It’s usually “its”

Even Microsoft Word’s spell-check gets this one wrong sometimes, but you shouldn’t. Here’s the scoop on possessives that don’t take apostrophes.

I could write tons and tons on the use of apostrophes, but there are already plenty of guides online. So, instead, I’m going to focus on one area that causes a lot of confusion: Possessive pronouns that do not have apostrophes.

There are eight of them, five of which end in an S and one of which ends in an S sound, although the mistake is most common with only two of them — and it’s a very common error. I’ve even seen it happen on presumably professional sites like CNN and the Huffintonpost.

Here are those eight possessive pronouns:

My
Your
His
Hers
Its
Whose
Ours
Theirs

The most obvious thing about them on sight, of course, should be that there are no apostrophes to be seen. They aren’t necessary because these words are always possessive. For some of them, that doesn’t seem to cause any problems. I don’t think I’ve ever seen anyone use hi’s or her’s or our’s or their’s. That doesn’t mean this hasn’t happened; just that I can’t remember seeing it.

But I see “it’s” and “who’s” get misused all of the time — probably because both of them are perfectly legitimate words. It’s just that these two are contractions and not possessives. They just happen to look a lot like possessives, hence the confusion.

At least in the case of its, it’s a very easy typo to make, and I’ve caught myself doing it accidentally from time to time — hence the importance of proofreading. Of course, before you can proofread, you have to know the rules.

For “it’s” and “who’s,” the easiest way to remember is to always read them in uncontracted form. It’s helpful that the apostrophe even sort of looks like a little letter “i.” (Well, only sort of, but go with me on this one.) So, when you see “it’s” or “who’s,” read them in your head as “it is” and “who is.”

This makes it easy to spot their misuse:

The cat licks it’s paws.
The cat licks it is paws.

Oops. Wrong word! “The cat licks its paws.” Conversely:

It’s time to go.
It is time to go.

Right word!

Yes, it doesn’t make a lot of sense that we have these words that are possessive but don’t use apostrophes, but I never said that English does make sense. However, it is a fairly standard feature of a lot of languages that possessive pronouns work a little differently than regular possessives.

English used to have — and many languages still do — an entire grammatical case to show possession, so at least take heart in that fact: You only have to learn a few apostrophe exceptions instead of a completely new set of inflections for nouns!

A pair of pet peeves

Two particular English expressions are becoming more and more common — but if you use either or both, you can risk sounding like you don’t know the language very well. Here’s why that opinion is not off-base.

I’ll make this short and sweet: The proper expression is “based on.” You’re not looking for “around,” and you are definitely not looking for “off” or the even more heinous “off of.” Just look at the words. What is a base? Something that supports something else — so nothing can be “based off of” something else, because then it’s not standing on that base at all.

See why that is?

Something can most definitely be spun off from something else — but then it’s based on the thing it was spun off from. It starts on the base, and then goes off to wherever it’s being spun.

To recap: It is always based on and never any other variation.

Expression two

The other word combination that always grates is the mismatch of “how” and “like.” You’ve probably seen this little abomination all over the place: “This is how it looks like.”

Nope. “How” is self-contained. It’s the one question word in English that cannot ever go with “like” in a statement. Contrast that with things like “This is who you look like,” or “This is what it sounds like (when doves cry),” or “Where does it seem like we’re going?” I’ll trust you to come up with your own examples for when, which, and why.

Each of those words has a single, specific answer. “How” does not. “How” is something a little more elaborate than a simple response:

“What does it look like?”

“A loaf of bread.”

“How does it look?”

“Like someone threw a Jackson Pollack painting into a blender and left the lid off.”

But even when it’s not in the form of a question, you don’t need the “like” with the “how” because you’re either going to leave it as a simple statement, “This is how it looks,” or you’re going to answer it with another clause, “This is how it looks when you drop fifteen watermelons out of a hot air balloon.”

Since we’re describing the actual experience we’re going to show you, it doesn’t look like anything else. It looks exactly like what it is — making this one online “like” you’re going to want to avoid.

Better seen than heard?

If you’ve ever tried to learn Gaelic, then all those silent letters may have stopped you. But there’s apparently a method to that madness. Not so much in English, where there’s only one letter that is never silent.

First, a quick quiz to be answered later. Without cheating in Google translator or something, how would you pronounce this Gaelic surname? Mudhean. Hint: The answer is not “mud hen.”

Now, I’d mentioned previously that I’m glad I learned English first because it’s the hardest to pronounce. However, I’ve tried several times to learn my mother’s family’s mother tongue, which is Irish Gaelic, and have failed completely for exactly that reason: It is impossible to pronounce!

Seriously, look at these Americans trying to pronounce common Irish first names — and trust me, I once watched my own father being totally clueless on how to pronounce the very common name “Sean.”

Now look at this liar of an Irishman (because all of us are liars!) claiming that it’s so easy! Right. Maybe if you get rid of all those damn extra H’s and silent letters and dipthongs that bear no resemblance to the vowels in them!

But… this brings me to the point of this article. As difficult as Gaelic pronunciation can seem to English speakers, our language is still weirder because almost every letter in it can be silent. In fact, Miriam-Webster only found one and a half exceptions in their very fascinating article. The first is kind of a cheat because it comes from a direct borrowing from Spanish, and it shouldn’t exactly be unpronounced. I’ll give it to you here as a freebie: it’s the “J” in marijuana. And it isn’t silent, it’s a “y” sound, but hey, I don’t expect gabachos to know that.

The other letter might surprise you, though, and I’ll give you a free hint: It’s not a vowel, so you’ve only got 21 guesses. Well, make that 20, since we’ve already eliminated J. So… which letter in the English language has no examples (to date) of words in which it is silent? To find out, you’ll have to read the Miriam-Webster article.

And, to answer the original question, the name “Mudhean” is pronounced like “Moon,” but with a very, very liquid “u” sound in the middle. Imagine it like drawing that “oo” out a couple of syllables.

Precision

While English can take a pounding and not break, you really should strive to use it in the best ways possible. Here are some of my favorite confused words and the easy ways to remember which is which and how to use them properly.

Of course, I’ve written before about how malleable the English language can be and still be understood. A famous example — possibly apocryphal — details Winston Churchill’s testy reply to an aide who criticized him for ending his sentences with prepositions. Churchill is reported to have replied, “That is an impertinence up with which I shall not put!”

The word order is completely wrong, but you still understood the intention, right?

Yes, English is malleable — a word which is derived from the Latin word for “hammer,” malleus. This is also where we get the word “mallet.” And what thing do you most think of as being malleable? Probably gold, the most malleable metal in the world which, in that sense, means the easiest to hammer because it’s one of the softest.

But I do digress…

While English is capable of handling a lot of mangling, it’s not something that a native speaker — or a proficient ESL speaker — should really be doing. It’s allowable more as a means of facilitating communication with a non-native speaker. For example, if a cab driver from Malaysia misuses parts of speech or words, I’m not going to stomp on his grammar if I understand what he means. He’s not required to speak at that level.

But… if a native speaker who is trying to communicate makes certain simple errors — especially if they claim to be a writer or journalist or teacher or other user of the language as a tool of the trade — then I am going to leap on that with both feet.

It isn’t that hard to learn certain things and keep them in your mind, or to look them up when in doubt. Not sure whether to use affect or effect? Look it up. Can’t remember whether it should be it’s or its, or who’s or whose? Ditto. And don’t rely on spellcheck. It won’t always tell you that you meant principle when you used principal if you spelled the word right.

There are some simple tricks and mnemonics to remember things, though, and here are some of my favorites — a few of which I came up with myself.

Who vs. whom

To be honest, you can pretty much stick with “who” in all cases in informal speech, but it can bite you hard if you misuse them in formal writing — especially if you use “whom” where you should use “who,” because that more than anything will show that you don’t know the difference and are just trying to be pretentious.

The difference, in technical terms, is that “who” is a subject pronoun and “whom” is an object pronoun. Who does something. Whom has something done to them or given to them. But in order to remember most easily which is what, just remember “he” and “him.” This isn’t a sexist example, by the way — it’s just that since “whom” and “him” both end in M it’s easier to remember.

So… take question and make it a statement, replacing who or whom with the right pronoun — which should be easy — and you have your answer: “To who/whom does the invitation go?” “The invitation goes to him.” Therefore, it’s “whom.” “Who/whom is walking down the hall?” “He is walking down the hall.” Therefore, “Who is walking down the hall?”

Affect/Effect

Another tricky one that’s easier than you think, with one very specific exception that you’ll rarely run across unless you’re a mental health professional. One of these words is a verb and the other is a noun, and the key to knowing which is which is right in the words.

“Affect” is almost always a verb, meaning an action word — and it starts with A as well. So, if it’s an action, then it’s almost always “affect.” “She was very affected by the poem.” (“Whom did the poem affect?”)

“Effect” is almost always a noun, which is a concrete object or… an entity. There’s your E, for entity and effect. “The poem had an effect on her.” (“Whom did the poem have an effect on?”)

The “affect” as a noun exception refers to the way that someone presents their emotions through expressions and is most often heard in the phrase “flat affect,” meaning that they are showing no emotions through their affect, or appearance.

The “effect” as a verb exception occurs almost always and specifically in the phrase “effecting a change,” so it’s kind of easy to avoid if you’re not sure — although remember, a change is not a living thing, so it’s hard to really affect it.

Desert/Dessert

This one is really easy but, surprisingly, I didn’t know the difference until I was given a simple mnemonic by a TV producer I worked for, who told me (in her notes on a script, no less!) that the way to remember is that a “desert” is full of Sand, while a “dessert” is Something Sweet. Boom, done.

And, I suppose, by extension, you (verb) desert something by Shuffling away… Yeah, that one needs work.

Bonus round: noun/verb

I only just learned this one but… typically, in English, for words that are spelled the same but pronounced differently, the emphasis is on the first syllable if it’s a noun, and the last if it’s a verb: Lost in the desert, noun; the soldier will desért his post, verb. Obvious exception — of course: he bought shoe polish and then decided to polish his shoes. Oops…

Comprise

This is one of those words that always gets used backwards, but if you want to appear really educated you’ll get it right. The way most people use it is backwards — “The chess set is comprised of many pieces,” and it’s a synonym for “made up of,” but that’s wrong.

In reality, it’s more direct but also more subtle: “comprise” applies to the thing doing the containing, not the things in it, and it doesn’t need the preposition “of.” So the correct use would be something like “The USA comprises fifty states and various territories.” (Not “The USA is comprised of…”)

E.G. vs. I.E.

Last example, but one that will set you apart, and you only need to remember four little words. “E.G.” is short for “exempli gratia,” and if that looks familiar it’s because in Spanish it would be “ejemplo gratis,” and you probably know the word “gratis” even if you only speak English because it means “free.”

So… e.g. means “free example,” and a free example can be one of many. “The zoo is full of many animals, e.g. lions.” This doesn’t mean that it doesn’t have zebras or tigers or bears — oh my — just that you only listed one of them.

I.E. is more exclusive, because it comes from the Latin “id est,” meaning, “that is.” You only use I.E. when you are giving a unique or specific example. E.G. (see what I did there?) “He was only interested in getting his pilot on the Peacock Network, i.e. NBC.” There is only one Peacock Network, after all.

They were going to move to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, i.e. The White House.

There are a lot more examples I could give, and when I get to apostrophes and homonyms, hang on to your hats, but these should be enough for now. Enjoy — and share your favorite confused words and mnemonic helps in the comments below. Thanks!