Go ahead, have some fun with language.

It's alright.

Actually, it's not alright.

It's all right.

In other words, little things mean a lot.

Not alot. A lot.

Let's start our quest for clarity with the need for precision. Consider such words as "the" and "it's."

When you read your draft aloud — and never underestimate the value of doing that — decide whether your use of the word "the" expresses what you mean.

Example: "She spent 10 minutes discussing the principles of Eastern philosophy."

That means all the principles — impossible to do in 10 minutes. It should read, "She spent 10 minutes discussing principles of Eastern philosophy."

That's possible. It means some principles in general, not all.

Another three-letter word that confounds a lot of people: it's.

Going by rules of grammar our elementary school teachers drummed into us, the apostrophe in "it's" should indicate possession, as in "Ingrid's dress," or "Jack's jacket."

But no. To use a contraction for "it is," we have to write "it's" — breaking the rule about apostrophes in order to be clear.

It's not just all right; it's correct.

The architects of our language determined that the only way to make "its" mean "it is" was to break up the letters by inserting an apostrophe.

So, if we want to indicate possession, we write "its," as: "The University of Minnesota takes great pride in the percentage of its graduates who donate yearly to the alumni fund."

It's an oddity. Just like "that's," "there's" and "let's" — none of which is possessive.

Then there's the case of "theirs." The word "their" is already possessive, so we don't need an apostrophe in "theirs."

More "little things": a couple; a few; several. It's obvious that a couple means two.

But what's the difference between a few and several? "A few" indicates, say, three or four.

Several means more than a few, but not very many. Maybe seven or eight?

Back to "a couple": Some people write things such as "A couple times we went to Vikings games" or "I had a couple cups of coffee." They do so because that's the way they talk.

Most people say and write, "A couple of times …" or "a couple of cups."

It's not worth fighting a war over, but "a couple of" feels better, at least to me. After all, you wouldn't say, "A pair pants."

Back to coffee: At my first duty station in the Marine Corps, the company staff sergeant offered me a cup of coffee.

He kept the coffee coming. I had three cups, plenty enough for me.

I stopped, for good. Besides, the coffee was not good.

But he kept going — 20 cups that day and, I later learned, every day. Maybe all that caffeine kept him ramrod straight, the very model of a military man.

Except for one thing: At our first morning formation he barked, "All right, you men, line up alphabetically, by height!"

Gary Gilson, a Twin Cities writing coach and five-time Emmy Award winner in public television, has taught writing-intensive journalism courses at Colorado College for 22 years. Contact him through: www.writebetterwithgary.com.