Avoid This Common Grammar Mistake With This Simple Trick

common grammar mistake - banana skin

I love how the conversational style of blogs helps us connect, almost like we’re sitting around, drinking coffee, having a friendly chat.

But suppose one of your buddies talked about taking his ‘dig’ for a walk. Silence would briefly descend as your coffee mates figured out what he means. They would quickly realize he’s referring to his dog. But damage would have been done.

The brief pause would throw off the rhythm of the conversation. The topic would shift to cats.

The woman he’s trying to impress would suddenly remember an urgent meeting. The rest of the gang would be left wondering why he was confused. Is he stupid? Is the coffee drugged? Is he having a stroke?

I feel much the same every time someone makes the baddest, most common grammar mistake:

confusing it’s (it is) with its (belonging to it).

People make this mistake because they remember the rule about using an apostrophe with a possessive. Trouble is they forget this hulking exception.

Some people go further, writing (cringe) its’, to indicate a possessive. Its’ is not a word. Sadly, even spell-check seems to be unaware of this.

You’re probably thinking I’m one of those grammar Nazis out to spoil your writing fun. Actually, I’m a recovered grammar Nazi.

I no longer fight for grammatical purity. Now I lay down my weapons when I think a purpose is no longer served by a rule, such as the prohibition of dangling prepositions or the insistence on serial commas. But I stand tall in defending the distinctions that help us understand each other.

In addition to the incompletely remembered apostrophes-and-possessives rule, which also affects its twin cousins you’re and your and they’re and their, people make this mistake because the words sound the same.

Don’t get me started about the long list of sound-alike words otherwise smart people routinely abuse. Spell-check won’t catch them; it can only lull you into a false sense of complacency.

It may be human nature to go back to what sounds right when you’re uncertain. But in cases like these, this usually reliable technique can lead you horribly astray.

The worst example I can remember was the executive I was editing who wrote about ‘dissimulating’ information, the opposite of his intended purpose, to ‘disseminate’ information. I am not making this up.

Although everyone from TV news crawl writers to school teachers makes this all-too-common mistake, bloggers are among the most frequent offenders. I attribute this to the conversational style of blogs, the disdain for time-sucking revisions and the automatic default to what sounds correct.

Let me stress that this fat exception to the rule matters.
Ignore it and some people you’d like to get to know better will abandon you or question your intelligence. The flow may be disrupted while readers consider what you mean. What’s more, this mistake is the kind of detail that can prevent you from standing out in our competitive world.

The fix does not require a return to boring high school grammar classes. All it takes is a commitment to learning one rule: it’s means it is; its means belong to it. That’s all you have to remember.

Most of you remember the exception i before e except after c because it rhymes. So try this:

It’s, apostrophe, means it is
Its is possessive, just like his

Recite that enough times and you will never fall into this trap again.

One small rule: one giant leap for everyone who writes. Pass the soy milk, please.

About the author

Barb Sawyers

Barb Sawyers writes about writing and communication. She will soon publish an interactive e-book called Write like you talk - only better, 3 steps to turn good talkers into great writers.