I guess it’s time I put some of that English teacher training to use! Walking around town and browsing the Internet, I see some really simple mistakes in people’s grammar, spelling and punctuation. The good news is that they’re easily fixed, so here are the top five most common mistakes I see and how to solve them, and remember to get them right every time. Take heed, writers of the Internet!

1. Apostrophe (ab)use.

That photo above was a large printed advert in a nationally-known mobile phone retailer! Apostrophes are quite hard to get right. How do you know if you need an apostrophe, and if you do, where does it go?

There are only two reasons to use an apostrophe: possession or contraction. If you want to show there is more than one of something, don’t use an apostrophe, just use “s” or “es” if the word ends with an s – more than one bus is two buses, not two bus’s.

The farmer’s wife – the wife belongs to the farmer (this is to illustrate an example – I’m not sexist!), so stick an apostrophe there.

James’s dog – if the person/thing that has something ends in s, like my name, you still add ‘s on the end: WordPress’s features.

The farmers’ wives – use the apostrophe after the s if the word is plural. Here we have more than one farmer, so the apostrophe goes after the final s.

Single – ‘s

Plural – ‘

That’s about as simple as I can make it for possession. The other rule is for contraction, which goes a bit like this:

An apostrophe replaces a missed-out letter – do not becomes don’t because we miss out the second “o”. As a rule of thumb, in any form of construction like that, the apostrophe goes between the n and t – shouldn’t, couldn’t, wouldn’t and so on. That’s easier than possession, I think.

  1. Of or have?

As a teacher I saw this quite a lot, but lots of people still use the wrong word. “I should of” instead of “I should have”. When you think about it, “I should of” makes no sense, but it sounds right – if only it were that simple! If in doubt, take out what we call the modal verb – could, should, might – and see if it makes sense. For example, “I should have been a teacher” would read “I of been a teacher”. Doesn’t make a lot of sense, does it? Whereas “I have been a teacher” reads perfectly. This doesn’t work in all cases, but it can be a useful test if in doubt.

  1. Definitely separate?

Is it i or a, a or e? Here go a few easy ways to remember.

Definite – “defy nightly” to remind you it’s an i sound, not an a. Defy nately doesn’t make sense, unless you know someone called Nately, or are pregnant and think it says natally. Just remember the root is finite – this also works for infinite too, by the way. Just please put an i instead of an a, and don’t write it “defiantly” or “definatly” – defy nightly!

Separately – I was told to remember this as “sep a rat in the middle” to keep that “par” middle section in my mind. I guess it worked for me!

  1. It’s, its, their, they’re or there?

Its – no apostrophe – is used for possession: “its song rang out.” We use his and hers in exactly the same way – no apostrophe.

It’s – with an apostrophe – is just a shorter form of “it is”; use it whenever “it is” would make sense in the same place: “it’s cold outside.”

They’re – they are. “They’re going out”, “they’re all good reasons.”

Their – belong to them. “Their car”, “their hospital appointments.”

There – in that place. Here, where and there, all to do with place, have an h in them, which is quite handy to remember. “Over there!”

  1. Sloppy spelling.

Vauge. Neccesary. Dissapoint (please: one s, two ps!).

Everyone has a few words they just can’t spell; someone I knew couldn’t get “definitely” right no matter how many times he tried. I know the idea of learning spellings off by heart went out in Year 8, but sometimes it’s just necessary. If you’re writing to a friend then obviously you can take certain liberties with spelling sometimes, but if you’re representing a website via an article, email or other written text, you really do need to spell check carefully, or get a friend/teacher to do it. Putting poorly spell-checked work on a popular website does you no favours, and can put the reader off.

I know this all comes off as a dressing-down from your English teacher, but these are honestly really simple mistakes that take about thirty seconds to fix. There are few things more dissapointing (sic) than a well-written piece on your favourite website that lets itself down with some really simple mistakes. Make that improvement now!