Unfriendly grammar tips

How do you know whether to use “which” or “that”?
“Which” and “that” are known as relative pronouns because they are like cousins, the kind of cousins who look nothing alike but both do this creepy hand-rubbing thing, which makes you go, “Oh, now I see it, but please get away from me.”

Both “which” and “that” are used to extract additional information from the sentence, sometimes against its will, but these are the times we live in. Sacrifices must be made. Preferably not by me.

Whether to use “which” or “that” depends on whether the sentence can make sense without this additional information. For example, in the sentence, “I went to the door that led to the torture chamber,” the door is defined as the one leading to the torture chamber, as opposed to some other door that leads to sweet, sweet freedom.

By contrast: “I went to the door, which had a sign that read, ‘No Torture In Here! C’mon Inside,’ and that is the last time I trust those cousins, believe you me, with all that hand-rubbing, which, again, really weirds me out!” Unfortunately, it turns out I have used both types of relative pronouns in a poorly constructed sentence, which was a run-on sentence to boot. Oops! There’s another one! Look: if you want a hint, there’s usually a comma before “which” but not before “that.” I swear that’s all I know!

When do I use “its” versus “it’s”?
Is this a joke? Marvin, is that you? You know I don’t appreciate your monkeyshines. I’m trying to work here. You don’t see me coming down to the suspender factory and asking you whether belts are the devil’s tool, do you? Nobody has time for such obvious questions. Especially with our pants falling down all the time.

But if you must know – and, quite frankly, I’m a bit appalled you don’t – the trick is to replace the “big, puzzling three-letter word” (yes, that’s sarcasm, Marvin!) with “it is.” If the phrase still makes sense, use “it’s”; if not, use “its.” For example, “It’s [it is] high time people got this straight because this mistake has been causing language to lose its [not it is] mojo for far too long, and, speaking of long, someone should tell this guy he would do a better job explaining these concepts if he were to make the sample sentences shorter.”

Ooo! Ooo! Do subjunctive mood next!
Really? We’re struggling with “its” and “it’s” and you want to jump to subjunctive? Ready you are not, young Skywalker…

No, really, we got this.

Ah, 1997: it was a very good hair.

Ah, 1997: it was a very good hair.

Fine. The subjunctive mood is used when something is wishful thinking or not factual, like my passport photo, the one that looks uncannily like Hugh Grant circa 1997, because it is. You’ll often see the word “if” at the start of a subjunctive sentence, i.e. “If I were Hugh Grant, I would make another movie with that adorable Sandra Bullock, especially now that I (Hugh) am prettier.” You’ll note that the verb is “were” instead of “was,” which is a clue to the subjunctive, because I am not Hugh Grant, though your confusion delights me. But later in the sentence, we say “I (Hugh) am prettier,” using the indicative mood, because my (Hugh’s) prettiness is indisputable.

Here’s another example, “I would recommend that Hugh Grant get Botox, because, even though Hollywood is especially cruel to older actresses, he’s certainly no Paul Rudd.” See? “Get” instead of “gets” because it’s something hoped for, a potential reality, and an expensive proposition given the cost of Botox these days.

No prepositions at the end of sentences, right?
Really? We’re still struggling with this? In a world where suddenly it’s okay to wear socks with sandals, we’re worried about what should or should not end a sentence? Some random rule that someone invented hundreds of years ago and we still cower before it? They might as well have said, “Never end a sentence with the word ‘toad’ because toads are ugly.” This is like the “rule” that if you mix red wine and white you’ll get a hangover. No! If you mix red wine and white, it probably means you drank all the red wine in the house but you want to keep on drinkin’ on, so bring on the white, and in the end you’ve simply drunk too much, dummy! Trust me. If your sentence sounds good ending in a preposition, go for it. And that’s all I’m going to talk about.


About rossmurray1

I'm Canadian so I pronounce it "Aboot." No, I don't! I don't know any Canadian who says "aboot." Damnable lies! But I do know this Canadian is all about humour (with a U) and satire. Come by. I don't bite, or as we Canadians say, "beet."
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42 Responses to Unfriendly grammar tips

  1. Paul says:

    It’s the final word on it’s and its and it’s definitive in its coverage of its topic – it is. – It’s high praise for the writing of “it’s” author Ross Murray tackling the tricky topic of its and it’s most elegantly.


  2. markbialczak says:

    Great post, Ross. I say it’s a must-read for anybody suffering from conjunctivitis. If I were suffering from pink eye, though, I might not be considering my and’s and but’s as much as its future end and my sore butt.

  3. eclecticalli says:

    Hehe, excellent. I think that the next time my tendency to end sentences with prepositions is pointed out I will simply respond, “socks with sandles.”

  4. Grammar and spelling is an interest of mine and I am categorically not a supporter of the Third Reich. I see the “its, it’s” mistake everywhere on business signs – ironic when the business is selling a product that requires attention to detail.
    I was listening to Simon and Garfunkel’s “Homeward Bound” and every single time I hear the line “Homeward bound, I wish I was”, I cringe. And have done ever since my 8th grade English teacher lectured me in front of the entire class for failing to use a subjunctive verb.

  5. Ned's Blog says:

    “Its always educational when you explain that which would not get thought much of.”
    (See? It’s thanks to your grammar advice that I can now purposely mangle a sentance in its entirety AND confidently end in a preposition. Thank you. And my 8th-grade English teacher thanks you.)

  6. Carrie Rubin says:

    Ah yes, these issues come up frequently. I see ‘they’re’ and ‘their’ mixed up a lot too. Also ‘hone’ and ‘home’ (as in, to home in on something or to hone a skill). Sometimes our brains play tricks on us, and we make dumb mistakes even though we know better. That’s always embarrassing…

    • rossmurray1 says:

      Yup. Had to fix and “its/it’s” mistake in this very post. It happens. Bottom line is: review, self-edit.
      One that gets me: “It didn’t phase/faze me.”

  7. Now that I’ve forwarded this post to my writing friends, I wonder which will unfriend me?

  8. pinklightsabre says:

    I took an automated, self-paced online class related to business grammar and they pointed out that finally, it’s OK to end a sentence with a preposition. I like the air quotes around the ‘rule’ related to this, and the thing about not mixing red and white, for which I can’t understand why its a rule.

  9. ksbeth says:

    and do i have the okay to go ahead with the white after labor day?

  10. Ria de Anda says:

    Reblogged this on the beauty disease.

  11. Liz Hott says:

    Wait but when do we say whom?? After we drank all the red and white wine and are tipsy and feeling pretentious?

  12. mollytopia says:

    THIS is one of the many reasons I love your blog. Thank you for giving me permission to end my sentences with “at” or “for.” Now I don’t have to add the comma and “bitch” just to make it grammatically correct. Yay!

  13. What’s a preposition, again?

    Seriously. The more I read about the proper use of grammar, the less I want to write. I don’t write gooder than most. To a trained professional, my stuff must look like a bushel full of words cascading down a staircase because it didn’t hold onto the bannister.

    • rossmurray1 says:

      The more I read, the more I realize the rules have more to do with style and preference than clarity, which is the ultimate benchmark, as far as me concerned. And you’re nothing if not stylish, good sir.

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