top of page
  • Writer's pictureDiane Saeger

Don't Get Arrested by the Grammar Police

Beware, there are grammar police on the prowl. This particular police force often corrects posts, conversations and never allows for autocorrect (I think that is where most of my errors originate). A clever book published in 2003, Eats, Shoots & Leaves, is worth a read. It is a funny and anecdotal look at the history of proper punctuation, and the abysmal state of punctuation expertise.

The title comes from a joke about a panda, a bar, bad punctuation, and a play on words (a syntactic ambiguity,‍ to be precise). A panda sits in a bar, fires three shots, and leaves. On his way out, he hurls a badly punctuated wildlife manual to the confused waiter describing a panda as a "bear-like animal that eats, shoots and leaves." Don't underestimate the power of a comma.

Here are some basic grammar and punctuation rules and mistakes to be aware of (and tricks to fix them):

They're, Their, There

Probably one of the most common errors in writing is to guess which of these "They're, Their, There" homophones is the correct one to use in a sentence. Here's a cheat sheet:

If you're indicating "they are" in your sentence, then the contraction "they're" is always the correct option.

  • They're on their way to the museum. They're excited!

If you're trying to indicate something belonging to something or someone, then the possessive pronoun "their" is the correct option.

  • Their museum trip was so much fun, even though their feet hurt afterward.

If you're trying to indicate something denoting a place or introducing the subject of a sentence, "there" is the correct option. Remember that "there" has "here" inside of it.

  • The art exhibit they were most excited to see was over there, next to the gift shop.

Its vs. It's

If you're indicating "it is" or "it has" in your sentence, then the contraction "it's" is the correct option.

  • It's a beautiful day to visit the museum.

"Its" is the possessive form of "it's." The absolute rule is: If you can replace the word with "it is" or "it has," use "it's." Otherwise, it's always "its."

  • That portrait was creepy. Its eyes were following me!

To, Too, Two

Another set of confusing homophones! It's easiest to start with "two" because this can only mean the number 2. As far as "to," think of it as a preposition of movement: A → B. I went from A "to" B. And think of "too" as "in addition to" or "in excess of".

  • We spent way too many hours at the museum.

Stationery, Stationary

Even with only one letter separating these two words, their meanings couldn't be further apart. Sometimes it's hard to remember which is which. "Stationary" means something is fixed, immobile, or not subject to change. "Stationery" refers to the collection of papers, envelopes, and other things you'd use to write letters or cards. We use the envelope trick – the "e" in envelope matches the "e" in stationery.

Subject-Verb Agreement

Nothing plagues a copyeditor more than failure to find the correct agreement between a subject and a verb. The agreement is: a singular subject goes with a singular verb, and plural subjects go with plural verbs. It's easier to accomplish when the subject and verb are close together in a simple sentence but more complicated when they are far apart, separated by prepositional phrases or clauses. One trick is to identify your subject(s) and then figure out whether a singular or plural verb is needed.

  • He loves gardening.

"He" is the subject of the sentence. "He" is singular (it refers to one person), so it needs a singular verb ("loves"). One would never say, "he love gardening."

  • My aunts love gardening.

"My aunts" is the subject of the sentence, and the subject is plural. So it takes a plural verb ("love"). One would never say, "my aunts loves gardening."

Then, Than

People often get confused about these two words. They sound exactly alike, and it's easy to use the wrong one in a sentence (something I am sure I have been guilty of!). "Than" is used to introduce a comparison: "Jane is smarter than Bill." "Then" is used when you're talking about time. An example: "I was fitter then." "Then" also is a substitute for "in that case." An example: "If you're done with your chores, then you can go."

Hopefully, these tips and tricks will demystify some basic grammar and punctuation errors. We will dive into more grammar topics in the near future! As usual, we love to end with a joke:

What's the difference between a cat and a comma?

One has claws at the end of its paws, and the other is a pause at the end of a clause.



bottom of page