Both ACT English and SAT Writing and Language will sometimes test your knowledge of frequently confused but similar-sounding words. But unlike English/Writing questions about grammar or punctuation, you can’t really prepare for questions about frequently confused words by memorizing a simple, universally applicable rule.
Instead, you can learn some of the most commonly confused words in advance, and augment this preparation with any other words that often confuse you personally.
Fortunately, neither the SAT nor the ACT will ask about any of the finer distinctions made in dictionaries—distinctions which are generally not observed in conversation. For instance, you won’t be asked to choose between “nauseous” or “nauseated”—I’ve been using the “wrong” one in conversation my whole life, and nobody’s ever given me a hard time about it.
There’s a general pattern to the kinds of words that the ACT and SAT will ask about: they’re mostly homophones, meaning that they sound alike. A few others don’t sound exactly alike, but are still very similar.
On the ACT, frequently confused words pop up as a type of Pronoun Forms question, meaning that they’ll always involve both a pronoun and another word that sounds like it. On the SAT, Frequently Confused Words are a particular type of Conventions of Expression question; they include pronoun forms and their doppelgangers, but also cover other homophones like “affect” and “effect.”
We’ll cover this latter category in a future post. Today we’ll discuss two kinds of pronoun mistakes, in each case involving words that sound similar.
1. Its, It’s, and It is
The main thing to remember is that “it’s” is a contraction of “it is.” If “it’s” gives you trouble, mentally say “it is” to yourself whenever you see “it’s.”
“Its,” on the other hand, is the possessive form of “it.” You use it when you’re discussing something possessed by a noun that doesn’t take the “he,” “she,” or “they” pronoun forms. For example, a tree gathers nutrients from its roots.
Some people think that because “its” is a possessive, it requires an apostrophe after it. It’s easy enough to see why someone might think this; we do add an apostrophe after nouns that end in “s” to indicate the possessive form.
For instance, if Hans has an egg, it’s Hans’ egg (or Hans’s egg, depending on your style guide). However, this is not the case with “its,” because it is a pronoun rather than a noun.
Think about it like this: if those shoes are his, and these shoes are hers, and those shoes over there are theirs, we don’t add an apostrophe after any of the pronouns. “Its” is in the same boat.
2. Their, They’re, and There
“Their” is also a pronoun; it’s the possessive form of “they.” If my brother and sister own a telescope, it’s their telescope.
“They’re” is a contraction of “they are.” As with “it’s,” silently say “they are” whenever you see “they’re” if it gives you trouble.
Finally, “there” is a sibling of “here.” The word “there” usually indicates a location that is somewhere other than where you currently are.
In conclusion, remember that the apostrophes in “it’s” and “they’re” indicate a contraction, that “their” and “its” are possessive forms of “they” and “it,” and that “there,” an adverb, is a sibling of “here.”
Stay tuned for part two of the series on frequently confused words, which will discuss homophones!