aside. I will allot $20 to spend on food.
  6. To, Two, and Too. Here we go again with those maddening homophones. To is a preposition. Think of it as a destination or an action. I threw the ball to third base. He is going to throw the ball home. Two is a number. She ate two cookies. Too means also. I like cookies, too. (Notice the comma before the word too.)
  7. Lose and Loose. These are two completely different words that really shouldn’t cause so much confusion. Lose ends with a z-sound. Lose is a verb. I hope I don’t lose my tooth. Loose ends with an s-sound. Loose is an adjective. My tooth is loose.
  8. Complement and Compliment. These words are easily mixed up because they do sound the same. Complement means to complete or enhance. The wine complements the meal. Compliment refers to praise or admiration. My compliments to the chef.
  9. Then and Than. These words are not homophones, but they sure cause a lot of confusion. Then is an adverb related to time. We went to dinner and then a movie. Than is a conjunction used to make comparisons. I enjoyed the dinner more than the movie.
  10. Whose and Who’s. Whose is the possessive form of who. Whose book is this? Who’s is a contraction for who is. Who’s going to the party tonight?

I’ve found there are two kinds of people. Those who really care about proper grammar, and those who really don’t. If you don’t, take pity upon the rest of us. Like Sisyphus and his rock, I’m afraid we are doomed to an eternity of futilely correcting people’s grammar, either silently or enthusiastically. I do have a bit of advice when you’re in the position of comforting grammar nerds. Gently put an arm around them and softly say, “There, their, they’re.” ยง

“Grammar is a piano I play by ear. All I know about grammar is its power.”
~Joan Didion

Featured Art ~ Portrait of a Woman, Adelaide Labille-Guiard, c. 1787