Tag Archives: English grammar

its or it’s?

Use it correctly, please

Everyone seems to confuse its and it’s. Sometimes it seems like more people use it incorrectly than correctly! This mistake is all over the internet, and I can’t imagine how confusing it must be for all the non-native speakers who see this word misused and think that it must be correct– because if English is someone’s native language, they should be able to write it correctly, right?

Is this distinction really so confusing that even native speakers can’t use it correctly, or is it more that no one cares anymore what the difference is? Could we be in the middle of a grammatical shift or will we continue to judge the its/it’s mistake as grammatically uncouth?

Misuse of these two words will get you at best raised eyebrows, and at worst your resume discarded. Correct use does not actually make you competent in your field, but it does make you appear more competent, which is half the battle sometimes, isn’t it?

Just remember: its means possession and it’s means it is.

Possession: its

When something belongs to you, you say it’s yours.

That’s my mistake

That’s your problem

That’s his way

That’s her prerogative

That’s our opinion

That’s their loss

My, your, his, her, its, our, their

Notice how its belongs with his and her. It is exactly like he and she, but it has no gender, it is neither male nor female.

It=the monster

Its smile is terrifying. (The monster’s smile: his smile/her smile/its smile)

It=the unborn child.

We are keeping its gender a secret. (The child’s gender: his gender/her gender/its gender)

It=the dog on the street

Its dirty paws ruined my pants when it jumped on me! (The dog’s paws: his paws/her paws/its paws)

Notice that when we use a regular noun (the monster, the child, the dog) we use an apostrophe to show possession. But it doesn’t belong with nouns, it belongs with pronouns.

He, she, it → his, her, its

His, her, and its are new words that show possession, there is no “added s” (you don’t say hes and shes, do you?).

Contraction: it’s

When you have a regular noun, you add ‘s to show possession, but we just saw that it is the exception–it isn’t a noun, it is a pronoun. So it’s does not show possession.

it’s always means it is or it has

This is really simple. Read your sentence. If you can replace it’s with it is or it has then you’re right. If you can replace its with my, your, his, her, etc, then you’re right.

itsits

Click here to visit the YUNiversity.

In summary…

Its = my, your, his, her, its, our, their

The Dutch team impressed its foreign competition with its extraordinary command of the English language.

It’s = it is

It’s not a disaster if you use this incorrectly, but it does lose you points with a lot of people.

It’s been a while since we did a purely grammatical post, hasn’t it?

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Could you care less? | Macmillan

Grammar frequently doesn’t make sense. When you find yourself asking why, the answer is usually “that’s the way it has evolved.”

Macmillan Dictionary Blog has taken on the question of the logic of grammar and expressions in one of their recent posts Could you care less?

“We make the rules; they don’t spring from some utopian realm of transcendent consistency.”

via Could you care less? | Macmillan.

What I love about this post is that Macmillan argues that expressions don’t have to make sense. “I could care less,” one of those expressions that doesn’t make sense at all, actually means “I couldn’t care less” (read: I don’t care at all).

Why? Because everyone started using it that way.

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August 26, 2013 · 12:00 pm

Would you mind? Not at all.

English for your summer holiday

When it comes to English, it’s usually those sudden exchanges with strangers that throw you off, isn’t it? When you’re at the airport, ready to leave for your summer vacation, thinking in your own language and suddenly one of your fellow travelers is talking to you in English, you just might do a double-take. Come again?

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That confusion can be compounded if that stranger happens to be a native speaker and uses an expression that doesn’t necessarily make much sense.

I witnessed one such awkward moment the last time I was in the Amsterdam airport. A guy had his bag on the seat next to him in the waiting area, and the room was getting pretty full. So someone walked up to him and asked:

Would you mind moving your bag so I can sit there?

His answer? Yes.

What’s interesting is that the guy promptly moved his bag, so it was obvious that what he meant to say was no.

Would you Mind?

When someone asks “Would you mind?” they are asking “Would it bother you to…?” or “Could I trouble you to…?”

The polite answer is No, I wouldn’t mind!

After all, it doesn’t really take so much effort to move your bag from the empty seat next to you to allow a tired stranger to sit down. When you answer “no” you are actually saying that yes, you can do what was requested!

You can also say:

Not at all.

Of course not.

Be my guest.

For example:

Would you mind covering your nose when you sneeze? (Not at all, I’m sorry for being inconsiderate.)

Would you mind holding the door? (Here you go, after you!)

Would you mind if I opened the window? (Not at all, it’s quite warm in here!)

Yes, I mind!

Sometimes the answer to “Do you mind…?” is yes! However, just a “yes” or “yes, I mind” can be quite short and even a bit rude, so we try to tone it down a bit for the sake of politeness. For example, in most developed countries nowadays, you can’t smoke inside anywhere, so when someone asks you:

Would you mind if I smoke?

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You can answer

  • Well, actually yes. There’s a non-smoking sign right there, so maybe you could go outside?
  • Sorry, but yes. Inhaling your carcinogens makes me feel sick.

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Academic Writing: the author’s we

Writing actively

In academic writing, we talk about how we should try to write actively rather than passively. To craft clear, active sentences, many writers will have to use we at one point or another. Some writers try to avoid this completely, citing a misconstrued notion that avoiding we lends objectivity to your paper. Actually, we can be used in almost any academic paper to great effect.Academic Writing English Utrecht

Have you ever thought that we doesn’t always mean you and me?

You’ve probably heard of The Royal We (“We are not amused”), but there are a number of other non-traditional uses of we, one of which defends our use in academic writing.

The author’s we

The practice common in scientific literature of referring to a generic third person by we (instead of one or the informal you)

Ex: By adding three and five, we obtain eight.

Ex: We are thus led also to a definition of “time” in physics. — Albert Einstein

Here, “we” can refer to “the reader and the author”, since the author often assumes that the reader knows certain principles or previous theorems for the sake of brevity. This saves the author from needing to explicitly write out every step of a method or mathematical proof.

One of the purposes of the author’s we, according to the OED, is “to secure an impersonal style and tone, or to avoid the obtrusive repetition of I.”

To make this sound even more academic, use its latin name: pluralis modestiae.

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Writing in English: Why we use the passive voice

In a previous post about why we should make active voice writing the default, I gave some passive voice sentences and asked you to think about why I used them. Here are my answers:

1. At some point, my Dutch students were taught that you have to write in the passive voice to be formal.

Here, I don’t actually know the subject of my active voice sentence. I could make a guess: “Their high school teachers/Society/The national education system/Someone taught my Dutch students that you have to write in the passive voice to be formal.” I also wanted to put emphasis on the Dutch students and not who taught them.

2. Passive voice is frequently used as a way to remove the subject from the sentence.

Who uses passive voice as a way to remove the subject from the sentence? Well, we all do. I could add a subject: “We/Everyone/People use passive voice as a way to remove the subject…” but because that is such a general subject, I felt that it didn’t add anything to my sentence. In placing “Passive Voice” at the beginning of the sentence, I could emphasize it, which is logical since that’s what my blog post was about.

3. While much can be said about the passive voice,…

Here again I don’t have a subject. Who is saying much about the passive voice? No idea–maybe you, maybe me, maybe your English teacher? Not only do I remove an unimportant or unknown subject, I also put emphasis on the verb.

4. Rather, passive voice can be used to put emphasis on different parts of the sentence,…

This is obvious now, right? Who can use passive voice to put emphasis on different parts of the sentence? I don’t know–I’ve left that purposefully vague by using the passive voice. I’ve also emphasized “passive voice” by placing it in the beginning of the sentence.

To summarize, we frequently use passive voice when

  • We don’t have a subject or our subject is very general or unimportant to the context
  • We want to put emphasis on another part of the sentence (the object or verb usually) by placing it at the beginning of the sentence.

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Writing in English: active/passive voice

Writing clearly in English, even though it might be a foreign language for you, is a vital skill that can earn you the respect of your colleagues and superiors. Because not everyone has time to read more in English (the best way to become a better writer), you can learn some easy techniques to improve your writing. Here is one:

Write in the active voice

English Writing course UtrechtThe active voice. It’s the way we normally think–it’s like chronological order for reading. Subject…verb…object. This is the information we want to find in the sentence, and we want to find it as quickly as possible, in the order that we are expecting it. It’s so natural, so normal to write in the active voice that I am surprised when I read writing that is almost entirely in the passive voice. At some point, my Dutch students (and some foreign students as well) were taught that you have to write in the passive voice to be formal.

Passive voice is exactly the opposite of the active voice in terms of structure: Object…verb…(subject). Passive voice is frequently used as a way to remove the subject from the sentence. While much can be said about the passive voice, I will limit myself here to discussing why non-native speakers (namely Dutch) should avoid using it as much as they do and try to return to a simpler sentence structure.

Many Dutch professionals who are highly-educated and otherwise very capable in English insist on writing in the passive voice, thinking this is what makes their writing formal.

Passive Voice Misconceptions

Students have told me that they remember their high school English teacher instructing them that passive voice is formal in English, so if they want to write formally, they have to write in the passive voice. Whether or not this oversimplified message was the intended one or not, many Dutch professionals who are highly-educated and otherwise very capable in English insist on writing in the passive voice, thinking this is what makes their writing formal. As a result of this misconception, they do linguistic acrobatics to make as many sentences as possible passive. Then, when these professionals get the difficult-to-swallow feedback that their writing is unreadable from a colleague or even a boss, they have to try to unlearn this bad habit.

To avoid this embarrassment, we need to bring a lot more nuance into this message.

The most formal writing is usually also the most unreadable.

It’s true that the more formal the writing is, the more passive voice you will find. However, the most formal writing is usually also the most unreadable– have you ever tried to read a legal contract? Unless you are a lawyer educated at an English-speaking university who must write legal contracts in English, your goal is to create writing that is readable and clear, with an appropriate level of formality (or register).American English registerAppropriate means using the passive voice when necessary — not all the time. I will not tell you that you won’t write in the passive voice ever–that’s not possible. I will tell you that you should change your default way of writing from passive to active. Generally, writing is easier to read when there is more active voice.

What about formality?

Just because you see passive voice more frequently in more formal writing doesn’t necessarily mean that this structure is what causes a piece of writing to be formal or informal. Rather, passive voice can be used to put emphasis on different parts of the sentence, to follow the information principle, or to avoid taking responsibility, among other things. There are reasons to use the passive voice, but that’s just it: you should have a reason for using it. It should not be your default.

passive voice English

You can make your writing more formal by looking at a number of factors: the kinds/amount of verbs you use, the register of the nouns you use, the concreteness of your subject, the structure of your quotations, etc. I teach students in my writing course that an appropriate level of formality is a balance between formality and readability, where clarity trumps everything else. Because of the confusing structure of the passive voice, it is generally less readable than the simple, natural structure of the active voice.

Why passive voice is harder to read and write

Passive voice is also more difficult to use than the active voice. In order to create a sentence in the passive voice, you have to first make sure that you don’t have a (grammatical) subject. Since many people can’t identify the subject in their sentences in the first place, this goes wrong from the very beginning. Then you have to make sure you have the correct verb tense translation from Dutch to English, which can be tricky. Because the structure is more complicated, passive voice sentences created by non-native speakers tend to be grammatically incorrect, which makes the message even more obscure.

There are reasons to use the passive voice, briefly mentioned above. Being able to use the passive voice correctly as a non-native speaker is a skill that you can learn. For now, look closely at your passive voice sentences and decide if you have a reason for using the passive–if not, ask yourself if an active structure wouldn’t be clearer. I will detail the reasons for using the passive in another post.

Things to Remember:

Writing in the active voice is not news–it’s not innovative or challenging. It’s just normal.

Passive voice does not necessarily equal better or more formal, and it’s not used as frequently in English as you might think.

Q. I used the following passive voice constructions in this post. Can you figure out why? Answers coming in the post on why we use the passive voice.

1. At some point, my Dutch students were taught that you have to write in the passive voice to be formal.

2. Passive voice is frequently used as a way to remove the subject from the sentence.

3. While much can be said about the passive voice,…

4. Rather, passive voice can be used to put emphasis on different parts of the sentence,…

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Your Professional Reputation: that tricky ing

The Dutch have both a good rep and and a bad rep when it comes to English.

The good: They all speak it reasonably well.

The bad: They only speak it reasonably well.

This only really matters when it’s your professional reputation on the line: when you need to speak English more than reasonably well in order to get the respect of your international partner, to seal the deal, the impress the client, etc.

When starting a new project, I usually have some email contact with my future clients before I’ve met them. They usually end their emails with “I am looking forward to meet you on Monday.” If you see nothing wrong with this sentence, read on.

“I am looking forward to” is always followed by “something”
I am looking forward to the party on Saturday night.
I am looking forward to Spring.
I am looking forward to the launch of our new product line.

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The party, Spring, and the launch are all nouns. Whenever you want to put a verb (work, think, see) where a noun belongs, you have to use the -ing form of the verb, called a gerund (working, thinking, seeing).

I am looking forward to celebrating Queen’s Day.
I am looking forward to meeting you on Monday.
I am looking forward to travelling this summer.

This is also commonly seen in the expression “I am used to…”

I am used to Dutch weather. (noun)
I am used to having cheese sandwiches every day for lunch. (gerund)

It’s really that easy. If you can put a noun there, use a gerund. When in doubt, do a quick google search of the verb you are using and “gerund or infinitive”–by avoiding these small errors, you project competence.

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