Spelling, Punctuation and Grammar – The Fundamentals of Writing

Practically everyone in the developed western countries can write to some degree these days. Illiteracy is largely a thing of the past, but there still remains a huge gap between good writing and bad writing. By “good writing” I don’t mean magnetic copy that compels the reader to stay riveted to the seat, reading every word with relish, although writing that kind of copy is great. I mean ordinary writing that observes the basic fundamental rules of spelling, punctuation and grammar.

English class at school was probably boring for you. It was for me, and yet I always loved the written word. It has always amazed me how it’s possible to combine words in so many ways to bring out different emotions in people. It’s a powerful thing, yet it’s so easy to destroy the magic. Just one wrongly spelled word, an incorrect punctuation, or some bad grammar can ruin the whole effect.

“… loose and lose …”

The mistake that I see most often on the Internet is the confusion between “loose” and “lose.” I read sales letters that tell me I can’t loose on this great deal. Hmm… perhaps I could tighten though… The difference is simple: if your pants keep falling down, they are loose; and if you gamble and you don’t win, you lose.

If the way you are pronouncing the two words, “loose” and “lose,” is the thing confusing you, then this is how you should pronounce each word. Pronounce “loose” with a short “oo” sound, and pronounce “lose” with a long “oooo” sound, a bit like the wind wailing at night. It does seem illogical, I admit, but that’s how it goes.

The other words commonly confused include “its” and “it’s.” Here’s a simple way to determine which is right. Try saying the phrase with “it is” instead. If it sounds right, then it probably is right. If not, then it’s probably wrong. For example, “It’s a nice day.” Saying, “It is a nice day” works fine, so “it’s” is the one to use. However, “The dog wags its tail” sounds wrong when you say, “The dog wags it is tail,” so “its” without an apostrophe “s” is the one to use there.

The use of the apostrophe in the case of “it’s” denotes a contraction of the two words, “it is.” On the other hand, “its,” without the apostrophe, denotes possession, as in the earlier example of the dog wagging its tail; the tail is owned (possessed) by the dog.

“… their, there and they’re …”

Another couplet that often confuses is “their” and “there.” This one is easier. If you want to indicate where something is located, you could say, “It’s over there.” If you want to indicate that some people own something, you could say, “It’s their car/house/dog/etc.” However, beware of “they’re” as it may confuse the whole issue. This is a contraction of the two words, “they are.” An example of its use could be, “They’re a really nice couple.”

The apostrophe is also used to denote possession as in, “Tom’s book.” There is often confusion over where the apostrophe should go when the word ends in “s.” To be fair, this is not an easy one to get right.

Place the apostrophe before the “s” if you are dealing with singular possession, as in the earlier example of “Tom’s book.” There is only one Tom and it’s his book, so it’s singular possession.

If the person owning the book has a name that already ends in “s” you can either place the apostrophe after the “s” only, or place it after the “s” and add another “s“.

That is a bit complicated, so let me show you what I mean. If the book belongs to Iris, then you can either say, “Iris’ book,” or “Iris’s book.” The choice here works only for singular possession though, where the name of the person or thing possessing ends in an “s.”

“… the plural possession rule …”

When the person or thing owning something has a name that ends in “s,” and it is plural possession, then an apostrophe only is added to the end of the word. For example, “The workers’ shovels.” There is more than one worker owning a shovel, therefore it is plural possession. If you said, “The worker’s shovels,” you would be saying that one (singular) worker has lots of shovels. But saying, “The workers’ shovels” means that you are referring to lots of workers who each have at least one shovel.

There are exceptions to the plural possession rule, however. If the person or thing owning something is plural, but the word does not end in an “s,” then the word becomes apostrophe “s.” Here’s an example: “The children’s toys.” The word “children” is plural as it denotes more than one child. It doesn’t end in an “s,” so you have to add an apostrophe “s” to the end of it.

“… the greengrocer’s apostrophe …”

There’s a syndrome sometimes known as the “greengrocer’s apostrophe.” This is because greengrocers are often the worst offenders when it comes to confusing possession with a plural situation. They write things like, “We have carrot’s, turnip’s and onion’s,” when they simply mean to express that they have these items in quantity.

Think of it this way; the carrot isn’t owning (possessing) anything. The turnip and the onion isn’t either, so why have an apostrophe “s” after those words? The greengrocer in this example is actually trying to say that he or she has a plural amount of the vegetables mentioned. The message should have been written like this: “We have carrots, turnips and onions.” One carrot, lots of carrots; one turnip, lots of turnips; and one onion, but lots of onions. It’s as easy as that.

My favorite misuse of an apostrophe? It comes from the wonderful book, “Eats, Shoots and Leaves.” Someone called Gladys signed herself as, “Glady’s” with an apostrophe “s.” Now, that’s someone who is really working hard to get it wrong!

“… I or me? …”

One grammar mistake that really annoys me is the incorrect use of “I” and “me.” I know people who use “I” simply because they think it’s the proper way to speak, when in fact they can be wrong and should be using “me.” The Queen of Britain often says something like, “My husband and I are very pleased…” in speeches. That is correct grammar. On the other hand, I’ve heard people say something like, “Our house is just right for Mary and I.” That is bad grammar.

Let me explain… The easiest way to test whether or not you are right is to split the sentence into two parts and see if each part sounds right. In the example of the Queen, if you say, “My husband is very pleased…” and “I am very pleased…” it shows you that she is using good grammar; it makes sense and sounds right. However, in the other example, saying, “Our house is just right for Mary,” and “Our house is just right for I” clearly shows that “me” should have been used instead of “I,” as in, “Our house is just right for Mary and me.”

In America over the years it has become almost normal to use “off of” in certain circumstances. This is wrong. An example is an old 1950s country song entitled, “I Can’t Get You Off Of My Mind.” That’s bad grammar. OK, it works great in the song, but it’s still bad grammar. Only one “off” should be used – every single time.

On the subject of bad grammar in song titles, my all-time favorite has to be the Louis Jordan song, recorded in 1943: “Is You Is or Is You Ain’t My Baby.” The phrase, “is you is or is you ain’t” is apparently black southern dialect, first mentioned in writing in South Carolina in 1921. From a grammar point of view, it’s so bad that it’s actually good.

“… split infinitives …”

Split infinitives! They sound really complicated, but they are not. The classic example of a split infinitive is in the Star Trek opening sequence where the narrator says, “To boldly go where no man has gone before.” That’s a split infinite. Correct grammar would dictate that it should be, “To go boldly where no man has gone before.

The infinitive in this example is, “to go.” The adverb “boldly” splits it by coming in between: “to boldly go.” It’s that simple! However, I am happy to cheerfully concede that “To boldly go” has more impact and sounds just right for what the producers of Star Trek were trying to achieve, and it is therefore a good example of when it can be right to break the rules.

I could go on for hours writing about this kind of thing, but I won’t. Someone will probably be delighted to happily go on record as being the one to point out a mistake I have made somewhere. That’s OK, it simply proves that I am human, and who knows, I may have made the mistake (or mistakes) deliberately, but I do try to write properly as much as possible, and you should too.