Five Grammar Faux Pas to Avoid

More than half a century ago, a computer scientist named Lester Earnest invented the first program to check spelling. It was capable of grinding its way through documents to verify 10,000 common English words. Today, most spell-checkers validate more than a million words in a nano-second. With these advancements, many automated programs can also check for grammar faux pas, although they often miss errors, and they don’t grasp context, intention, or tone.

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When you use Wordzen, the draft you send to our editors doesn’t have to be perfect. But just for fun, you might compose one as carefully as you can, paying particular attention to spelling, punctuation, and grammar. Then see how our editors can improve your message. You’ll be very pleased!

Meanwhile, here are five common errors we frequently find in emails. You’re sure to have seen them in messages sent to you by friends and colleagues.

1) They’re, Their, and There

They’re is a contraction for “they are,” but it is often misused as a possessive. Correct use: They’re on the early flight from Denver.” Incorrect use: “They’re baggage is checked through to London.”

Their is possessive, referring to something that someone else owns. It is often mistyped for a location. Correct use: “Their homeowner’s policy covers fire, but it doesn’t cover floods.” Incorrect use: “The uninsured motorist struck them over their.”

There indicates a location or an existing situation, and is frequently misused to suggest what other people are doing. Correct uses: “The property line extends to the tree over there,” and “There is a mechanic’s lien on this property that prevents it from being sold.” Incorrect use: “There getting back to us about the deposit in an hour.”

2) You’re and Your

You’re is used to express a way of being, while “your” shows ownership. Similar to “they’re,” “you’re” is a contraction meaning “you are.” Correct use: “You’re in charge of the strategic relationship portfolio, right?” Incorrect use: “Jacobsen says the ball is in you’re court.”

Your is similar to “their” because it refers to ownership in this case, something a particular person or group of people owns. Correct uses: “Ask not what your country can do for you ask what you can do for your country,” and “Kids, your playground time ends in five minutes!”

3) It’s and Its

This one can confuse even the best of writers because “its” feels like an exception to a grammar rule, but it’s not.

It’s is a contraction for “it is,” and represents a state of being. Correct uses: “It’s one thing to get a degree, but it’s something else to gain real mastery over a subject,” and “It’s almost dawn — let’s get some sleep!” To make sure you’re using “it’s” correctly, mentally substitute “it is” and if that sounds right, you’re done. If it seems wrong, remove the apostrophe.

Its is a possessive, which means it indicates ownership. You might expect “its” to be spelled with an apostrophe (“it’s”) to be consistent with other possessives such as Betty’s bike, Bart’s beard, and Beto’s birthmark. In fact, “its” is consistent with “yours” and “theirs,” neither of which use apostrophes. Correct uses: “One look at the county map told me its date preceded the great flood,” and “Rome is proud of its history and public art, but knows its cuisine isn’t nearly as impressive.”

If you’re ever unsure about using “its,” then change “it” to whatever the word represents. For example, “Its blinker won’t stop” could be rewritten as “The car’s blinker won’t stop.” This approach might present less confusion.

4) Affect and Effect

These words are confusing because they sound alike and are used in similar circumstances.

Affect is a verb a word that conveys action. Correct examples are: “I wanted to affect the outcome, so I voted and donated money to the campaign,” and “Rising home prices affected property tax rates, which increased by 20 percent.”

If you find the use of “affect” confusing, you can often substitute “influence,” either to test your use of “affect” or to avoid using it entirely. Here are those same examples using this substitution: “I wanted to influence the outcome, so I voted and donated money to the campaign,” and “Rising home prices influenced property tax rates, which increased by 20 percent.”

Effect is often used as a noun and occasionally used as a verb. If you find this confusing, take comfort in knowing that you’re not alone.

When used as a noun, “effect” usually refers to the result or outcome of a thing. Here are examples of two correct uses: “The seminar had a surprisingly energizing effect,” and “One effect of larger classrooms is less one-on-one time between students and their teachers.”

If you find this confusing, you can substitute “result,” “outcome,” or “impact” for “effect” to test your use, or to avoid using “effect” completely. Some examples with these substitutions are: “The seminar had a surprisingly energizing impact,” “One result of larger classrooms is less one-on-one time between students and their teachers,” or “One outcome of larger classrooms is less one-on-one time between students and their teachers.”

When it’s used as a verb, “effect” means to cause or to initiate. (This differs from the “influence” meaning of “affect.”) An example of correct use is, “Legislators ran aggressive campaigns to effect positive change in Washington,” and “To effect a sea-change in societal norms, start with a huge advertising budget.”

If you’d prefer to avoid using effect as a verb, you can often substitute “make,” “cause,” and sometimes “force” instead. Re-read those examples using these substitutions, and you’ll see that the meaning remains intact.

5) i.e. and e.g.

Although you’ll see some people using these abbreviations as if they mean the same thing, they are not equivalent and should not be used interchangeably.

The brief “i.e.” is shorthand for the Latin term, “id est,” which in English means “that is.” Use it to expand a thought or give your idea more clarity. When you read or write “i.e.,” you can mentally translate it to “that is” or “in other words.” Here’s a correct use: “He mentioned the deadline (i.e., the absolute last day on which we can make a payment), and then he told me to put it on my calendar.” Another example is, “When you get there, be sure to mix things up, i.e., mingle.”

The equally brief “e.g. is short for the Latin term, “exempli gratia,” or “for example.” Use it to show someone a case that illustrates your point. Two illustrations of the correct use are, “She wants a small, short-haired dog, e.g., a Chihuahua or rat terrier,” and “Let’s propose a structured payment plan similar to what we’ve used in the past, e.g., the Anderson claim on North Shore or the Gupta arbitration in Ford County.”

Knowing how to avoid grammar pitfalls can make you a better writer, but if you’d like the same results in your emails without investing more of your time, look into a Wordzen subscription. It’s an easy way to hire an entire staff of professional editors for just a few dollars a day.