Grammar cheats to avoid sloppy copy: 14 commonly confused words

The English language is beautiful but tricky. Here are my well-worn proofing cheats to help avoid common mistakes.

Here are some tried and tested rules I use to avoid mangling the most commonly confused words in the English language.

They won’t guarantee that your written work is error free but they’ll certainly help.

The best way to avoid making mistakes is by asking for help. Almost all of my written work is reviewed by an editor.

It always improves my work and ensures that I don’t make sloppy errors.


Their, they’re and there

Their is known in the writing business as a possessive pronoun. That’s a fancy way of describing ownership. There’s a simple test in common usage. You should be able to replace their with our.

They’re is two words, they and are. The apostrophe marks the place where the letter is missing. Your sentence should sound correct if you write the two words out in full.

There denotes a place or space. Replacing there with here should make sense.

We’re, where, were and wear

We’re is like they’re. It’s really two words. Replace we’re with we are to see if your sentence is right.

Where, like there, denotes a place or thing. Using here instead as a test, will help.

Were is a special case. It’s the past tense of are – use this as a test to check whether your usage is correct.

Wear is a verb. It’s an action word in plain language meaning to carry or to waste away. It’s rarely confused but I’ve included in this list for completeness.

Its and it’s

These two words are probably the most frequently confused in the English language.

I think the confusion stems because nouns normally use an apostrophe in the possessive form. But its and it’s are different.

Its is possessive. Use it to describe ownership. It’s is two words, it and is. The apostrophe marks a missing letter.

It’s the little things. An apostrophe is all that stands between a business that knows its shit and a business that knows it’s shit.

Your and you’re

Your is part of the possessive gang that includes their and its.

You’re belongs to the they’re, we’re and it’s club. It’s a combination of you and are.

Test your and you’re by substitution with our or they are.

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Stephen Waddington

Partner and Chief Engagement Officer, Ketchum and Visiting Professor in Practice, Newcastle University.


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