Below are a few of the most common mistakes I have found in students’ writing. They are also some of the more trickier rules in grammar– interesting correlation, no? So I’ve compiled a list with basic explanations in order to alleviate some of this confusion.
1- Your and You’re
These two always, always, always, trip up my students. Admittedly, I get a little confused, too, at times and autocorrect doesn’t help. However, the basic rule to remember is the difference between using the possessive pronoun and using a contraction.
Your is a possessive pronoun. It’s helpful to think of it as a form of the word “you”, as in “I edited your paper” or “I love your blog”. It is a possessive pronoun in that it means the paper and the blog in the above sentences belong to, well, you.
You’re, on the other hand, is a contraction; more specifically, it’s a contraction of you and are. For example, you can say “You’re right, this blog is awesome” or “That paper you’re working on is coming along great”.
See the difference? When trying to figure out when to use you’re or your, think of what you’re trying to say. What always helps me is to substitute them with “you are” and see if it makes sense. “You are doing so well” make sense, so you can use the contraction you’re. “Congrats on you are A” doesn’t, so you have to use your.
2- Its and It’s
Okay, here’s when it starts to get a little trickier. The difference between its and it’s is similar to your and you’re– one’s a possessive pronoun and and the other is a contraction. But, how they are formed is a little confusing.
It’s seems like the possessive of it, yes? Well, no.
It’s is, instead, the contraction of it and is. Weird, I know. Apostrophe and all, it’s is used like this: “It’s important to avoid grammar mistakes”.
Its, on the other hand, is the possessive of it. You use it like this: “My paper! I lost one of its pages”. The pages, of course, mean they belong to the paper itself. So, you can think of “its” being like her or his, possessive pronouns (more on parts of speech later) that show ownership of something.
3- Than and Then
This is the hardest rule to keep straight; I say this because this trips me up, too. What’s so difficult about than v. then is that it’s not a difference of pronouns or contractions, but of conjunctions and adverbs.
I know. Let me explain.
Than is a conjunction (specifically a subordinating conjunction, but we can get into that later). Conjunctions conjoin — they bring together two parts of a sentence, whether it’s nouns, clauses, or sentences. Than works to compare two items, as in: “It’s better to do well than to fail” or “I like this topic choice more than that one.”
Then is an adverb (again, more on that later) that relates to the passage of time.
You can use then in ways like the following example:
“I started working on my essay but then realized I needed some help.”
Unlike than, you can use then to begin a sentence:
“First, you begin by brainstorming. Then, you can work on an outline.”
It is a bit tricky, but it’s actually not very hard to keep straight once you get the hang of it. The easiest way to remember this is that the “e” in then is in “time“. It’s cheesy but it works.