When I was in sixth grade, I won the class spelling bee. As I stood there, my teacher’s words—i
before e except after c—echoed in my head. Then I confidently shouted, “Receive . . . R-E-C-E-
I was the kid who loved to read, and I devoured books like they were going out of style. In other
words, I love the written language—how the same word can mean multiple things, or how
punctuation (an apostrophe, for example) can change the meaning or context of a word. Of
course, there are exceptions to every rule (the i-before-e-except-after-c rule doesn’t apply to
science, efficient, achieve, or concierge, to name a few).
In today’s world, software programs (I’m looking at you, Microsoft Word) and iPhones correct
the spelling for us (sometimes suggesting a word you probably didn’t mean). We have become
lazy as we rely on technology to hold our hands. But misspelling words on a résumé won’t get
you a job interview, just like you won’t be taken seriously if you send an email littered with
errors. If you are an aspiring writer, an agent won’t even look at your manuscript if it is filled
with grammatical/mechanical mistakes.
So . . . let’s go back to the basics. Here is a list of the five most commonly misspelled words—there/their/they’re; your/you’re; its/it’s; too/to; alot/a lot/allot. Many people incorrectly spell these words because they sound the same when they are spoken.
For the sake of the discussion, let’s imagine this scenario: Gary the Gorilla is a successful thirty-
something primate who lives in the big city. He is up to date on all the latest fashion and
technology. Some of his favorite pastimes include antiquing, painting, working out, and entertaining,
and he is often the life of the party.
There can reference a place, or it can show that something exists.
For example: “Gary went over there for dinner.” Gary went to a specific place for dinner.
*A good tip is that here is in the word there, and both refer to location. “Gary came over here for
dinner”; “Gary went over there for dinner.” Both words specify where Gary went.*
There can also show that something exists. “There are three things Gary dislikes: being late,
horror movies, and bowling (because his fingers are too large).”
Their is a possessive adjective that is used to show possession or ownership of something.
Singular possessive adjectives are: my, your, his, her (my car; your car; his car; her car). Plural
possessive adjectives are: their, its, and our (their car, its car, our car). “Gary drove in their car.”
*A good tip is to replace their with our, because both words are plural possessives. “Gary drove
in their/our car.” Both their and our make sense; therefore, their is correct.*
They’re is a contraction for “they are.” “They’re meeting Gary for dinner.” When in doubt, say the
words they and are when writing the sentence.
Your is a possessive adjective, just like their, except it is singular (you is only one person). “Gary
was completely enamored with your beautiful singing voice.” In the sentence, the “beautiful
singing voice” belongs to you; therefore, it is your voice.
*A good tip is to replace my with your to see if it makes sense:
“Your voice is beautiful.”
“My voice is beautiful.”
Both your and my work in each sentence; therefore, your is correct.*
You’re is a contraction of “you are.” “You’re meeting Gary for dinner.” When in doubt, say the
words you and are when writing the sentence.
Its is a possessive adjective and is used to show possession or ownership of something. For
example: “A gorilla, unlike Gary, would have trouble brushing its teeth because of its
unopposable thumbs.” The gorilla has teeth and opposable thumbs.
It’s is a contraction for “it is” or “it has.” “It’s raining, and Gary forgot to bring his umbrella. It’s
been raining for four hours.” In the first sentence, it’s refers to “it is.” In the second sentence, it’s
refers to “it has.” When in doubt, say the words it and is and it and has when writing the
Too is most commonly used to mean also/as well and excessively. For example: “Gary loves deli
meats and bananas too.” Too here means also. Gary loves deli meats and he also loves bananas.
Too also means to an excessive degree. “Gary’s hair is too long and he’s starting to shed.” In this
instance, Gary’s hair is overwhelming and he needs a haircut.
To is a preposition and has a variety of definitions and usages. Please refer to
http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/to for a full list of definitions. Here is what Gary
likes to do with to:
After working from eight to five on Wall Street, Gary went to the grocery store and picked up
some items for dinner—organic eggs, kale, goat cheese, black beans, and an energy drink. When
he arrived home, he quickly made dinner, scarfed it down, then got ready to go out. He donned
his favorite shirt that showcased his bulging biceps. After slicking back his jet-black hair, Gary
headed toward his front door and cringed. A heaping bag of laundry sat next to the door (Gary
had forgotten to take his laundry to the cleaners). Oh well, he thought. It’s too late to do it now.
With a skip in his step, Gary headed downtown, where he danced the night away at his favorite
club. To say he “cut a rug” is an understatement.
Alot is not a word . . .
What most people mean when they incorrectly write alot is a lot. A lot can be a noun, which
means “a large extent,” “a large amount,” or “a large number.” “Gary had a lot of hair—so much
that it clogged the drain every time he took a shower.”
A lot can also be an adverb, which means “to a great extent” or “to a great degree.” “Gary
worked out a lot at the gym, where he just completed Level 2 in CrossFit.”
Allot is a verb that means “to distribute” or “to give out.” “Gary was allotted twenty-five minutes
to give a presentation on stocks and bonds.”
Now that you are more acquainted with Gary, refer to these examples when you are confused
about the correct spelling of these words. When in doubt, do some research on the correct
spelling, or ask a friend or coworker to proofread your work.
The world will be a happier place if all the letters are correctly aligned.