You, your, you’re: A typo that matters

An email arrived the other day with a subject in all caps:

“MARK YOU CALENDARS!”

It was an invitation to something. The email had an attachment, and we were invited to open it “For you reading pleasure.” (We didn’t.)

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Another email sowed a bit of confusion. Its subject was “Revealed: You secured CLEARANCE promos!”

Hmm. Is “secured” a verb or adjective? Is the revelation that we scored (secured) some great discounts? Or is the revelation what our personal (secured) discounts are?

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To be fair, no one’s going to be confused by that subject matter (and most won’t click on it anyway). It’s not a big difference, but in other contexts it might be.

We’ve been seeing “you” instead of “your” a lot lately, especially in social media and email. Sure, it’s just a careless typo, and those forums are more casual, but business is business and deserves more care.

It’s not just “you” and “your” that are being mixed up. “Your” and “you’re” regularly switch places. Here, too, confusion is unlikely: What’s being talked about is usually pretty clear, though it’s particularly ironic in comments section where one person says to another “Your an idiot!”

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So maybe a little refresher is in order.

  • “You” is a noun: “I like you.”
  • “Your” is a possessive: “I like your sense of humor.”
  • “You’re” is a contraction for “you are”: “You’re one of the funniest people I know.”
  • “Your’s” has no reason to exist, so kill it if you see it.

(Perhaps some linguist will study whether the people who mistake “your” for “you’re” are the same ones who use “it’s” when they mean “its.”)

Garner’s Modern English Usage says that “your” misused for “you’re” is more common than the other way around, but it still classifies them both at Stage 1 of the five-stage Language-Change Index, as bad as bad can be.

A little care can avoid any of the above problems (and some grammar checkers will catch them as well). But there’s one more to throw into the mix of uses of “you” when it should be “your.”

“I don’t like your sense of humor” and “I don’t like your jokes” are correct, applying the possessive “your” to the nouns “sense of humor” and “jokes.” But what about “I don’t like you laughing at his jokes”?

Here’s where you get into the morass. You might think “laughing” is a verb, since “I” don’t like that “you” “laugh” at his jokes. But, in a cruel twist of language, when you add “ing” to many verbs, presto, change-o, they turn into something else. In this case, “laughing” becomes a noun. (This form is called a “gerund” or a “verbal noun.”) Because it’s a noun, it plays the same role in the sentence as “sense of humor” and “jokes” do in the first two sentences of the previous paragraph. That means, just as you need “your” in the first two sentences, you need “your” in the last one as well: “I don’t like your laughing at his jokes.”

That sounds easy, except that adding “ing” can also make a verb into a participle that acts as an adjective or adverb. “You’re a laughing fool.”

As we wrote almost five years ago, the grammatical conceit called the “fused participle” is not one for the faint of heart. As a rule of thumb, if you use an “ing” word immediately after a proper name or personal pronoun, the chances are you want that proper name or pronoun to be possessive.

Because so few people recognize these grammatical niceties, the usage of what Garner’s calls a “garden-variety fused participle” like “you” instead of “your” is at Stage 3 of the Language-Change index, worthy of a passing grade on a report card, but not yet approaching the dean’s list.

That means you can probably get away with using “you” in a construction like “I don’t like you laughing at his jokes.” But it’s not funny if you wrote “I don’t like you jokes.” You’re better off accepting your lumps for that one.

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Merrill Perlman managed copy desks across the newsroom at The New York Times, where she worked for 25 years. Follow her on Twitter at @meperl.