When several phrases go together, put them in the same form. This can be really simple, as in the phrase “someone did something,” which I first wrote as “people did something.” Using the “some” form in both places makes it more rhythmic and sounds cooler. Or stick to the same noun or verb form or phrase structure, as in this example:
Wrong: “He was really good at warming up, hitting his stride, and endurance.”
Right: “He was really good at warming up, hitting his stride, and staying the course.”
Within a single paragraph, and absolutely within a single sentence, stick to the same tense. Keep it all simple past, as in “was,” “did,” “got.” Or keep it all present or future tense. Try to maintain the more complex tenses, as in pairing “have been doing” and “have been beyond caring,” but keep in mind that too much of that can get weird.
The traditional example is they’re, there, and their. My favorite is “of,” as in “they could of gone…” Of is actually ‘ve, a contraction of have. “They could’ve gone…”
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This funny little book can help a lot.
Apostrophes indicate either contractions or possessives—and only very rarely plurals. So, you don’t write “the 1990’s” but just “the 1990s.” You don’t write “the Smith’s were,” but just “the Smiths were.” If you need to say that the Smiths as a group have a car, use an apostrophe after the final s: The Smiths’ car.” That’s the plural possessive rule.
In this case, “its” is actually the possessive form (it bit its own foot), and “it’s” is a contraction (it’s bad form to bite your own feet).
There are all manner of rules around commas, but they can get too complex to follow. I mostly use commas to indicate pauses or to separate items in a list—apples, oranges, and pears. Note the comma between “oranges” and “and.” This is called the Oxford comma, and editors get all huffy about whether or not it’s correct. It is, but modern usage allows you to skip it, as in “apples, oranges and pears.” Whichever form you prefer, use it consistently.
I still have problems with i-before-e words and various subtleties of punctuation. When in doubt I just Google it. I just had to Google subtleties, actually.
Spell check catches a lot of nonsense, and raises as many questions as it answers. But it can definitely save you the embarrassment of using “their” instead of “they’re and making you look illiterate. I just ran spell check on this stuff and found a few such idiocies (plus a lot of stuff I ignored).
The New Yorker magazine puts every article through eight editors. And they’re working with expert writers. Don’t think you’re better than that. I’m not.