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Who or Whom, Its or It's? Grammar Questions Test Us All

April 01, 1993|MARY LAINE YARBER | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES; Mary Laine Yarber teaches English at Santa Monica High School

People constantly call me to double-check the grammar in their academic, personal and business writing.

Over the years I have noticed that some kinds of grammar, punctuation and usage rules cause more angst and confusion than others.

So I have compiled a rundown of some of the most common problems and the keys to their mysteries.

Homonyms (words that sound alike but have different meanings) are troublesome, especially it's and its, you're and your, who's and whose, and they're, their and there.

It's is a contraction of it is or it has, as in "It's a tough concept." Its, however, shows possession, as in "Close its lid."

You're is a contraction of you are, while your shows possession: "You're not in your assigned seat."

Who's means who is or who has; whose shows possession ("Whose book is this?").

They're is a contraction for they are, their shows possession and there indicates location: "They're building their new home over there."

Then there are the "What's the difference between . . . ?" questions.

For example, what's the difference between who, which and that?

Simple.

Use who and whom only in reference to people, as in "Diana is my friend who recently got married."

Which is used only for animals and things: "Vicky has some great lesson plans, which I plan to borrow."

That is multipurpose: it can be used for people, animals and things, as in "Muffy is the poodle that once ate my homework."

Surely one of the great mysteries of humankind is the difference between who and whom.

While whom has nearly vanished from informal English, it is still used in formal speech and writing.

Here's an easy rule. When in doubt, substitute a personal pronoun, such as he or him, or they or them. If he or they fits, use who. If him or them fits, use whom.

A literary or artistic title can be confusing because many people don't know whether to underline it or put it within quotation marks.

Use quotation marks for short poems, short stories, articles, songs, television shows, paintings, and excerpts from longer works. Example: k. d. lang's "Constant Craving" is my favorite song.

Underline or italicize titles of books, plays, long poems, magazines, newspapers, movies--even ships, trains, and airplanes. Example: The film Malcolm X is a hot topic for classroom debates.

When should you spell out a number? In general, any number that needs only one or two words should be spelled out.

If a number requires more than two words, use figures.

At the beginning of a sentence, though, always spell out the number, as in "Six cookies are missing from my lunch."

Now for some of the words and phrases that are most often used incorrectly (indeed, some of them don't even officially exist).

Different than is common in colloquial usage but wrong; something is different from another something.

Can't hardly, can't scarcely, and can't barely are all double negatives and therefore incorrect.

People are hanged; pictures and other things are hung.

Use fewer for items that can be counted individually, but use less for things that aren't quantifiable. (I have fewer freckles and less money than my sister).

Farther is for physical distance (farther down the road), and further is for things that can't be quantified (falling further in love).

Finally, the phrase that always gives me the willies: "between you and I." Use "between you and me" instead. Trust me.

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