Early in January I posted an article entitled "Ten Common but Easily Corrected Errors," which drew a very positive response, including a handful of e-mails asking me to address other common errors. So here, by popular request, is "Son of Ten Common Errors."
You will notice that all of these are spelling errors, which means that if you tend to have problems with these words, you can put them on a list and proofread specifically for them, or you can use your spellchecker diligently to hunt them out. Only the last one (its vs. it's) would be overlooked by the spellchecker.
1. SEPARATE vs. SEPERATE
The best way to remember the proper spelling of separate is to tell yourself that there is a rat in the word: sep a rat e
2. GRAMMAR vs. GRAMMER
In keeping with the motif of using words as mnemonic devices, tell yourself that you would prefer not to MAR your writing with weakGRAMMAR.
3. RECEIVE vs. RECIEVE
Although the rule is not 100% applicable, it comes close enough to be genuinely useful: i before e except after c and in words that sound like ay, words like neighbor, sleigh, and weigh. Since receive has a c, it follows the except afterc part of the rule.
4. WEIRD vs. WIERD; SEIZE vs. SIEZE; SIEGE vs. SEIGE
I put these words together because the first two, weird and seize, are notable exceptions to the i before e rule, while siege, though it follows the rule, tends to get sucked into the wake of the word seize, because they are so similar in appearance. The writer who gets seize right will often get siege wrong, and vice versa.
Here is your mnemonic device: Get used to thinking of weird and seize as belonging together, and as both having the right to be spelled weirdly rather than in accordance with the i before e rule. A sentence using the two words will do that for you. Take this one, for example: Seize on these weird spellings to undermine the rule. (Of course, you can always make up your own sentence.)
Once you have weird and seize tucked safely into an exclusive little set of two, then you can deal with that wretched word siege, which can lay siege to the fortress where weird and seize resist its weird attempts to seize their exemption from the i before e rule.
5. ITS vs. IT'S
Your spellchecker can't help you with this pair, because both are properly spelled words. They just aren't the same word.
Its is a personal pronoun. Unlike nouns or other kinds of pronouns, personal pronouns do not use apostrophes to indicate possession. Remember the company its keeps:
my, mine . . . our, ours
your, yours . . . your, yours
his, her, hers, its . . . their, theirs
Notice that there is not an apostrophe in the bunch. We would not write hi's, so we also would not write it's when we need a personal pronoun in the possessive form.
Contractions, on the other hand, do require apostrophes, because the apostrophe replaces the omitted letter or letters. When we contract it is to it's, the apostrophe is needed to replace the missing i.