Q&A: Lets vs Let’s

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Each week here at the Australian Writers’ Centre, we dissect and discuss, contort and retort, ask and gasp at the English language and all its rules, regulations and ridiculousness. It’s a celebration of language, masquerading as a passive-aggressive whinge about words and weirdness. Let's go!

Q: Hi AWC, lately I’ve been having trouble with something simple.

A: It’s socks first, then shoes.

Q: No, not that. But thanks though.

A: What troubles you, friend?

Q: It’s the word “lets” – I keep forgetting when it needs an apostrophe and when it doesn’t.

A: Ahhh, this is actually a common problem, so pull up a chair.

Q: I’m already sitting. How did you not know that? I’m right here.

A: Sorry, it was for effect. But okay. Um, stay sitting and we’ll show you how simple it is to sort this dilemma out. Shall we begin?

Q: Yes, lets. Sorry, I mean, let’s? Oh dear.

A: First off, the word LET is actually quite a simple beast. It basically means “to allow” or “not prevent” at least. For example, “The teacher let the class go home early”.

Q: What a nice teacher. Highly unrealistic though.

A: There is also a similar meaning, regarding allowing to pass in a direction. For example, “who let the dogs out?”

Q: I love that song – quite the mystery. We never DO find out who let them out…

A: Um sure. Anyway. That’s essentially it. The word finds its way into plenty of common phrases, but typically they’re all based around the idea of permission. The only exception is the idea of “letting” out a property for rent – this is seen everywhere but America, such as a “TO LET” sign in front of a house.

Q: Oh, my cousin and I used to have great fun writing “I” between the words “TO LET” on those signs. It was hilarious.

A: Indeed, very high brow stuff. Now, the complication arises when we add an S.

Q: To make “TOILETS”? Yeah, we'd only add an S on the bigger houses.

A: No, we're talking about “lets” and “let's” now.

Q: Oh, sorry, please continue.

A: They both come from the verb “LET” – but “lets” is the third-person present tense singular of it. Or in plain English, it’s describing something happening right now, such as, “The teacher lets the class go home early.”

Q: So it's a current action, like “runs” or “jumps” etc?

A: That’s right. Another example: “John lets the dogs out.” It’s happening right now.

Q: I knew it was John.

A: Meanwhile, the apostrophe version is even easier to decipher. It’s simply a contraction of “LET US” – that’s it. Nothing else. For example, “Let’s see if we can find out who let the dogs out.”

Q: Wait, so if I’m unsure, I just say it as “let us” and if it makes sense, it’s “let’s”?

A: Exactly.

Q: Let us try another example… Hey it worked – let’s try another example!

A: Yep. So you might say, “Let’s go and see if John lets any other animals out.”

Q: Ohhhh clever, using both.

A: So, that’s all there is to it.

Q: It was quite simple really. Let’s never speak of this again.

A: If that lets you sleep at night, sure thing.

If you have a grammar gripe or punctuation puzzle that you’d like our Q&A to explore, email it to us today!

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