If you’re interested in writing for publication, you can’t afford a lackadaisical approach to the words you use. After all, words are a writer’s most vital asset, the primary tools in the toolbox. Addressing the importance of correct word choices, Mark Twain noted, “The difference between the almost right word and the right word is really a large matter—it’s the difference between the lightning bug and the lightning.” Would you trust a handyman who doesn’t know the difference between a screwdriver and a chisel? Of course not. Neither will educated readers trust you as a writer if you don’t select the correct words and spell them properly. Let’s look at some common gaffes to help you avoid making them:
Your vs. You’re
The tricky thing about these two words is that they look similar and sound identical, at least to American ears. Yet, their meanings are quite different. The word your shows ownership. Example:
This is my pet ostrich. Your pet ostrich is over there.
However, the word you’re with an apostrophe is a contraction, a condensed form of the two words you are. The contraction always retains that same meaning as the two separate words:
You’re going to get into big trouble. = You are going to get into big trouble.
Both of the above sentences are correct. The contraction is simply shorter and easier to say. But you can’t use the possessive word your to say, “Your going to get into big trouble.” It makes no sense.
Lose vs. Loose
The first of these two words is a verb and is pronounced with a z sound at the end:
Your basketball team is going to lose.
But the adjective loose is pronounced with a pure s sound at the end and describes something that isn’t firmly in place:
Little Jimmy has a loose tooth! (And soon, Jimmy might lose that loose tooth.)
Accept vs. Except
To accept means you agree to receive something:
I offer $300,000 for this house. Do you accept?
But when you except something, that basically means you’re leaving it out, not including it:
I accept all your excuses, except the last one.
It’s vs. Its
Not until high school did I learn the difference between these similar-looking words. The word it’s is especially deceptive because an apostrophe followed by an s typically indicates possession. But not so in this word. It’s is always a contraction of it is.
It’s going to rain. = It is going to rain.
But even though it contains no apostrophe, the word its is the one that shows possession:
Pay no attention to that dog. Its bark is worse than its bite.
There, their, they’re
This similar-sounding trio has been tripping up writers for untold years. Let’s tackle them in order. The word there can play multiple roles in sentences. However, to avoid boring you with a string of explanations concerning its role as an adverb, adjective, noun, or pronoun, I suggest you simply think of there as an indication of location or at a particular point or stage:
“Uh-oh. There is my boss.” (Or as a contraction, “There’s my boss.”)
The boss exists in whichever location the speaker is looking. There indicates his location. But the word their always shows possession:
Their house is the brick colonial with black shutters.
The final member of this confusing trio, they’re, is a contraction for the two separate words they are and retains that exact same meaning:
“They’re really coming for dinner? Hurray!”
Now allow me to concoct a sentence containing all three words:
There is the spot where they’re planning to build their new office building.
Never stop learning
If you ever make mistakes with the above words, you’re certainly not alone. But as a writer, you should continue to study words. Understand them. Know how to spell them correctly. Then have fun clinking them together and rearranging them to deliver fresh ideas in cleverly worded ways. Delight your readers with your masterful use of words, and they’ll stick with you right to “The End.”
Rick Barry’s writing has been published by Kregel Books, Focus on the Family, JourneyForth, Answers in Genesis, and others. His latest novel is Christian science fiction, The Next Fithian: An Ordinary Teen on a Strange, New World. Visit his website at www.rickcbarry.com.