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Three tricky grammar concepts and the tools to tackle them

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Three tricky grammar concepts and the tools to tackle them

English Stars 11/8/22

Any English teacher knows that some grammar rules are simply easier to learn than others. Students show us this every day in their writing. Tricky homophones, misused apostrophes and overuse of commas are just a handful of the common mistakes we see. Let’s unpack some of these mistakes and help your students correct them using English Stars’ handy resources.

Tricky Homophones – It’s and Its

Some of the trickiest homophones are unfortunately also the most common. Often, when it comes to it’s and its, students write the first homophone that comes to mind, instead of taking a moment to check the context of the sentence. For example: My coat has lost it’s buttons. I think its time I bought a new coat!

it’s = it is (e.g. It’s going to rain.)
it’s = it has (e.g. It’s been a great day.)
its = ownership (e.g. The dog chased its tail.)

Most commonly, students incorrectly use it’s to show ownership. For example: The dog chased it’s tail. When students need to use it’s or its in a sentence, encourage them to say the word as ‘it is’ or ‘it has’ in the sentence to determine if they should use the contraction or not. For example: The dog chased it is tail. If it sounds incorrect, the homophone will usually be written as its.

Watch this video featuring two fun poems that will help students remember the difference between the contraction it’s and the possessive its!

Apostrophes to indicate possession

Possibly the most common error in written English is the misuse of the apostrophe to show possession when used with an s. This has come about because the letter s and the apostrophe each have two functions.

The letter s indicates:

  • the plural form of a word (e.g. nurse/nurses, test/tests)
  • possession, when combined with an apostrophe (e.g. the matron’s office)

The apostrophe indicates:

  • a contraction, where a letter or letters is/are omitted (e.g. she’s, who’ve, they’re, we’ve, there’s)
  • possession, when combined with an s (e.g. the matron’s office)

There are three apostrophe rules for possession:

  1. If the noun is singular, add apostrophe s. (e.g. the bird’s wing, James’s book)
  2. If the noun is plural and does not end in s, add apostrophe s. (e.g. the men’s bags)
  3. If the noun is plural and ends in s, add an apostrophe. (e.g. the ladies’ cars)

Things get a little more complicated when we dive into names and the nature of ownership. For example:

Names ending in s
In Standard Australian English, names ending in s can use apostrophe s or apostrophe without s for possession. (e.g. Lewis’s basketball or Lewis’ basketball)

Joint ownership
When two or more people are listed as sharing possession of something, the last owner has the apostrophe. For example: Sam and John’s project was running behind schedule. (Sam and John share ownership of the one project.) But when two or more people individually own something, each person has an apostrophe. For example: Kyle’s and Pamela’s ears were sunburnt. (Kyle and Pamela each have ownership of their own ears.)

Watch this video on apostrophe use that helps students break down the rules and provides lots of examples.

Commas in lists

As commas serve several purposes, they tend to cause a lot of confusion. Generally, they’re used to separate parts of a sentence, to indicate parenthetical items and to ensure the meaning of a sentence is clear.

When there is no ambiguity, a comma is not needed before a conjunction that links the last two items in a list. For example: Ben is taking his water bottle, some sunscreen, his hat and a compass.

If there is ambiguity, such as when a list item includes an ‘and’, a comma is required. For example: Jodie is taking fruit, a ham and cheese sandwich, bread and butter, and cake.

Watch this video about commas in lists with your students to help explain this grammar concept.

Please note: some grammarians advise always using a comma before a conjunction that links the last two items in a list. For example: Ben is taking his water bottle, some sunscreen, his hat, and a compass. A comma used in this way is called the serial comma or Oxford comma. No wonder students get confused when experts sometimes disagree too!

For every grammar error that arises in your student’s work, there is sure to be a module within English Stars to help you teach them how to correct their work! These are just a couple of the concept notes and videos within English Stars – sign up for a free trial to explore more!

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