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Perfecting Our Language

Text by: Geneil Johnson

Language is a beautiful and amazing thing. We begin learning its inflections before we are born. We use it constantly, almost without thinking, to express ourselves and to define the world around us. Verbally, it can flow as we think it; we usually have little need to check ourselves for correctness—but on paper?

Wouldn’t it be lovely if written language—specifically, written grammar—could flow as easily from our fingers as it seems to flow from our mouths?

It can! It just requires a little more practice.

Rules, Rules, Rules

© Jessica Ceason Photography

At one time or another, we’ve all learned the basics of English grammar. But as life gets increasingly busy, all of those facts we understood in third grade can be hard to remember now that our minds are full of household duties, work, children, and a million other responsibilities. When it comes to writing, we often find ourselves jotting down whatever word comes to mind first and hoping that it’s correct.

The nice thing about grammar is that it usually makes sense when you stop to think about it. We don’t often have the time to stop and think about it too deeply, so here are some simple clarifications that will help us remember quickly how to write what we want to say.

There, Their, or They’re?

Homophones are words that sound alike, but they have different meanings and different spellings. It’s easy to use the wrong one when we are writing quickly. Here is a quick guide to some of the most commonly confused homophones.

There, their, and they’re

There gives a direction or location. (Notice how it’s spelled like here with a t at the beginning.) The dog is over there. Now there are two dogs over there.

Their” is a possessive pronoun, like his, hers, ours, and its. Their house is painted blue.

They’re” is a contraction, a combination of “they” and “are.” That’s why it has an apostrophe, to signal that a letter was removed for the contraction. They’re having a good time.

Your and you’re, its and it’s, whose and who’s

Your,” “its,” and “whose” are possessive pronouns, like his, hers, and ours. That’s why they don’t need any apostrophe. Your dress is pretty; I really like its color. Whose party are you attending?

You’re,” “it’s,” and “who’s” are all contractions: “you’re” = “you are,” “it’s” = “it is,” and “who’s” = “who is.”

“You’re so happy!” “That’s because it’s spring.” “Who’s barbecuing tonight?”

To, too, and two

“To” shows direction. I’m going to the post office; there’s a letter addressed to you!

“Too” means “also.” Did I get a letter too?

“Two” is the way to spell out the number 2. Yes, you got two letters!

© Jessica Ceason Photography

Than and then

“Than” is used in comparisons: more than, less than, other than, rather than. I like my new home better than my old one.

“Then” denotes a time. It’s often used to talk about a series of events in order. I lived in London then. I visited Paris and then Rome. If I go back, then I will be perfectly happy.

Of course, there are many other confusing word pairs like these; here are a few more that we use frequently.

Lose and loose: It’s easy to lose a shoe if your laces are too loose.

Brake and break: I need to fix my car’s brakes. Time to break open my piggy bank!

Bear and bare: I bear burdens; I bear witness or testimony. I bare my head when I walk into a church.

Peek, peak, and pique: I peeked out the window and saw a beautiful mountain peak. It really piqued my interest.

A Word about Apostrophes

Dreadful. Well, they can seem dreadful. So many of our common grammar problems (even some that we have already noted) come from confusion over apostrophes. Their purpose can be very confusing.

Here is the simplest way to explain apostrophes: an apostrophe can only mean two things—this word is a contraction or this noun is possessive. Apostrophes never, ever, ever make a word plural.

This word is a contraction. As previously described, you use an apostrophe to show that you are contracting two words into one word (or a long word into a shorter word).

it’s = it is

don’t = do not

can’t = cannot

might’ve = might have

who’d = who had or who did

what’s = what is

Et cetera.

This noun is possessive. When something belongs to someone, you use an apostrophe and an s to show possession, like this:

Dad’s car

London’s bridge

The scarecrow’s hat

The door’s hinge

Straightforward enough, isn’t it? Until you get to plurals.

About Plurals

© Jessica Ceason Photography

In English, plurals are formed by adding an s to the end of the noun (or by adding es, if the word already ends in s).

cookie —› cookies

car —› cars

boss —› bosses

bus —› buses

If the noun ends in y, the y is changed to ie before you add the s. Like this:

family —› families

bully —› bullies

activity —› activities

This does not apply when the y follows a vowel:

day —› days

key —› keys

boy —› boys

Please note: none of the plurals shown above used an apostrophe. That’s because apostrophes do not ever make plurals… that isn’t one of their jobs. Even proper nouns use the regular rule for plurals: add s or es.

Mr. Johnson —› the Johnsons

Mr. Jones —› the Joneses

Mr. Hopkins —› the Hopkinses

Mr. Clay —› the Clays

Mr. Clay is coming with the rest of the Clays.

The only rule that proper nouns break is the y-changes-to-ie rule:

Mr. Tilly is bringing all of the other Tillys with him.

Nouns only use apostrophes to show ownership. If a noun is singular, add ’s. If it is plural, just add an apostrophe.

The first car’s trunk is open; the rest of the cars’ trunks are closed.

Those buses’ drivers need to hurry.

My family’s name is Johnson; the Johnsons’ families’ photos are all in this album.

Yes, we are the Johnsons. (There is no possession here, just a plural—so we don’t need an apostrophe anywhere!)

When names ending in s need to be made possessive, different authorities have different preferences; you can either add ’s or you can just add an apostrophe. Use whichever version makes the most sense to you!

Mr. Collins’s wife is British.   or   Mr. Collins’ wife is British.

The following examples are all correct:

May I introduce Mr. Williams to you?

The Williamses are home tonight.

The Williamses’ home is brightly lit. (Note: Williams’ would be incorrect here because we are talking about two or more Williamses; the noun needs to be plural before you add the apostrophe to show possession.)

Mr. Williams’s wife is very beautiful. or Mr. Williams’ wife is very beautiful.

Of course, there is a way around plurals and apostrophes when you are dealing with surnames; you can rephrase your sentence so that you don’t need them.

The Williams family is home tonight.

The Williams family home is brightly lit.

Mrs. Williams is very beautiful.

The Concept That Really Matters

If you can grasp these three basics—homophones, apostrophes, and plurals—then you are well on your way to an excellent working knowledge of written English grammar.

© Jessica Ceason Photography

As important as those basics are, I believe the most important thing I can tell you about grammar is this: the purpose of grammar is to help us be understood. The rules of grammar wouldn’t have become the rules if they didn’t work so well; these rules aren’t meant to bully or intimidate you (despite the English teachers that may have bullied or intimidated you—teachers do need to require correctness, but they should help us be confident in correctness instead of bullied by it). Grammar is what makes language work; it’s not just right and wrong answers on a test, it’s the structure of our own native language, the language we learned first—the language of our thoughts. Grammar doesn’t want to make you feel bad; grammar wants to help you express yourself so that everyone will understand you!

I know that it can be overwhelming. So often, we write what comes to mind first because we aren’t confident in our knowledge. If we’ve developed incorrect habits, it can be hard not to feel defensive because we’ve been doing the best we knew how to do for a long time, and because our language is such an essential part of what makes us ourselves!

Please, take heart! If you would like to write more clearly, be confident as you implement the things you’ve learned. Feel good about your ability to express yourself, because every time you write something, you are giving grammar a happy reason to exist.

(For more helpful grammar tips, I highly recommend http://www.oxforddictionaries.com/page/betterwriting/better-writing.)