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Grammar 101: A Quick Guide

Grammar 101: A Quick Guide

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Updated on Feb 14, 2009

Adults and kids alike battle those pesky marks called punctuation, and that struggle is even more important in an era of text messaging and Twitter tweets. "Don't for a minute believe that the Internet has revolutionized writing to the point where anything goes," says Becky Burckmyer, author of Awesome Grammar. In a world where your child texts a whole conversation on a cell phone screen, or your teen types an email using lowercase letters only (and no periods), a refresher course on the finer points of grammar – such as verb and preposition use, the elusive apostrophe, and capitalization – is helpful.

If your teen is rusty with rules, consider re-introducing some of the following elements. Just don't do it all at once. Look over one of her latest essays, choose one or two mistakes to focus on, help her to recognize why they are errors, and offer pointers, like the ones below. After she understands the difference between lie versus lay, for instance, she can move on to the next task: your and you're.

To get you started, Burckmyer offers tips on the most common grammar gaffes:

The Major Mix-Ups

“Your Going to You’re Room!”

This is wrong, wrong, wrong. Your is a pronoun – the possessive form of you, referring to something that belongs to a person: your textbook, or your sweatshirt. You’re, however, is a contraction of you are – the apostrophe signals that two words have been combined. The heading above should read, “You’re going to your room!”

Lie vs. Lay

Don’t fret – many people mix these verbs up. Lay is a transitive verb – it’s what you do with an object: “I lay the blanket on the bed.” Lie, on the other hand, is an intransitive verb – it’s what you do to yourself: “I lie on my sofa and watch TV.”

The stinker: the past tense of lie is lay. Annoying, isn’t it? It may help to memorize the tenses:

  • lie/lay/lain/lying
  • lay/laid/laid/laying

“Over There! They’re Coming in Their Rescue Ship!”

Yes, this is a tricky trio of homonyms. If you know what each word means, you’ll have a better idea of how to use them:

Their: belonging to them (“their iPods”)

There: in that place (“the gym is over there”); also used in “there is” and “there are” (“there are snowflakes in the sky”)

They’re: a contraction of they are (“they’re moving to Denver”)

The Stickiness of Its and It’s

Possessive pronouns – including yours, his, hers, and theirs – never have an apostrophe in them. Its and whose are also part of this list. The apostrophe indicates a contraction: it is (or it has) and who is (or who has).

If you’re in doubt as to whether you should write its or it’s, try to substitute belonging to it, it is, or it has, says Burckmyer. Consider this sentence:

The playful puggle jumped out of its/it’s cage.

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