Common Mistakes with Simple Rules to Avoid Them

Many people are let down by their written English. When should you use an apostrophe, and where should you put it? Avoid mistakes by learning a few simple rules.

Apostrophes are a real stumbling block for many people, as are alternative such as “lying” or “laying.” There is no need to panic because taking a look at the rationale behind different alternative can help you to choose the right one for the sentence.

Apple’s or Apples?

An apostrophe either shows that letters are missing, or that something belongs to something else. They are never used just for plurals. Even when putting an “s” after acronyms to make them plural you should never use an apostrophe. Just write “MPs” or “CEOs” and let the difference between capital and small letters make your meaning clear. If you think it would be really confusing, expand the acronym, e.g. “Members of Parliament”, “Chief Executive Officers“.

The apostrophe for possession always comes straight after the thing or person which has possession of something else. If you are confused about where exactly to put the apostrophe with plurals remember the trick of changing it for “belonging to”. For example, if a child needs a signature from one parent for a school event then he needs his “parent‘s signature” – the signature belonging to the parent. If he needs the signature of both parents then he needs his “parents’ signature”. The apostrophe comes after the “s” because he needs the signature belonging to his parents. In the same way you may have hated “last week‘s meeting” – the meeting that belonged to (took place in) last week, but you would ask for “two weeks’ wages in advance” – the wages belonging to the following two weeks.

It is the same with names ending in “s”. Something belonging to James is James’, not Jame‘s (because that would mean it belonged to Jame, not James). With names ending in “s” it is acceptable to put another “s” after the apostrophe (James’s) but that is up to personal taste.

Lay or Lie?

Another one that confuses people is whether they should use “lay” or “lie” for the act of reclining. One reason for the difficulty is that “lay” is the past tense of “lie”. You can say “I lay down last night” but can you say “I will lay down just now”? The answer is no. In the present and future tenses “lie” is something you do yourself but “lay” is something you do to something else (or someone else does to you). For example you can lay a table, because that is something you do to the table. And your lover can lay you down on the bed, because that is something he or she does to you. But you yourself can only lie down on the bed, not lay.

In the same way, a thing cannot simply “lay”, because this is an act you can only do to something else. So you can say “The dog was just lying there.” but not “The dog was just laying there.” When in doubt ask yourself “Am I just doing it (lie) or am I doing it to something or someone else (lay)?

I Was Sat or I Was Sitting?

This one is very similar to the “lay” or “lie” problem. You can say “I sat in that chair” but can you say “I was sat in that chair”? Again, the answer is no. Although it is correct in some dialects and has become widespread, “was sat” is a mistake if you are talking about something you just did yourself. If somebody had picked up up and sat you in the chair then you were sat, but if you did it yourself the correct phrase is “was sitting”.

To remember it, compare it to the present tense: You would say “I sit in this chair” so you also say “I was sitting in this chair”. “I was sat” and “I am sat” apply only to cases where you were physically moved by someone else – a pretty rare occurrence for most adults!

X and Me or X and I?

A lot of people have trouble knowing when to use I and when to use me in sentences such as “John and I had coffee” or “Paul shouted at John and me.” Some people think the solution is always to use “I”, believing that this sounds more formal. Always using “I”, however, not only leads to mistakes but also makes the user sound pompous.

In fact there is a very simple way to decide whether “I” or “me” is right in a particular sentence: simply take out the name of the other person (or people) and the confusion will disappear. For example, is it “Thank you for speaking with John and me.” or “Thank you for speaking with John and I.”? Take out John’s name: “Thank you for speaking with me.” (No-one would say “Thank you for speaking with I.”)

“The Chief Executive and me had a quick meeting.” or “The Chief Executive and I had a quick meeting.”? Take out the Chief Executive: “I had a quick meeting.” By remembering this rule you need never be confused by this again. Always remember, though, that in formal speech and writing you should put yourself (whether “I” or “me”) after the names of the other people.

Your or You’re?

Apostrophes always show that letters are missing, except when they indicate possession, i.e. that something belongs to someone. This is a rule you can use to know which form of “your” / “you’re” to use. In “you’re” something is missing after the “you”. It’s the letter “a”, because “you’re” is short for “you are”. In “your” there is no apostrophe so nothing is missing. This form of “your” just means that something belongs to “you”. It’s just like “our”, which is never spelled “ou’re”.

Therefore, if the sentence could be changed so that “you are” replaced “you’re”, you should use “you’re” with the apostrophe: “You’re so funny!” is like “You are so funny!” But if you could replace it with “that belongs to you” then you should use “your” with no apostrophe: “I like your new car” is like “I like the new car that belongs to you.” Try replacing the “your” / “you’re” in the sentence like this to check which one to use, and you won’t go far wrong.

Its or It’s?

This is a more difficult one because by rights both “it’s” meaning “it is” and “its” meaning “belonging to it” should have apostrophes – the first one because the letter “i” is missing and the second one because it indicates possession. However it would be confusing if they were spelled the same way so “its” meaning “belonging to it” has lost its apostrophe. In this case, remember that missing letters always have an apostrophe but words indicating belonging only usually have an apostrophe. For example “ours” and “yours” don’t have an apostrophe.

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