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Let’s kick off the review session by addressing a confusion that will get you relentlessly and uninterestingly mocked: homophonic pairs. These are pairs like your and you’re or affect and effect, which are pronounced the same but spelled differently. Even if you know the difference between them, you’re still going to screw them up occasionally, especially in quick emails or when you’re writing with your attention wandering. (I probably type the wrong one about 1% of the time, which doesn’t sound like too much until you think about how often one of these words gets used.)

I’m going to look at a subset of these homophonic pairs here, the ones where one member of the pair is a contraction. These are the aforementioned your/you’re, as well as their/there/they’re, its/it’s, and whose/who’s.

In all four of these cases, the word with the apostrophe is the one that can be written as two words. You’re is the contraction for you are, they’re is they are, it’s is it is, and who’s is who is. Thus:

(1a) Do you mind if I dance with your date?
(1b) It seems you’re [you are] offended for some reason.

(2a) I think those tourists left their suitcases behind.
(2b) Yup, those suitcases over there.
(2c) Let’s see if they’re [they are] full of money.

(3a) I couldn’t open the suitcase because its lock was too strong.
(3b) I know, it’s [it is] a shame.

(4a) Do you know anyone whose skill set includes lock-picking?
(4b) Wait, who’s [who is] a cop?

Pretty straightforward, right? The words with the apostrophes are always contractions of two words, a pronoun and a form of the verb be. The words without apostrophes are possessives (and also the locative there). It seems like you ought to just remember apostrophes = two words, no apostrophes = possessives. Easy peasy.

But if it’s so easy, why is it so hard? The trouble is that these homophones don’t exist in a vacuum, and the rest of English exists to sow confusion. When you think of forming a possessive, no doubt your first thought is of the apostrophe-s. That’s because most (singular) nouns are made possessive with apostrophe-s: rabbit’s foot, someone else’s fault, etc. As a result, it’s and who’s look possessive even though they’re not.

The trick is that (personal) pronouns never use apostrophe-s in their possessive forms; in fact, many of them don’t even use an s.* They have their own special forms: my, your, his, her, its, our, their. If you remember that pronouns don’t take apostrophe-s, then its/it’s and whose/who’s are a lot easier to decide between.

Another way to think about it is that only one member of the pair can have the apostrophe (otherwise there’d be no confusion). And connecting two contracted words needs an apostrophe more than signalling possession does. Since there’s only one apostrophe to go around, the contraction gets it over the possessive.**

Summary: If your and you’re or it’s and its are confusing you, remember that contractions always have an apostrophe, and possessive pronouns never do.

*: Never say never. Impersonal (one) and indefinite (e.g., everybody) pronouns do take apostrophe-s. Luckily, these ones don’t have as prominent of homophones and don’t cause many problems for writers.

**: Of course, that’s merely a mnemonic. There is no rule of English that says this, and the historical development that led to pronomial possessives not having apostrophes was not a result of this.

It’s the day after Labor Day, the traditional first day of school in my hometown. With the end of summer vacation comes a sound in the distance, the slow, steady approach of writing assignments. And so, as a fellow whose classes are still nearly a month away (ah, the quarter system!), I thought I’d toss together some basic grammar review for the new school year.

This series is going to be somewhat different from the rest of my posts; the matters under discussion are mostly settled, and I’ll be more prescriptivist than usual because they’re guidelines for writing that’s graded as much on adherence to Edited English as it is graded on content. I’m still going to let you know when a rule’s bunkum, but I might say it’s well-regarded bunkum that you’d be wise to adhere to.

Lastly, I’m trying to make this series accessible and simple, but I’m sure I’ll be coming up short of those goals in these first iterations. I’d love any advice or criticism of it that you’re willing to give, because I’d like to revise and improve these posts in the future. So thanks in advance for your comments.

The Back-to-School Reviews so far:
I: Confusing contractions (your, you’re and the lot) [09/04/12]

I was recently blindsided by one of the lesser dangers of the quarter system: that everyone else seems to be back in school. Because UC San Diego has three quarters instead of two semesters, I’ll remain out of school for another couple weeks, a benefit I pay for with classes extending into mid-June, a Faustian bargain if ever one were.

Of course, many of you have entered into an even more Faustian bargain, trading your summers off for silly baubles like “good pay” or “dental insurance”. In light of that, I thought maybe you’d want to relive your wild university days, the excitement of seeing your schoolchums again, and the heady rush of a new school year laid out before your feet for the taking.

I can’t quite offer that, but what I can give you is a reading list — a syllabus, if you will — of back-to-school books that I’ve enjoyed and that I think you might enjoy as well, to trick your brain into thinking it’s back in school. Here goes:

[Reading a book on the beach]

In the Land of Invented Languages, Arika Okrent. This book arrived in y mailbox as a free addition to Origins of the Specious, and I didn’t expect much of it. I’d never been fond of invented languages, as they struck me as the work of utopian prescriptivists — a better sort of person than a haughty prescriptivist, but still not my cup of tea.

But the book looks at the differing motivations for constructed languages, from the squaring-the-circle task of creating perfectly precise languages to the pragmatic task of creating simplified languages that help people with communication problems. There were two significant realizations I got out of this book. One was simply that constructed languages were more than mere flights of hobbyist fancy. The second is best summarized by Okrent: “This is a story about why language refuses to be cured and why it succeeds, not in spite of, but because of, the very qualities that the language inventors have tried to engineer away.”

Okrent threads through the book her attempt at learning Klingon, making the book into a kind of travelogue through the land of invented languages, not just an sterile discussion of them. It’s a fun read, and very informative, especially if invented languages are your thing. If not, it’s still a worthwhile read, because Okrent manages to use invented languages as an investigative tool into the nature of natural languages.

The Fight for English, David Crystal. First off, David Crystal is a master. He writes books, blog posts, articles, everything, with a prodigiousness that would make rabbits blush. And somehow everything he writes is good! But, if I’m being honest, I’d never read any of his books until I was back in Pittsburgh and found this one at Half Price Books.

In it, Crystal details the history of English, the history of English usage, and the history of English usage advice. He discusses the various historical influences on our bastard tongue, the desire and need for standardized English, and attempts to create and teach it. Famous thinkers and writers pass by, each trying their hand at fixing English. Times change, and the grammatical becomes ungrammatical. Times change more, and the ungrammatical becomes grammatical again. Through it all, Crystal provides calm guidance through the tempest, offering a much-needed antidote to the shrill complaints thrown by English’s “defenders” and the lackadaisical unconcern shown by others, all wrapped in a persistently amusing package.

My dad actually read the book before I could, and reported back to me that he thoroughly enjoyed it and that now he understood what I talk about on this blog. Can I offer much more than that in way of praise?

Language Myths, ed. Laurie Bauer & Peter Trudgill. Another used bookstore find, this one from only a week or two ago, when I found a Japanese store with an entire aisle of $1 used books. (I bought 10.) This is a bit more academic than the other books above, but it’s well worth it. It’s a collection of short essays, 8-9 pages each, investigating and debunking various language myths.

Unlike the smaller myths I tend to talk about, this book hits the more general ones — among others, that women talk too much, that some languages are strictly better than others, that everyone has an accent but me — and coolly analyzes them. Some are revealed as complete myths, others as grains of truth in a wheat-field of misinterpretation. I’m only halfway through, so maybe the end is terrible, but so far it’s exceeded my expectations. Try this on for size if you’re in the mood for something a little more academic, to really get back to the college vibe.

Lies My Teacher Told Me, James W. Loewen. This last one isn’t about language, but it is about learning, and it’s one of my all-time favorite books. Loewen studies the most commonly used American history textbooks and examines how they systemically distort our (and our children’s) understanding of both history and our modern world. From unthinking American exceptionalism to hero worship to the belittling of those whose views don’t fit the mainstream, Loewen shows the ways that our young minds were filled with bad information.

The book is especially relevant now, as a large swath of the populace garbs itself in the clothing of the Founding Fathers and the Constitution and the early days of the Republic. We must be careful not to simplify the past, nor to think of it as a preordained battle between the good guys (who invariably won) and the bad (who never seem to have compelling arguments). Historical times are not qualitatively different from the modern day, but you’d never know it from how we’re taught history. This is a book that can make you mad, but in that good I-want-to-change-the-world way.

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A lot of people make claims about what "good English" is. Much of what they say is flim-flam, and this blog aims to set the record straight. Its goal is to explain the motivations behind the real grammar of English and to debunk ill-founded claims about what is grammatical and what isn't. Somehow, this was enough to garner a favorable mention in the Wall Street Journal.

About Me

I'm Gabe Doyle, currently a postdoctoral scholar in the Language and Cognition Lab at Stanford University. Before that, I got a doctorate in linguistics from UC San Diego and a bachelor's in math from Princeton.

In my research, I look at how humans manage one of their greatest learning achievements: the acquisition of language. I build computational models of how people can learn language with cognitively-general processes and as few presuppositions as possible. Currently, I'm working on models for acquiring phonology and other constraint-based aspects of cognition.

I also examine how we can use large electronic resources, such as Twitter, to learn about how we speak to each other. Some of my recent work uses Twitter to map dialect regions in the United States.



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