Frequently Asked Grammar Questions

This post is a quick Q&A to answer some grammar questions that drive people nuts.

Q. How can I tell if it’s “it’s” or “its”?

A. “It’s” means “it is” and “its” means “belonging to it.” Write your sentence and then try this: When you come to “it’s,” read “it is” instead. Does the sentence still make sense? When you come to “its,” read “his” (or “her”) instead. Does the sentence still make sense? If it does (“It is a good thing the dog went to his house”), you are using the right words. If the sentence doesn’t make sense (“His a good thing the dog went to it is house”), you are using the wrong words. By the way, its’ (with the apostrophe after the s) isn’t a word.

Q. What’s the difference between “insure,” “assure,” and “ensure”?

A. They are close in meaning but try to keep them separate. Use “insure” when you are talking about an insurance policy (“he wanted to insure his boat”). Use “assure” for the act of reassuring or pacifying someone (“he assured her he was a good sailor”). Use “ensure” in the sense of “make sure” (“with daily maintenance, he ensured the boat was seaworthy”).

Q. When should I use a semicolon?

A. The three most frequent uses of a semicolon are (1) to separate a series of items when the items contain commas, as used in this sentence; (2) to separate an independent clause that starts with “however” from the rest of the sentence (“He is a good sailor; however, he could be better with training.”); and (3) to join two independent clauses together without the use of “and” or “but” or some other conjunction (“He is a good sailor; he would be better with training.”). Independent clauses can also be written as two separate sentences with a period between.

If you want more information about grammar, I highly recommend two books: The Elements of Style by William Strunk, Jr. and E.B. White; and The Little, Brown Compact Handbook.

Send me your grammar questions. I’ll be happy to reply with answers for you.