Precision: its or it’s?

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To use its or it’s… It’s one of the bizarre sticking points that I see lots of usually accurate writers using inaccurately, and yet it’s quite simple. See, I’ve used it already. It’s one of the things that REALLY tells me if someone knows how to use punctuation properly. Yet it’s so simple that when you know how to do it, you will never get it wrong!

I have a confession to make, though.

My uncle had to correct me at the age of 22. After that, I brushed up on the (quite simple) rule and never looked back.

The problem is to do with possession and omission. Whether you own stuff or or whether something is missed out.

Some apostrophes show that something is missing. They show omission. Like he’s going to be really angry when he finds out. 

I’ve missed out the letter i from he is and bunched it all up. Some people call it an apostrophe of contraction, since you are making something a little shorter. You’re contracting it.

So, didn’t, won’t, shouldn’t, wouldn’t, don’t, can’t, I’m, you’re, we’re, they’re, I’ve, I’d, you’d, you’ve… they all miss something out. The o is the first thing to go in ‘not’. The second thing to go is in the verbs ‘to be’ and ‘to have’

I am = I’m, you are = you’re, he is/she is = he’s/she’s.

You get the picture.

Well, to be fair, had I continued, you’d see where it’s fits. It’s right in there with he’s and she’sThe little apostrophe shows there’s a missing i. Like in there’sCan’t stop doing it. It-apostrophe-s is ALWAYS a shortcut for it is or it has. 

Look at this diagram:

possession or omission - Plain

 

Some things ALWAYS go on the right, in the omission bit. The trick is to ask two questions…

1. Does something belong to it?

If yes, it goes in the possession bit. If no, it goes in the omission bit

2. Is there a letter missing?

Like this…

flowchart apostrophes - New Page

(click to enlarge…)

So when I see a little apostrophe, my first thought is “what belongs to this word?”

That’s where it gets tricky with itsBecause things belong to it. For the sake of argument, let’s talk about my car. Its length. Its height. Its colour. Its wheels. Its seats. Its windscreen. 

Well, it means the car and stuff belongs to it. Like its seatsThe seats belong to the car. So I might be tempted to stick a little apostrophe in there. It’s. It’s wheels. It’s seats. Because the apostrophe shows that something belongs to it.

And that’s where the problem lies. Because it’s only ever means it is or it has. Ever. See how it’s sitting up there in the ‘omission only’ circle on the Venn diagram?

So if I am tempted to say it’s wheels I mean it is wheels which makes no sense at all! It could mean it has wheelsbut then do you know what we do, to be clear with it has? We say ‘it has’. I wouldn’t say it’s wheels if I meant it has wheelsI’d say it has wheelsIt’s like our brain knows it’s confusing.

Because really its belongs to a group of words called possessive determiners (or possessive adjectives). They determine that something possesses stuff without an apostrophe. Like these.

My

Your

His

Her

Its

Our

Your

Their

Some lovely tricky ones in there as well that like to get mixed up with other stuff.

But you can see how it goes.

my shoes, your coat, his hat, her scarf, its door, our car, your house, their shoes.

And for best?

my best, your best, his best, her best, its best, our best, your best, their best. 

That gets a little more complicated.

But, the trick is to ask yourself… do I mean it is or it has? If I do, then I need an apostrophe. If I’m still not clear or certain, I go to my second line of attack… can I replace its by his or their?

If I can replace the word by his or her or their, then I don’t need an apostrophe.

And if you put an apostrophe in, like this example, MY brain reads it is and that hurts my brain a lot. I’m not the only one.

Sometimes, it isn’t just annoying, though. It can change the meaning of the whole sentence. (Swear alert!)

 

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Precision: semi-colons

To some people, the semi-colon is a hideous creature. Poet Michael Rosen is one of those people. He says the semi-colon is “neither fish nor fowl”. He means it has no point, no purpose. It’s neither full stop nor comma.

Now, I disagree.

A semi-colon is a beautiful, beautiful mark. Perhaps it is the most beautiful of all the punctuation, if you ask me. It is a pivot. It’s a beautiful little balance that joins together, marrying sentences together like an efficient vicar.

Of course, at the base of it, it sits where a full stop or a coordinating conjunction could go.

Consider this:

Cats are whimsical, independent and somewhat neurotic; dogs are loyal, dependable and sometimes completely crackers.

Yes, it could be a full stop.

Cats are whimsical, independent and somewhat neurotic. Dogs are loyal, dependable and sometimes completely crackers.

Or it could be a conjunction.

Cats are whimsical, independent and somewhat neurotic whereas dogs are loyal, dependable and sometimes completely crackers.

Cats are whimsical, independent and somewhat neurotic, and dogs are loyal, dependable and sometimes completely crackers.

The first alternatives are fine, but too matter-of-fact for me. There’s nothing really that tells you these ideas are connected, other than your own fine head. If you don’t have a fine head, I might want to tell you that there’s a little Alice-in-Wonderland mirror in that semi-colon where one thing is reflected in the second.

Let’s face it, we have punctuation to tell people what to do. It says stop. It says go. It says the tone has changed! Does it tell you my mood? It tells you if I’m feeling… uncertain. It tells you that I’m explaining something: punctuation is bossy. It tells you I’m disjointed – or disconnected. It makes sense of things like a man-eating tiger and a man eating tiger. It tells you that somet’ing is missin’ and it tells you how I, the writer, wants you to read something. It can add a little something (like when you want to put in additional thoughts) to your work. And if we didn’t have punctuation it would make it fairly hard for most of the population who would then have to ponder about where you would want them to stop or go or how you would want them to proceed because sentences are very important and punctuation is the stuff that makes them without them our words are just mushed up mess and we might as well not have anything at all which would make it a lot easier for some people to write but a lot harder for most people to read. Punctuation governs. It marshals. It is a busy little sheepdog rounding up all the crazy words that hang around a lexical field and makes them jump through hoops. It nips at their heels. It sends them in whatever direction you think they should go in.

Capiche?

Punctuation was invented for a reason.

It’s bossy and magical.

That’s probably what I like about it.

And the semi-colon has a beautiful purpose. Its purpose is to marry two ideas together. It reflects ideas. And it is beautiful. Make no mistake about that. It’s a ballerina of punctuation marks, pivoting and turning. It’s the point on which the whole sentence pirouettes. It dances; it turns. It allows you to make one point and lead a reader; it allows you to turn and make another. It forms a beautiful bond between two ideas; it marries them and links them forever in ways that a full stop can never do. A semi-colon brings clauses together; a full stop divorces them.

A semi-colon is therefore a beautiful wedding of a punctuation mark; do not let what one man has joined be torn asunder.

It doesn’t matter if the clause before comes loaded with punctuation marks of its own, like the humble (and almost ungovernable) comma; the semi-colon can cope with a sentence as long as you want beforehand, with as much non-stop punctuation as you care to use.

A semi-colon is mathematical; sometimes I like to ensure the clause before has the same number of words and mathematical cadence as the clause after it. Sometimes I like to use it to be playful in ways that most other punctuation isn’t.

It’s a misunderstood mark. It’s so much easier to use than a comma (and you can check out the centuries-old arguments about the Oxford comma if you disagree) and it’s so clean and perfect. It makes the reader work to my rhythm.

Kurt Vonnegut said that the only reason to use a semi-colon is to show you’ve been to college. He might be right. But a semi-colon does things that other marks just do not do. No, there aren’t hard-and-fast rules about where it should go (though I’m pretty clear on where it can’t) and yet it’s so easy to use. It makes language dance. It is a beautiful and glorious shift-and-echo.

Consider:

“Management is doing things right; leadership is doing the right things.”
(Peter Drucker)

What I don’t like is how Mr Michael Rosen tries to use Dickens to further his argument: “I like to punctuate them [sentences] with full stops and not semi-colons. I got this from a writer I like. His names is Charles Dickens.”

He is obviously forgetting the most beautifully-balanced semi-colon use of all:

“There were a king with a large jaw and a queen with a plain face, on the throne of England; there were a king with a large jaw and a queen with a fair face, on the throne of France.”

That’d be Dickens. See how he uses the semi-colon to reflect the ideas from the first bit into the second? It’s perfect for comparing two things.

So… rules (because the semi-colon has them!)

  1. You must always ask yourself if you can replace it with a full stop. If you cannot, you need something else. It has a little bit of that full stop in it.
  2. You should also ask yourself if you want to connect the two main ideas in the two bits on either side. Could you use and or whereas? If you can, a semi-colon will be perfect.
  3. Don’t feel like you need to write a list in order to show that you can use them. It looks rubbish and never works.

And those are the rules. Simple, aren’t they?

Now, bearing in mind that As and A*s write beautifully-crafted and governed sentences, you can see why this piece of punctuation can contribute to over-all A*ness. It’s all about making those words do what you want them to do, and punctuation is a deft way of controlling them, like a sheepdog around sheep.

Plus, if we had no semi-colons, how would I do this? ;)

An online wink is just about the nicest thing to do with a semi-colon. So yah boo, Michael Rosen.

Precision: hyphens

Hyphens are those little lines that marry words together. They look like this.

So the dash is the one that shows a pause between ideas – like this one. There is a space on either side. When you hyphenate things, like in this so-called example, there is no space.*

So what does a hyphen do? Well, it’s both the marriage and divorce of words. It brings together and it tears asunder. So it gives us fifty-odd (about fifty) and it gives us re-sign (to sign again) Just to be clear, the jury is still out on exactly where it should be used, but let’s just say its main purpose is CLARITY. It makes things stick together that need to stick together, and it separates bits of words that we need to stress. 

Plus, some things that we hyphenate kind of stop being hyphenated. Like e-mailWho writes e-mail these days? It’s usually email, yes? Purists might disagree. Again, think about if one is needed to make the meaning clear. I’ll show you some examples later. But if you write email nobody is going to get confused about what you mean. We English writers like hyphens more than our New World English-speaking neighbours. Do you see what I did there? English-speaking neighbours. Because I need you to see these two words as connected. They aren’t English, speaking (they speak and they are English) but they speak English. 

So why is it important? 

Because it is about precision with punctuation. Past a B grade, I should be able to write clearly and precisely, using punctuation that clarifies meaning. And that includes the humble hyphen. If you want an A or A* at GCSE, then you need to make sure you aren’t making errors with this tiny little marriage-of-words piece of punctuation.

So…. the rules. 

Most importantly, use it to join together two or more words that you need to be considered together. If they shouldn’t be split up, marry them together with a hyphen. When you use a hyphen, it’s like those words become one word on their own. 

Mostly, we use them with adjectives before a noun. We don’t use them with adjectives after a noun. So I say a well-known singer or a singer who is well knownWe use it a lot with well before nouns. Well-read books, well-spoken young man, a well-adjusted teenager, a well-behaved dogBUT: books that are well read, a young man who is well spoken, a teenager who is well adjusted, a dog that is well behaved

We also use them with post and pre. Like post-war, pre-school, post-apocalyptic, pre-punk. 

If you want a more-technical breakdown, the Oxford Dictionary is a good place to start. Final rule… don’t use it with adverbs ending in ‘ly’ because they usually describe the adjective. 

Like this:

casually discarded clothes

casually describes the adjective discarded. The clothes aren’t casually. That makes no sense. However, casual-wear cardigan works because I want you to think of casual and wear as stuck together. One idea. 

So, look at the following examples

How is:

Three-year-old boys

different from

Three year-old boys?

(because one means boys in general who are three years old and the other means three boys who are one year old.)

hyphens

American-football players

American football players

From Pearson Longman's English Progess

A man eating tiger

A man-eating tiger

 

Some more important reasons

Some more-important reasons

 

more-educated students

more educated students

 

A government monitoring programme

A government-monitoring programme

This one is quite important. One means the government is being watched. The other means the government are watching something else.

I resent your message =

I re-sent your message =

Again, really important. The first one means you are really angry that the person sent you a message, and the other means you sent the message again. 

The football player resigned =

The football player re-signed =

Massively important. One means the player signs up again for the club, and the other means the player leaves the club. Completely different meanings! 

There are no smoking restrictions =

There are no-smoking restrictions =

 Again, total opposites. One means you can smoke and the other means you can’t. 

So, fifty odd people means fifty people who are odd. Fifty-odd people means around about fifty people. Re-signing is different from resigning. Narrative writing’s opposite is non-narrative writing. If your writing is not in time order, it is non-chronological writing. It’s a non-native English-speaking teacher, not a non native English speaking teacher or even a non-native-English-speaking and definitely not a non-native-English speaking teacher. That’s crazy! a speaking teacher who is non native English. What??! 

* unless it is a ‘hanging’ hyphen which means you’ve got two words that should be hyphenated to one. Like this example: eighteenth- and nineteenth-century literature. Because it should really be eighteeth-century and nineteenth-century literature.