The English language is a cruel and unpredictable mistress.
Unlike other languages that have obvious formulas for verbs as well as spelling and punctuation that makes sense, English appears to thrive on being ridiculous.
Words that sound the same can have completely different meanings (there, their); and words that are spelled similarly can have entirely different pronunciations (cough, bough, rough) – it’s enough to drive one to the brink of madness.
So how does one deal with this minefield of potential misunderstandings and avoid a communication breakdown? Well, a good place to start is to address 3 basic grammatical errors that are made most often, especially by native English speakers.
(1) When to use? Your/You’re, Its/It’s
Apostrophes are jerks. There, I said it. But let’s have a look at them anyways, as they turn up a lot.
For the most part, a word followed by an apostrophe and an ‘s’ indicates possession.
Example: Fred has a girlfriend. Fred’s girlfriend is named Sheila.
The apostrophe gets more confusing when it is used to signify two words joined together in shortened form. You’re contains an apostrophe because it means “you are”.
Example: “You’re the absolute worst, Fred!” shouted Sheila.
For this reason, “your” now indicates possession.
Example: “I’m sorry Sheila, but from behind, you and your sister look the same!”
Similarly, “it’s” is a shortened form of “it is”.
Example: “It’s not the first time this has happened, Fred, and you know it!”
So “its” becomes the possessive form (of whatever noun “it” is).
Example: Temptation had raised its ugly head again, and Fred was in serious trouble.
Sometimes it helps to read out the sentence and see if two words make sense or not in the context of the sentence. In this example, “temptation had raised it is ugly head” doesn’t make sense, so we know to use the version without the apostrophe.
(2) When to use? Then / Than
These two words are so similar, both in spelling and in sound, that it is irritating to distinguish between them. In cases like these, context is important – you’ll need to focus on the meaning of the word and see how it fits into the sentence.
“Than” is used when making a comparison.
Example: Tom is much heavier than Jim.
“Then” signifies a sequence of events in time, or refers to a specific time.
Example: Tom eats 4 breakfasts, then has a snack, then moves swiftly on to a massive lunch. He never ate so much as a child… Back then, he was almost regular-sized.
(3) When to use? Their / There
We will ignore “they’re”, as we’ve already discussed apostrophes (they’re = “they are”), but these other two words are grammatically hazardous. They sound exactly the same, so again, remind yourself of the meaning and look at context carefully before choosing one.
“Their” indicates possession by a group.
Example: The girls ran into their locker room to avoid Creepy Pete.
“There” refers to a location or a statement of circumstance.
Example: “Quickly, run! He’s right there! There is no way he can follow us in here without getting a thrashing from the teacher.”