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Simple samples of common misusage

As we write quickly, we often make simple mistakes and don’t even realize we’ve made them.

Take this sentence: "Sometimes its easy to make an err as to whose to blame." Wow! There are three misused words in just that one sentence. “Its” should be it’s, meaning "it is." The former is possessive, such as “the cat chased its tail.” If you use “err,” you have a verb meaning to make a mistake. The noun, a mistake itself, is error. Speaking of "who is" to blame requires two words, where whose is a one-word possessive, as in “whose book is this?”

Another pair of homonyms that are often misused are "your" and "you’re." The former is a possessive, as in “your bicycle.” We should use "you’re" as a pronoun and verb contraction, such as “you’re in trouble now.”

Two words that don’t actually sound alike but are still confused are "than" and "then." A conjunction, "than" is usually used in comparisons, as “Tom is much faster than I am.” The word "then" is an adverb meaning “at that time” or “soon afterward,” as in, “We lived on Oak Street and then moved to Rivers Avenue.”

The homonyms "straight" and "strait" have at least three definitions. Straight means not crooked or curved; direct. Strait may refer to the channel between two large bodies of water or (when plural) difficulty; distress. (We went straight from the conference to the ice cream shop. The Strait of Gibraltar links the Mediterranean Sea and the Atlantic Ocean. My brother always helps me when I am in bad straits.)

Believe it or not, many people make mistakes with "there," "they’re" and "their." The first has to do with location. I waited there for three hours. The two words "they" and "are" make the contraction "they’re." I wonder if they’re coming. If you need the possessive of they, you want to use "their." They left their car in the alley.

Let’s end with a beginning. When we are born, a place and date of that occurrence is legally registered and stays with us evermore. Through our existence, each of us has borne our unique share of trials, tribulations and joys. And that, I believe, is what they call LIFE.

— Sandi Ekberg taught high school English in Medford for 30 years, with a special interest in vocabulary, grammar and usage. If you have grammar questions you would like answered, email her at ifixgrammar@charter.net