Category Archives: grammar school

an errant apostrophe

Oh, CVS. How I love your Extra Bucks, which allow me to purchase way more lip glosses and eyeshadows than anyone could use in one lifetime. I do not, however, love your grammar.

This is the kind of mistake that makes me judgmental, because I can’t fathom why people get it wrong. I sometimes see unnecessary apostrophes on a plural word ending in a vowel (like pajamas) or acronym (like CDs), because some people (wrongly) think you can’t pluralize those words without it. But what on earth would make you think the plural of “shot” needs an apostrophe?

There’s about a 1% chance the person who authored this sign meant “The flu shot’s here” and just dropped that initial “the.” But that would be oddly grandiose. Just ditch the apostrophe, dude.

p.s. I never get a flu shot. Am I tempting fate?


rein vs. reign

Like a lot of commonly confused words, reign and rein actually have similar meanings as well as spellings. Reign refers to having authority or rule; rein alludes to the straps used to guide horses, therefore also implying control.

It’s easy, then, to mix up expressions that use these words. “Free reign” makes sense to me, but the correct use of the phrase according to Webster’s (and AP) is “free rein.” Likewise, if someone is exerting control, or holding back, they’re “reining it in,” and someone seizing control is “taking the reins.”

“Reign” tends to be used less often, but you need it when referencing the time someone was in power or highly influential (i.e. the reigning champion). It can also denote a prevailing emotion: “Fear reigned in the aftermath of 9/11.”

plural acronyms

A few weeks ago, I was in New Orleans for Jazzfest, and while I was mostly off the clock, I did catch this typo on a sign while I was waiting for Allen Toussaint to start his set. For some reason, people tend to think these types of acronyms (CD, DVD, MRI, WMD) need an apostrophe to make them plural. But they don’t — the correct plural form is CDs.

it’s or its?

A story on one of my favorite YouTube personalities made the classic it's/its error.

Every time I pick up my red pen, there’s a 95 percent chance I’m going to make this correction. Many people have a tough time determining when to use an apostrophe in “its.” This is understandable, considering that it’s another seemingly arbitrary rule. Grammarians somewhere decided that we needed to be able to distinguish between the contraction that means “it is” and the possessive form of “it.” But what they came up with is an easy rule to memorize: When you’re using the contraction, you need an apostrophe. For the possessive, you drop it.

Here are some examples to help you remember:

It’s a shame that so many famous men cheat on their wives.

Condé Nast ceased publication of its parenting magazine, Cookie, last fall.

Now that it’s down to three designers on Project Runway, I think the show definitely has its mojo back.

The next time you write “it’s,” take a moment and think, “Do I mean ‘it is’?” If so, you’re good to go.

don’t hyphenate adverbs

I’m fascinated by the story of a Brooklyn coffee shop that was shut down this week when seven employees quit in protest of a hostile work environment. But while reading some of the local blog coverage, I found this common error on Gawker:

Who will step up to fill the vacuum in Brooklyn’s locally-roasted coffee mafia wars, now? (coffia? cafia?)

(Emphasis mine.) I understand the temptation to hyphenate here, since that’s usually the rule when you use two or more words together as an adjective (i.e. hair-raising scene, diet-friendly desserts). But the exception is adverbs that end in “ly.” The sentence above should read “Who will step up to fill the vacuum in Brooklyn’s locally roasted coffee mafia?”

It’s kind of inexplicable that this exception doesn’t apply to all adverbs. Ones that don’t end in “ly” are hyphenated just as adjectives are (i.e. “much-deserved honor,” “well-dressed woman” ). But luckily it’s a dead-easy rule to memorize. Don’t ask why — just don’t hyphenate words that end in “ly.”

making your subjects agree

One of the grammar issues that keeps copy editors in business is subject-verb agreement. When a subject noun is plural, it often takes a different form of a verb than it does when it is singular. In this product description on the Hard Candy website, what it should say is, “The long-lasting, chip-resistant polish ensures flawless results,” because the subject, polish, is singular. (In this case, they’re talking about a line of nail polish.) If the sentence was written in the plural, the correct form would be, “These long-lasting, chip-resistant polishes ensure flawless results.” An easy shortcut is to remember that typically, if your subject is singular, the verb is plural, and vice versa.

basic plural possessives

This is a phenomenon I see all the time when I’m shopping (which is a lot). I try not to get too exasperated about grammar mistakes — the fact that they’re so common keeps me in business — but I honestly don’t understand why this is such a common error. “Girl” doesn’t end in “s,” or a vowel, two things that can trip people up when it comes to employing the possessive. This is a simple rule: If something belongs to a collective, you use the plural form, followed by an apostrophe (girls’).

Oddly enough, all the other signs in the store were correct, including “Women’s” and “Men’s” which seem to have more potential for confusion. I don’t get it.