The redhead’s red pen: Complementing your back-to-school knowledge

Today’s post marks the third in our back-to-school readiness series. I hope you’re already feeling well-prepared for the season ahead. If you’ve been playing hookie or just feel left behind, here are the first two lessons again: it’s/its and further/farther.

In this post we’ll learn more about complimentary and complementary. Our trusty Webster’s Third New International Dictionary defines them:

complementary: adj

1: of, relating to, or suggestive of completing or perfecting

2: mutually dependent; supplementing and being supplemented in return

3: being one of a pair of chromatic stimuli that produce an achromatic mixture when combined in suitable proportions (as in complementary colors)


complimentary: adj

1 a: expressing regard or praise; b: given to or using compliments

2: presented or given free esp as a courtesy or favor

Complimentary is the more common of the two, and so I’ll start with it. Most of us correctly spell complimentary when we mean the first definition, because it’s easy to think of paying someone a compliment, making your remark a complimentary one.

The sticky part is the “free” meaning. Here’s a little trick that might help: a compliment is free to give and free to receive. If your friends comment on your fabulous new haircut, their compliments don’t cost anything. So if something is free, then use the word complimentary to describe it. It’s like someone paying you a compliment by giving you something free.

I love eating at Mexican restaurants that serve complimentary chips and salsa.

Aveda offers a complimentary neck and hand massage just for stopping by the store.

I wish the complimentary chocolates on my hotel pillow had ingredients listed on them.

Now, you could argue that the chips and salsa and the chocolates aren’t technically complimentary because you are buying other food at the restaurant and paying for your hotel room, but for the sake of this lesson, let’s agree that they’re free and, therefore, complimentary.


I saw this ad for an upcoming local race and thought it might help you remember: complimentary means free. I love complimentary massages after running a race.

Complementary may seem more difficult to you, but think of it this way: something complementary always has to be part of (at the very least) a couple. More than two items can be complementary to one another, but you cannot have a single thing that is complementary without it having some other thing it completes. Think of it as “couplementary,” and you’ll see that there’s no -i in there.

The waiter suggested complementary wines to go with our entrees.

The wall paint complemented the furniture colors, making for a pleasing, put-together room.

A strength-training program will complement your weekly runs as you prepare for the marathon.

Notice that in each of these examples, you can find a couple: wine + entrees, paint + furniture and strength-training program + weekly runs.

My earliest introduction to the word complementary was in art classes, and here, too, you’ll find pairs. Complementary colors are opposite of each other on the color wheel, and they bring out the best in each other when you see them both in a painting or photograph. They provide a more complete visual experience.


Complementary colors in nature: the dark pink petals complement the light green leaves of Joe-Pye weed, and the orange spots complement the blue on the Pipevine Swallotail’s wing.

Wikipedia’s entry on complementary colors makes for a fun read, and for you gardeners out there, I highly recommend Cornell University’s page on the effect of complementary colors in your garden. I like a riot of color in my own garden, but there are a lot of reds and greens to complement one another, and my purple and yellow irises complement each other when they bloom.

Now that you know how to use complimentary and complementary, you may start getting more compliments about how smart you are.

Do you have a grammar or spelling issue that gives you grief? Or do you have a fun way to remember how to spell certain tricky words? I’d love to hear about it in the comments below.

The redhead’s red pen: Furthering your back-to-school readiness

One of my faithful readers responded to last week’s call for grammar questions with this challenge: farther vs. further. That can be deceptively tough to answer.


Some sticky grammar problems lead me to the OED.

After consulting the Web and two of the trustiest dictionaries I could get my hands on (OED and Webster’s Third New International Dictionary), I’m not surprised this one stumps many of us.

Popular usage rules dictate that you would use farther for measurable distances and further for anything else. Notice I say popular usage rules. You see, as with many English grammar rules, further vs. farther is more—or possibly less—complicated than I realized.

Here are some examples of the correct way to use these two words in popular usage:

Barbara ran farther than she did yesterday, while Hope did not run far at all.

Further, Barbara runs every day, while Hope takes some days off.

Barbara’s running is further aided by good genes and no injuries.

I’ll note that as I type this post, WordPress’ spell checker has flagged farther in the example above.

Keep reading for more examples—complete with pretty pictures—and a brief tour of the rabbit hole I fell into when I cracked open my parents’ OED (the version that fits into two volumes of microscopic text and comes with its own magnifying glass.) Continue reading

The redhead’s red pen: It’s back-to-school time

Have you started seeing signs of the season? It’s definitely nearing the start of a new school year. Mall store fronts are swapping out summer neons for autumn’s more subdued colors. Shoe stores have tucked sandals away in the sale section and put kids’ sneakers right up front. Even my inbox is showing signs of school just around the corner.

I know this is not my usual kind of post, but as I’m editing my first book, I’m thinking way too much about my days as a teacher and some of the common grammar and spelling mistakes I corrected time and again on students’ papers.

I know those of you who read my blog are already smarty pants (and I mean that in a good way), but we can all benefit from a review of some common rules occasionally. When I was teaching, I saw some mistakes so often that I still have to stop and think about certain words before I write them, words that used to come to me with ease. So don’t feel too badly about yourself if you make mistakes every now and then. You have probably seen them wrong in plenty enough places to make you question what you thought you knew.

So let’s get ready for school together over the next few weeks and review some common writing mistakes. Today’s lesson focuses on it’s and its.

It’s = It is, as in It’s hot and humid today.

Its = possessive, as in Even the dog gave up its usual spot in the sun because its brown fur made it too warm.

If you’re a texter, you may fight this one daily, as Apple has decided to try to wipe out its from the face of the earth by auto-correcting all cases of it to it’s. In the case of these two words, Apple chose the more common way texters would mean it: the contraction of it is. You’ve got it made if you’re texting a friend about a new restaurant and want to say, “It’s on the corner.” But you have to go on the defensive if you want to text, “Its vegan coconut pie is 2 die 4.” Apple will make you go out of your way to be correct with that one. And then you’ve lost all the time you saved by typing 2 and 4 instead of their words.

Contractions take out a letter or letters and combine two words, and the apostrophe’s job with contractions is to mark where the missing letter(s) would go. In a sense, the apostrophe bandages the two combined words together. That’s why the contraction of it is needs an apostrophe. It might otherwise fall apart.

Trouble enters into the equation, though, because the apostrophe does double duty, also denoting possession: the redhead’s red pen, the dog’s tennis ball, the store’s back-to-school sale. So using it’s to show a possessive may seem to make sense. But a long, long time ago some committee somewhere had to decide whether the contraction or the possessive had a stronger case for claiming the apostrophe. The possessive its can hold together as a word on its own without the apostrophe, but the contraction for it is needed that bandage or it might fall apart. Thus:

It is → it’s had a greater need for the apostrophe to bandage it together, and therefore it’s > its.

If it helps, think of it this way: the possessive its is so busy possessing whatever word follows it that it can let go of the need to have an apostrophe. So it’s can have the apostrophe to hold itself together.

Now, I’m not one to go around in the world with a red pen (well, maybe inside my head) or a black sharpie or even a bottle of white-out, but I know some word lovers who do. When I saw this card in the bathroom of my very lovely hotel room on a recent stay, I confess. I contemplated getting out a pen to cross out the rogue apostrophe:


This inn gets kudos for its conservation efforts but earns a demerit for its abuse of the apostrophe. It’s an easy mistake, but it’s worth correcting.

In Lynne Truss’ preface to her fabulous book Eats, Shoots & Leaves, she writes:

I discovered to my horror that most British people do not know their apostrophe from their elbow. “I’m an Oxbridge intellectual,” slurred a chap in Brighton, where we were asking passers-by to “pin the apostrophe on the sentence” for a harmless afternoon chat show. He immediately placed the apostrophe (oh no!) in a possessive “its”. The high-profile editor of a national newspaper made the same mistake on a morning show …

My American correspondents, however, have made it pretty clear that the US is not immune to similar levels of public illiteracy. Carved in stone (in stone, mind you) in a Florida shopping mall one may see the splendidly apt quotation from Euripides, “Judge a tree from it’s fruit: not the leaves”—and it is all too easy to imagine the stone-mason dithering momentarily over that monumental apostrophe, mallet in hand, chisel poised. Can an apostrophe ever be wrong, he asks himself, as he answers “Nah!” and decisively strikes home and the chips fly out. (xx, xxv)

We all make mistakes. Fortunately, most of our mistakes aren’t ones we’ve carved in stone. So go out there armed with knowledge of when to use it’s and when to leave out the apostrophe. Because, yes, sometimes an apostrophe can be wrong.

Is it’s vs. its a word struggle of yours? Do you have another spelling or grammar puzzle you’d like the redhead with the red pen to weigh in on? Please add it to the comments below. It’s the section right below here. You can see its comment box outlined. (Smiles)

How do you say “good aunt”?

Pearls Before Swine is one of my favorite comic strips, and this past Saturday’s strip got me thinking about the different ways and reasons we say “aunt.” (Take a moment to read the strip and then come back).

Sociolinguistic differences
The way we say the word “aunt” depends in large part on where we grow up. Many of us (and I’m talking about the United States, primarily) pronounce it like the insect “ant.” There are others who say it like “ahnt” to rhyme with the way many of us say the word “daunt.” Others say it in a way that sounds almost like the word “ain’t.”

I found a cool map showing regional differences of how we say the word “aunt” that those of you who are word geeks (like me) might enjoy seeing.

Of the women I interviewed (all of whom have at least some connection with the southern United States), here’s the break down of how they say the word:

  • 18% say the word like “ahnt”
  • 9% say the word like “ain’t”
  • 73% say the word like “ant”
  • All of them pronounced the word like “ant” at some point during our conversation, possibly a reflection of the way I was saying it.
  • One women also spoke of “aunties,” pronounced like “ahnties”

Fortunately, as Goat points out to Pig in the comic strip, we’re not all shooting each other over this difference in how we say “aunt.” Continue reading