Painful contractions (No pregnancy involved!)

As a writer, language is the currency of my daily life, but as an editor, it is the correct use of that language that is of the utmost importance.

One of the most common mistakes seen in blogs, letters, advertising and – gasp – even in books, involves a contraction: it’s. For those non-grammarians among us, a contraction is a shortened form of a pair of words that uses an apostrophe to replace the missing letters. We all use them in our writing and our speaking – they are the perfect language constructs for the hectic pace of 21st century life and our Twitter/texting-filled world. So, let’s* get them right!

It’s* easy – or it should be.  It’s is the shortened version of it is. Subject (it) and verb (is) are wrapped up into one small package. No need for four letters when three will do: time’s a-wasting. Get out the carving knife and chop that offending extra letter out of there!

Done.  But now comes the tricky part: using the contraction correctly. Unfortunately for the writer, our contraction has a fraternal twin: the possessive pronoun its.

They sound alike and their spelling is similar, but not identical, and that’s* where the grammarian’s frustration begins. The Blue Book of Grammar and Punctuation (Jane Straus, Jossey-Bass) calls it the #1 grammar error, and my own experience bears out the truth of that assertion. Its – the error’s –appearances are legion.

Its, the unassuming possessive pronoun, modifies – or refers back to — a noun. For example, in the sentenceImage The subway rumbled along on its tracks, its refers to the subway. Now, try substituting its fraternal twin, it’s, and you have a sentence that says The subway rumbled along on it is tracks. Does that make sense? Of course not! Yet, it’s surprising how often otherwise intelligent, educated people make this mistake in their writing.

Don’t* add your voice to this off-key chorus! Believe me, editors, recruiters and colleagues will notice and will judge you harshly, generally at a time when that all-important good first impression is needed. You can blame it on your spell-checker, but you may not get the chance. So, think when you write and proofread your copy before you hit the Send button.

Try replacing its or it’s with it is and see if it makes sense, then adjust accordingly. You’ll save yourself from appearing ignorant and you’ll save us editors a great deal of aggravation. In fact, I can feel my blood pressure dropping already!

P.S.  Feel free to share some of the real life examples you see in the news or in advertisements!

*Contraction

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