A Hopefully Helpful Lecture from a Spelling, Punctuation and Grammar Nazi

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Writers who struggle with spelling, punctuation and grammar must get frustrated by the constant corrections from well-meaning editors who bemoan the fact that they never seem to learn. The truth is writers who struggle with these areas will never improve without some tips, tricks and suggestions more useful than an instruction to simply start “getting it right”.

As a trained editor, in many of my positions of employment I became a pit stop for fellow employees wanting clarification on how to spell, punctuate and ensure correct grammar. So here are a few tips I’ve come up with to try to ensure fewer mistakes more often.

There, They’re and Their
These three seem to be a perpetual challenge so the simple check I came up with is this:

*If you can interchange it with the word “here”, then the spelling you’re looking for is “there”.
Correct example: There it is. Here it is.
Incorrect example: There minds are made up. Here minds are made up.

*If you spell the contracted version out in full – they are – and it still makes sense, then the spelling you’re looking for is “they’re”.
Correct example: They’re a terrific family. They are a terrific family.
Incorrect example: They’re minds are made up. They are minds are made up.

*Once you’ve mastered the other two rules, there is only one homonym left: the plural possessive, which means a pronoun that demonstrates ownership. Substitute the noun or nouns to check it makes sense.
Correct example: Their minds are made up. Jack and Debbie’s minds are made up.
Incorrect example: Their is a house. Jack and Debbie’s is a house.

Once you understand the differences, my recommendation is to check at the end of the writing process to ensure you are using the correct homonym. Simply use the Find function in Word to search for “there”, “they’re” and “their” and check that each usage follows the rules laid out above.

You’re and Your
The rules for “you’re” and “your” should be easy if you can remember the rules for “there”, “they’re” and “their”.

*If you spell the contracted version out in full – you are – and it still makes sense, then the spelling you’re looking for is “you’re”.
Correct example: You’re a terrific writer. You are a terrific writer.
Incorrect example: You’re mind is made up. You are mind is made up.

*The other homonym is the possessive, which means a pronoun that demonstrates ownership. Substitute the noun to check it makes sense.
Correct example: Your mind is made up. Debbie’s mind is made up.
Incorrect example: You’re coffee is cold. You are coffee is cold. Debbie is coffee is cold.

It’s and Its
“It’s” and “its” are a little more complex but if you stick to spelling out the contraction and using the other one on all occasions where it doesn’t make sense, you should be right.

*If you spell the contracted version out in full – it is – and it still makes sense, then the spelling you’re looking for is “it’s”.
Correct example: It’s a terrific example. It is a terrific example.
Incorrect example: It’s wings are white. It is wings are white.

*The other homonym is the possessive, which means a pronoun that demonstrates ownership. Substitute the noun to check it makes sense.
Correct example: Its wings are flapping. The bird’s wings are flapping.
Incorrect example: Its hot in the tropics. The bird’s hot in the tropics. (What!?)

Definite, Definate and Defanite
Only one of these is an actual word and it’s the first spelling. So the simple rule is that the word “definite” definitely does not have an “a” anywhere in it.

The reason I’ve included it here is because a friend once texted me to confirm the correct spelling and told me he had been taught at school to use the second (incorrect) spelling. No wonder it’s so hard if children are being indoctrinated with the wrong information.

Separate and Seperate
Again, only one of these is an actual word and again, it’s the first spelling. The rule with this word is two of the letter “e” and two of the letter “a” and once you can remember that, it’s not too difficult to realise where they should go (“e” at the start and “e” at the end, “a” and another “a” in the middle – remember to separate the two “e”s with the two “a”s).

Focusing and Focussing
The word “focusing” only has one “s”. This is one of those errors that so many people make that even those who are spelling it correctly start to doubt themselves. I’ve seen this in newspapers and on billboards and it might be a losing battle, but I’m still fighting.

When thinking about these kinds of verbs, ask yourself why you are adding an extra letter to create the present participle (otherwise known as the “ing” version of the verb). We generally only do this when not adding the extra letter would create confusion about pronunciation.

Single final letter in converting from the infinitive to the present participle: focusing, talking, singing, burning, flying.

Double final letter in converting from the infinitive to the present participle: shopping, running setting, sitting, dropping, putting.

Unfortunately, there are no easy rules for this one. But if in doubt, don’t. Think about the ridiculousness of writing “singging” or “flyying” or “talkking”. And just don’t.

A General Note on Spelling Errors
All spelling errors (as opposed to incorrectly used but correctly spelled words) should be picked up when you run the Spelling & Grammar check in Microsoft Word. (Make sure you set the language to the one you want e.g. English (US), English (UK), English (Australian).

If this isn’t happening, check to make sure the “Do not check spelling and grammar” box is not selected in the Language dialogue box on the Review tab. If it is, select all your text and then uncheck this box. If you’ve applied styles and the styles have this as part of their construction, you will need to modify the style.
Why this is even an option, I have no idea but it has tripped up many a good writer.

Apostrophes
While English is a fluid language and constantly evolving, the issue of apostrophes is one where I am disappointed at people getting it wrong. But it’s worse than that. People providing advice on how to use apostrophes are now often providing incorrect advice. That doesn’t just make me disappointed. It makes me fume. So here it is from a trained editor who studied under old school teachers more pedantic than you can ever imagine.

*Contractions – an apostrophe is used in a contraction to indicate two words have been joined together and some letters have been removed.
Examples – don’t = do not, can’t = cannot = can not, it’s = it is, you’re = you are, they’re = they are and so on.

It’s reasonably straightforward (see how straightforward doesn’t have an apostrophe because even though it’s two words joined together, none of the letters have been removed) but there are some less simple examples – shan’t = shall not, won’t = will not. Give it some thought and if in doubt, consult your dictionary.

*Singular possessive – it makes absolutely no difference whether a singular word or name ends in an “s” – if you are making that singular word possessive, it should have an apostrophe and then an “s” added to the end.
Examples – Brian’s cat, Ross’s book, Tess’s football, Steven’s tutu, the river’s flow, the floss’s length, the apple’s freshness, the truss’s strength.
Exceptions – the two exceptions are pronouns (hers, yours, theirs, its) and two religious figures – Moses’ commandments and Jesus’ disciples – perhaps because adding that many of the same letter in a row would just be ridiculous to pronounce but I’m not a fan of this exception. We would have coped and we wouldn’t have had to worry about another exception. Oh well.

*Plural possessive – the plural possessive is a little more complex because some words are made plural by adding an “s” (book to books, chef to chefs, cat to cats, dog to dogs), some words are made plural by adding an “es” (ostrich to ostriches, boss to bosses, fox to foxes, witch to witches) and other words have different plural formations (man to men, woman to women, child to children, person to people, etc). But basically a plural word ending in “s” or “es” will have the apostrophe at the end of the word and a plural word with a different formation from the singular word will have an apostrophe and then an “s” added to the end.
Examples – the books’ covers, the chefs’ teacher, the cats’ mother, the dogs’ tails, the ostriches’ feathers, the bosses’ workers, the foxes’ dens, the witches’ brews, the men’s room, the women’s hats, the children’s carer, the people’s princess.

The great thing about the English language is also one of its difficulties – unpredictability. It breaks its own rules so often it’s sometimes hard to remember what the rules actually are. After all, “i before e except after c” has now become “i before e except after c and when there’s a feisty heist on weird beige foreign neighbours reinventing protein at their leisure”.

If anyone has any specific questions they would like answered, please pose them in the comments section and I’ll help you out. I’m still fighting the good fight and I believe this can still be a correctly spelled, grammatically correct, perfectly punctuated world.

P.S. I am an Australian (born, bred and trained) and while my advice relates to Australian English, most of the advice provided above applies to other forms of the English language. The best universal advice I can offer is to buy a dictionary and a grammar guide relevant to your specific version of English to ensure you are adhering to the norms that are correct for your region.

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