Its or it's. That or which. Which is it? It's hit or miss.
That's been the case with the writing of many of Joe Hayden's journalism students at the University of Memphis. So he's done something about it. He's written a pocket-size crash course called The Little Grammar Book: First Aid for Writers (Marion Street Press).
What's wrong with the standard textbooks on English usage? Nothing. Except they're too big and too boring. And that's why the key word in Hayden's title is "little." It's handy. It's easy to thumb through. It's got cartoon work by Hayden himself. And it covers the basics of English grammar as painlessly as possible — from "Body Parts" (parts of speech, clauses, sentences) to "The Dirty Dozen" (fused sentences, misplaced modifiers, subject-verb mismatches, "hyphen hell," etc.) to "Other Matters" (words often confused or misspelled). Hayden's concluding advice to the grammatically challenged? The best advice: Read a lot.
Read what Joe Hayden had to say about The Little Grammar Book:
"For example, I used the snapshot of a car collision to show what fused sentences were. I juxtaposed images of cable prongs and outlets to illustrate subject-verb agreement. I kept everything short and light-hearted, then gave the students lots of practice. I found that worked much better than any of the textbooks.
"My book tackles the 12 most common problems. The chapters are no more than four to five pages and include a few images to break up the text. I wanted to make it easy for people to get help fast.
"I drew the pictures myself. 'Ugly art' I call it. But that was my point to my editor — that it didn't matter much what the illustrations looked like, just that they were there. In fact, I think the simple, unpolished look lowers readers' anxiety and reinforces my philosophy on learning grammar: It's not a big deal, and you can do it. I also like to draw, even though I'm not good at it and probably do it when I shouldn't. As a colleague of mine wrote, 'I used to wonder why [you] doodled so much during faculty meetings.'
"When it comes to correct grammar, I do have a couple of big pet peeves. One is direct address. Another is when people confuse its and it's. Mistakes with the possessive case also drive me nuts. But I'm not freakishly judgmental. And if you understand language, you know that it changes over time.
"Whom, for example, will mercifully disappear in a few decades. And at some point in the next century, the pronoun they will be considered acceptable for both third-person plural and singular. The rules of grammar are affected by common practice, as they should be. Still, change is slow, and I tell my students they have to know these nuances now, because they're what competent professionals expect today.
"I've been teaching writing for a long time. My first gig was teaching freshman composition in Appalachia in the late '80s. So I've seen it all: the good, the bad, and the utterly incoherent."