April 18, 2009

In the Spirit of Public Service

I would like to present to you, the internet, some handy tips for correcting errors I see -- all too frequently! -- when I am reading your blogs or your tweets or your comments. This is not directed at anyone in particular; I speak of general evils.

Homonym abuse is the problem. Homonyms -- words that sound alike but are spelled differently and mean different things -- have taken a terrible beating lately. It is of course easy to mis-type in the heat of the moment, but serious and persistent errors must be addressed. The excellent thing about homonyms, however, is that if you simply take a moment to memorize which is which you will rarely be confused thereafter.

Their / They're / There:

  • Their is a possessive word, as in "That is their idea".

  • They're means "they are", which may handily be seen as a contraction because of our friend the apostrophe's signal. The apostrophe is replacing the letter "a" in "are".

  • There is a direction, as in "over there".

Its / It's:

Again, our friend the apostrophe can help us out, as it signals a contraction:

  • "It's" means "it is", and the apostrophe is again taking the place of an initial vowel. If you mean to describe something, use "it's".

  • If you are referring to a possession -- "The cup sat on its saucer" (that is to say, on the saucer belonging to the cup) -- omit the apostrophe. This will seem counter-intuitive at first, since we say things like "Christine's chocolate" or "Canada's national sport" and use an apostrophe in this case. But IT is different, and if you take care, you will soon get used to it.

Your / You're:

This one drives me particularly crazy because, as with the examples above, it's really quite simple to learn and then to memorize. Grammar, mostly, is not difficult -- it's merely tedious, but that's enough to put people off it. I am digressing, however. Here's the distinction:

  • The word "your" is possessive. "Your boots" are the boots that you own. "Your crazy" is the crazy that you own.

  • "You're" has an apostrophe in it, once again signalling a contraction. It means "you are", and so you can say "you're special" or "you're happy".

  • Mixing these two up can be disastrous. Consider the difference between "your nuts" and "you're nuts", by way of brief example.

Miscellaneous evils:

  • Sight/Site: The first is one of your five senses. The latter is more of a place, like a camp site or a web site.

  • Coarse/Course: Coarse means rough. Course might mean something like path. It is also used in the phrase "of course".

  • To/Too/Two: The first is probably the most commonly used, forming part of the oft-used "to do" -- if you are going to the store, or off to do the dishes, or intending to give me lots of money, use this word. The middle version means "as well" or "also". The last is the number that we all know and love.

  • Effect/Affect: The former is the result of the latter. You affect something in order to have an effect on it.

  • Bored/Board: Bored is what you are when there's nothing to do. A board either comes from a tree, has -game attached to the end of it, or holds periodic management meetings.

Did I miss any obvious ones? Out them in the comments!

(Note: Anyone who comments about how grammar is obsolete -- and that as long as you can be understood, even with errors, everything's good enough -- will be summarily executed. Yes, I can understand you, with effort, if you say things like "Your going too have a bad affect", but I won't assume you're clever. I spent four hours copy-editing yesterday; don't cross me.)


Caty said...

Write and right. Particularly when preceded by copy-, in which case it's to be hoped that the users' awareness of intellectual property rights is better than their grasp of the English language.

Joel D said...

Not a homonym pair, but rogue and rouge get mixed up a lot (especially when discussing classes in RPGs).

Rikki said...

I'm not a native speaker, but I really enjoyed your post. One of my pet peeves that I see all the time - to the point that I'm not even sure I'm right or wrong anymore - is "per say". It's "per se" for crying out loud.

Rikki’s latest blog post:Free e-books from Random House

raych said...

*claps spiritedly*

Alice said...

One I'm seeing more and more is "loose" for "lose" -- not a homonym per se, but using the wrong verb -- I think because no one expects "ose" to rhyme with use.

Christine said...

Your all totally write! I hope I never loose my sense of grammar, per say. That would make me a real rouge.

Tina Kubala said...

Wonderful post. I agree mistakes on the internet when postings happen so fast are forgivable. The problems come when "mistake" transitions to "who cares." None of us may be grammatically perfect, but let's agree to try.

Bruce said...

Hurrah! You have covered most of my pet peeves. I know I don't type perfectly but I do try. I try particularly hard on the list you gave. One spelling error that also gets to me is 'seperate' instead of separate. But then I'm frustrated by English itself because it is desperate not 'desparate' as I would have expected.

Alice said...

"Who's" for "whose" is another one.

Kristen M. said...

I love this post. Grammar and spelling are not hard if you *pay attention*! I would give anything for a blog format where you could have a virtual "red pen" and correct things on other people's blogs and comments ... crazy? yes ... satisfying? you bet.

Kristen M.’s latest blog post:Enjoying Picture Book Art

EL Fay said...

You forgot my all-time biggest pet peeve that no elementary student should even be getting wrong! Why oh why do people try to pluralize a word by putting an apostrophe before the "s" like it's possessive? You know, like this:

"He bought apple's and banana's from the store."


(I liked your distinction between "your nuts" and "you're nuts." Great example!)

EL Fay’s latest blog post:Who is Mark Twain? (A Review)

Beth said...

They're horse was in there trailer over their at there campsight. Its a nice horse, but it's trainer is mean. Of course, your mean, to, and you're horse is even meaner. I can't stand the site of you at you're campsight with you're too board children. Instead, I go too the boredwalk. However, I sometimes loose my shoes when I take them off too walk in the sand, and my sister and me spend hours looking for them.

Of coarse, I'm only righting this too you because I'm trying to use every single wrong word choice in what's turning into a very random little story about you and I. :-)

Christine said...


Sarah, Goon Squad Sarah said...

Then and than.

gillsmyth said...

Bad grammar makes me all hot and bothered.
I work hard at writing proper (oh, OK, properly) but know I make spelling mistakes from time to time and my friends rarely correct me although I wish they would.
My big challenge is weird/wierd. They both LOOK correct to me and I get a mental block!

glumpuddle said...

On weird/wierd, remember it like this: it is odd to put the e before the i; that's just weird.
Ok, I tried. Christine stop laughing.

I notice that there are whole expressions or phrases that people use that kind of sound right -- but aren't quite right. The one that has currently come to my attention is "play it by air" - to say wait and see what happens. If you weren't sure, it should be "play it by ear."

Right/Write, I'll take myself off to edit academic essays now.

glumpuddle said...

Just spotted: weak/week -- as in the patient is too sick from the last chemo treatment so the next treatment is postponed for a weak.

Rikki said...

El Fay, you know what the funniest thing about this is? In German we don't have an apostrophe for genitive, but we only add an "s". So with some words plural and genitive look the same. So now they have started to use the apostrophe for plural. How idiotic is that? If they used it for genitive it would at least be consistent with English (even if it was stupid, because we don't need that), but they way it is it is consistent with an English grammar mistake. There's modern German for you!

Rikki’s latest blog post:Thursday 13

gillsmyth said...

to glumpuddle:

Thank you for the suggestion.

HOWEVER, I would say to myself:

as glumpuddle says it's weird to put the e before the i....so don't, Gill. It must be wierd.....

sorry...in fact after all that I expect I WON'T forget!

Fyrefly said...

Affect/Effect bother me so much that I started summarily circling them as wrong on every student paper I read - even though about half the time, they were actually right.

It's not a homonym, but the misuse of "begs the question" is one grammar nitpick that absolutely drives me crazy.

Fyrefly’s latest blog post:E. Lockhart - The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks

Lisa said...

I loved this! Great post!

Lisa’s latest blog post:Musing Mondays: Non-Fiction

Ali said...

I'm forever going back and taking apostrophes out of "its." I know the right way, but my pinky finger doesn't listen!

Ali’s latest blog post:The Boy in the Striped Pajamas

Mrs. Micah said...

My biggest problem is that I write late at night and sometimes those slip out. Mom drilled most of them into my head, so I know all the rules and can get them right...or notice them when I proof-read at least. But if I just want to post it and go to bed, I'm light on the proofing.

Long live the grammatically correct!

Mrs. Micah’s latest blog post:Why You Could Not Pay Me Enough to Film My Life

Jessica said...

Here/hear is one I often see.

Jessica’s latest blog post:To My Mom Peeps!

Linda Sosa said...

Gillsmyth, my father taught me a way to remember the correct spelling of weird. I've never forgotten. He said, "Remember; WE are weird." So the word starts with "we."
I hope that helps. I like the other suggestion too. Can someone explain the correct difference between seperate and separate to me? That's one I've struggled with. I know the meaning of both words, but can never remember which one is spelled which way. Thanks!

Linda Sosa said...

I forgot to mention this was my first time here. I totally enjoyed it.