Confusing Contractions

Contractions are used to indicate where letters are missing in a word. I think that because there may be apostrophes involved, contractions and possessive pronouns are often confused. If the word shows possession, use an apostrophe as necessary to show that possession. (See Apostrophail!) If there are letters missing from a word, the apostrophe shows where those letters are missing. Some of the most confusing examples are:

its (possessive)                       it’s (it is OR: it has)
their (possessive)                     they’re (they are) OR: there’re (there are)
theirs (possessive)                    there’s (there is OR: there has)
your (possessive)                      you’re (you are)

If you’re not sure which is correct, test substituting “it is, it has, they are, there are, there is, there has, or you are,” whichever is appropriate, in place of the word that is confusing you. If the substitution does not make sense, it is not a contraction, so you should use the appropriate possessive form.

The dog was chewing on its paw. (“Chewing on it is paw” does not make sense.)

 HOWEVER: It’s time to get ready to leave for the party. (“It is time” does make sense.)

He said, “Your car is leaking oil.” (“You are car” does not make sense.)

HOWEVER: She said, “You’re welcome” when he thanked her for the gift. (“You are welcome” is correct.)

Their house was beautifully landscaped. (“They are house” does not work.)

They’re in their house with all the lights on. (“They are in their house” is correct.)

Try the substitution test if you aren’t sure if a contraction is appropriate. If it is not, use the proper possessive word. In legal documents, contractions are not used as they are really used for more informal, friendly writing. A legal document is more formal and in an effort to avoid any confusion and keep it more formal, contractions are rarely appropriate. Again, however, this may be a matter of style and preference for a specific attorney. So go out and use contractions at will–except in legal documents and where it isn’t a contraction.

Grammar Giggles – Peas on Earth and Good Meal Toward Men

My son found this for his blog project on Christmas light fails/wins. I love Christmas decorations more than a lot of people, but if you’re going to spell something out, you should make sure it is at least spelled correctly. Otherwise, you are displaying your ignorance for all the world to see. 

Em Dashing and En Dashing Through the Snow

I always knew there were differences in dashes and their uses, but I didn’t understand the difference and now find that I’ve been using them wrong. In the interest of educating us all, let’s dash right into it!

An em dash is called that because the dash is as wide as the capital letter m. If your word processing program doesn’t have the em dash special character, use two hyphens with no space between. Whether you use an em dash or two hyphens, do not use spaces before or after. For instance:

She never tells the truth—ever!

The two-em dash indicates when letters are missing from a word, as in:

          Ms. K—— was the anonymous lottery winner.

An en dash is half the length of an em dash but longer than a hyphen. It means “up to and including” and is used to connect numbers in a range, for example:

          The contract is located at Bates Numbers COR43956–44012.

You should also use an en dash for a minus sign.

Make sure that any dash ends up at the end of a line rather than at the beginning of a line. You would write:

          She has some college—

          a paralegal degree I believe.


          She has some college

          —a paralegal degree I believe.

Apparently you are not supposed to use a hyphen for a dash—which I have been doing wrong for a very long time! Hyphens are used for hyphenation and for compound words, but not in place of a dash.

So now we’ve all learned something (or a least I have). You may now dash on knowing you are using your dashes correctly.

Grammar Giggles – Voodoo Doughnuts

During a recent trip to Portland and the infamous Voodoo Doughnuts, I found this sign that, while it is a sweet remembrance of a man who was apparently a good friend of Voodoo, is rife with grammatical errors, including “Consutlant” rather than “Consultant” and the use of the ordinal figures in the date – which is incorrect when the date is complete with the year. I almost felt guilty even taking the picture, but not guilty enough not to share it with you!

Lists, Bullets, and Punctuation

Lawyers love bullets, letters, or numbers in a vertical list. I see those lists capitalized and not, with periods and not, with commas and not. So what is the correct way to show a vertical list? You can use bullets, letters, or numbers – any of those is correct and a matter of personal style preference.

You should capitalize the first word of the list if it is a complete sentence. If it is not a complete sentence, you can choose whether or not to capitalize the first word, but if you make the choice to always capitalize the first word, you won’t have to try to decide if it is a complete sentence or not. Capitalizing every time has my vote!

As for whether or not to use a period, if each entry on the list is grammatically complete, or if the list completes the introductory sentence, use a period, exclamation point, or question mark as appropriate. If it is a single word list entry or a sentence fragment, you can choose whether or not to use terminal punctuation.

For example:

Can you give me instructions for:

    • Changing the oil in my car.
    • Finding the proper air pressure for my car tires.
    • Filling the windshield wiper fluid.
If you read each of these separately, it is a complete sentence (i.e., Can you give me instructions for changing the oil in my car), so capitalization and periods are correct. Avoid using commas or semicolons and the word and in these lists.
If, however, you include this group of items together in a sentence, it is treated differently. For example: 

Can you give me instructions for (1) changing the oil in my car, (2) finding the proper air pressure for my car tires, and (3) filling the windshield wiper fluid.

No capitals, the use of commas, and the word and are all appropriate in this case.

When your list is more like a shopping list or an inventory or if the introductory sentence is complete, do not use commas or periods.

 My favorite electronic devices are:

    • iPhone
    • iPad
    • Laptop

The other issue I frequently see with these types of lists is parallel treatment. In my car example above, the words changing, finding, and filing are parallel. This is something to check when proofreading so that your list does NOT read:

Can you give me instructions for:

    • Changing the oil in my car.
    • The proper air pressure for my car tires.
    • Windshield wiper fluid filling.

While each of those list entries is correct by itself, they are not parallel. Lists are useful and probably necessary, as long as they are set up correctly.

Me, myself, and I

In this post I hope to pass on to yourself and others the importance of the proper use of the -self and -selves words. Just writing that sentence made the hair on the back of my neck stand up. The -self and -selves words are reflexive pronouns meaning they “reflect” back in the same sentence to the personal pronoun such as me, you, him, her. Think of the reflexive pronoun as reflecting in a mirror and it needs the pronoun to make the reflection. The phrase “me, myself, and I” is correct because myself reflects back on the reference to me. However, the song title “Dancing with Myself” is not correct because there is no pronoun for myself to reflect. If it were “I am dancing with myself,” it would be correct because then the myself is reflecting back on I. Using myself in a sentence as the subject of the sentence is wrong. Using myself without a pronoun to reflect back on is wrong. I can’t tell you the number of times I see and hear something like “Jane went to the mall with Mary and myself.” There is no personal pronoun in that sentence for myself to reflect. If you take Mary out of the mall party, would you really say “Jane went to the mall with myself”? I certainly hope not! So the sentence should be changed to “Jane went to the mall with Mary and me” because Jane would go to the mall with me and not with myself whether Mary was there or not.

Unless your sentence contains a reference to you already, you should not use myself. The same goes for yourself, themselves, himself, herself, etc. Unless you’ve already mentioned you, them, him, or her, you can’t add -self or -selves. Personally I think there are very few instances where any of the -selves fit or are necessary, so just don’t use them. Trust me, using myself does not make you sound more intelligent. In fact, just the opposite is true. If you must use it, however, make sure it reflects back to the appropriate pronoun. If the -self in your sentence can’t reflect something, just don’t use it. You can guarantee that is a way to make yourself very happy!

Time For A Quickie

Sometimes I have issues to share, but don’t think there is enough information for an entire blog post, so I’ve gathered a few random topics for this week.

  • Towards. I see this all the time and it’s a personal pet peeve of mine (along with incorrect use of apostrophes as pluralization – but I digress). While both “toward” and “towards” are correct, “toward” is more common in the US. Grammar Girl’s quick tip is to remember that Americans like shortcuts, so we cut the “s” off.
  • Punctuation at the end of headings. Where you use headings as standalone headings, they should NOT have a period. If the heading is an exclamation or question, you should use those punctuation marks, but not periods. If the heading is a run-in heading (meaning the paragraph follows immediately after the heading), do use punctuation, including a period.
  • Capitalization in headings. Basically it is whatever the author prefers – capitalize each word, capitalize each word including prepositions over three letters long but not prepositions under three letters long, capitalize only the first letter of the first word, or all caps all words. My personal preference is the first letter of each word in the heading, but use whatever style the author prefers. My tip is BE CONSISTENT. Pick a preferred style and stick to it throughout the entire document.
  • Centering titles. Something I see a lot is a title that is supposed to centered and appears to be centered except that there is an indent of five spaces set up on that line, so it is not exactly centered in the line. If you put your cursor on that line and check to see if the indent on your ruler is set and change it if it is, you will be centered. Soon you should be able to tell by looking at it whether it is centered or not.
  • Emails are documents too. Sometimes we forget that emails are a reflection of us too. We send far more emails to far more people so it is even more important to be grammatically correct than it is in documents. Treat your emails like you do your documents and spell check and grammar check them before hitting send. People WILL judge you based on those kinds of mistakes in your emails.
  • Be careful about changes. One of the reasons I redline edits for my attorneys is because I don’t want to assume that I know what they want. Sometimes what I think it should be is not what is intended. I had a friend recently who wrote an article and in the editing it ended up to read “tact” rather than “tack” even though her original was correct in context. It is frustrating as an author when something that has your name all over it is edited by someone else and it ends up wrong when your original was correct. Don’t ever assume you know more about grammar than your author. You very well may know more technically, but changing words can sometimes change the entire meaning of a sentence. Be very careful and be absolutely sure of your edit before you just make a change without approval.
Those are my quickies for this time. I hope you learned something and are still enjoying the blog! Wishing you all a very Happy Thanksgiving!

Grammar Giggles – Splitting infinitives

I regularly receive information from one of my favorite charities on how I can help through volunteer opportunities and donations. I recently received this in my email and it made ME giggle, so I knew it was destined to be a Grammar Giggle.  

Were you confused too? I just have to wonder how many bras, shapewear garments, and sleepwear items they expect to sell to my charity. Since this week’s blog topic was split infinitives, I couldn’t resist. The last sentence in the email would have been much clearer if it had said they “will make a $2 donation to Charity for each . . . .”  I have changed the names to protect my charity and the department store because my charity could use the donations . . . and a proofreader (and yes I have volunteered!).