Back-to-school grammar tips

Heading back to school? Here are some grammar basics to make the school year easier.

Don’t write “it’s” in place of “its.” When you want to show possession, as in “The dog wagged its tail,” don’t use an apostrophe. Instead, use “it’s” only when you mean “it is” or “it has”: It’s raining. It’s been nice talking to you.

Don’t write “your” in place of “you’re.” If you want to tell someone “you are right,” the shorter form is “you’re right.” The one without an apostrophe, “your,” shows possession: Is that your phone?

Don’t write “who’s” when you mean “whose.” With an apostrophe, “who’s” means “who is” or “who has”: Who’s there? Who’s been eating my porridge? “Whose” deals with possession: Whose car is that?

Know the difference between “they’re,” “their” and “there.” Seeing a pattern here? Apostrophes cause a lot of confusion. “They’re” with an apostrophe means “they are”: They’re nice. “Their” shows possession: Their grades got better. “There” is a location, “Put it there,” or a way to say something exists, “There are a lot of people outside.”

Be careful with “let’s” and “lets.” “Let’s” is a contraction meaning “let us”: Let’s eat! Without an apostrophe, it’s a verb conjugated for a third-person subject: Troy lets his dog off the leash.

Don’t use an apostrophe to make a plural. Words ending in vowels — like tuba, tsunami, boo, hello and bayou — look weird when you put an S at the end. But that’s how you make them plural: tubas, tsunamis, boos, hellos, bayous. That applies to proper names, too. Jane and Sam Newberry are the Newberrys. No apostrophe, unless you want to put one after the S to show joint possession, like “the Newberrys’ house.”

Use “could have” or “could’ve,” never “could of.” It may sound like your friend is saying “I could of eaten that whole pizza,” but he’s not. He’s saying, “I could’ve.”

Use “affect” as a verb and “effect” as a noun: Caffeine doesn’t affect me. That drug has bad side effects. (In rare cases, “effect” can be a verb meaning to bring something about: “to effect positive change.” Even rarer, “affect” can be a noun meaning mental state. But you’ll probably never need those.)

Here are six more tips in my recent column.

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