Tag Archives: * Punctuation

A Tip About “It’s” and “Its” to Make Your Life Easier

An image of a comma or apostropheIf you’ve been in the writing and publishing world for even five minutes, you’ll probably have heard the one complaint that unites editors and grammar geeks everywhere, in a red cloud of linguistic and punctuational rage: nobody seems to know when to add an apostrophe to “Its!” For sign makers, “It’s” with the apostrophe appears to be ubiquitous (and is almost always used incorrectly), and even seasoned writers seem to be vague about when to use the apostrophe and when not to.

But if this is something you’re unsure of, I will tell you a secret now that will change your writing life forever: it is extremely easy to know which form to use. Believe me about that. It is easier than you have ever imagined.

Take this sentence:

“The snowball hit the car on it’s windshield.”

Now apply this simple, easy rule: If you can substitute “it is” (or “it has”) in place of “it’s,” then you can use the apostrophe.

That’s the only rule you ever need to know, to tell whether you should write “its” or “it’s.” So let’s apply it to our sentence:

“The snowball hit the car on it is/it has windshield.”

Um…no? That sounds awful, and is clearly incorrect. So you don’t need the apostrophe there. Use “its” instead of “it’s.”

And this sentence?

“Its a bright, sunny day.”

Applying our substitution rule:

It is a bright, sunny day.”

And this means that yes, you do use the apostrophe. So be sure to stick it in.

Let’s repeat the rule: If you can substitute “it is” (or “it has”) in place of “it’s,” then you can use the apostrophe.

Isn’t that easy? That’s the only rule you will ever need to know, to decide whether to use “its” or “it’s.” Because the only time you ever use the apostrophe is when you really mean “it is.” Knowing that, you should never make an error with that word again. Simple!

(Thanks so much to Christopher for pointing out that you can use “it has” as well as “it is.” I’ve added that set of words into the rule too. Picture me slapping my forehead. 🙂 )

(And by the way, if you’re vague about the apostrophe in general, and would like a little guide on how and when to use it, you can download my free PDF, That Darned Apostrophe! It covers contractions, possessives, and plurals as well as the its/it’s confusion.)

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Filed under * Punctuation, * Writing tips

How NOT to use quotation marks

To learn the wrong ways of using quotation marks, go to this blog: The “blog” of “unnecessary” quotation marks.

Please note: quotation marks are what you use to indicate dialogue, or  actually to quote what someone else said. They can also be used to set apart a word or a phrase, and show that it isn’t part of the sentence structure, but is what the sentence is talking about.

For example, the following sentence:

If you use quotation marks for something that is not recording what someone actually said, or to set apart a phrase whose meaning you’re discussing inside that sentence, then those quotation marks mean, “This is fake.”

When you use quotation marks in any other way than the ways described above, you’re telling your reader that the thing inside the quotes isn’t actually what it says, but is something that is faking it, or hinting at the opposite of what the word itself means.

So if you write something like this —

The office is not for play, but for “work.”

— you’re actually telling the reader that whatever you do in that office, it’s not actual work. You’re doing a winky-winky thing, cluing in the reader that there’s a joke here somewhere. You’re giving the name “work” to what you do there, because it camouflages what you really do.

On the other hand, if you were trying to emphasize that you really do work in that place, and that you’re very serious about it and would never play around, you would write it like this:

The office is not for play, but for work.

That’s how you emphasize a word. You do NOT USE QUOTATION MARKS, because an intelligent reader will recognize that they indicate that the words inside the quotes mean something other than what they say. In fact, the quotation marks usually make the word mean the opposite of what it normally means. Which, of course, is also the exact opposite of what you’re trying to achieve.

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Filed under * Punctuation

This, that, and the other reason for the Oxford Comma

I have to say that I’m very happy when I read this post, from Tomato Nation, about why we need the Oxford Comma.

That’s the comma which, in a long list of things, either comes before the second last thing or — in some people’s view — does not get inserted there, so that the last two things in the list don’t have a comma between them.

An example of such a list would be, say, a list of colours: red, orange, green, blue, indigo, and violet. The Oxford Comma is the one between indigo and violet. Those who are opposed to this usage would do the list like this: red, orange, green, blue, indigo and violet.

The fight between the pro- and anti-Oxford camps has been long and sometimes full of rage. The trend these days seems to be to remove the comma, so if I’m editing in a style that goes that way, I try to comply. I suspect this goes with the current trend to try to remove as many commas as possible while retaining the sense of the sentence.

But if left on my own (or in my own writing), I will always use the Oxford Comma, because as far as I’m concerned, it fulfills the requirement of good editing and writing: it makes things unambiguous and clear.

Take a list of pairs of things. Here’s how such a list would look without the Oxford comma:

A cup and saucer, knife and fork, cream and sugar and bowl and platter.

I suppose the anti-Oxford people would say that it’s still clear that “bowl and platter” are one entity, separate from “cream and sugar;” otherwise there wouldn’t be that “and” between them. But there are other sentences, with several things in a list, that are much less clear.

When I was a kid in grade 7, I worked this out for myself, having no idea there was any controversy about it. I decided that I would use a comma after every item prior to the last one, to make it absolutely clear which items were individual entities. I wouldn’t risk anyone confusing the last two items as one thing. It seemed so logical to me that I wasn’t even aware that it could be disputed.

As I said, when I’m editing I follow the style chosen by the writer or, more often, the publisher or organization putting out the document. But whenever I’m allowed to have my own way, I go with the choice that makes things clearer. At least I know I’m not alone.

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Filed under * Editing choices