20 Common Grammar Mistakes That (Almost) Everyone Makes

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I’ve edited a monthly magazine for more than six years, and it’s a job that’s come with more frustration than reward. If there’s one thing I am grateful for — and it sure isn’t the pay — it’s that my work has allowed endless time to hone my craft to Louis Skolnick levels of grammar geekery.

As someone who slings red ink for a living, let me tell you: grammar is an ultra-micro component in the larger picture; it lies somewhere in the final steps of the editing trail; and as such it’s an overrated quasi-irrelevancy in the creative process, perpetuated into importance primarily by bitter nerds who accumulate tweed jackets and crippling inferiority complexes. But experience has also taught me that readers, for better or worse, will approach your work with a jaundiced eye and an itch to judge. While your grammar shouldn’t be a reflection of your creative powers or writing abilities, let’s face it — it usually is.

Below are 20 common grammar mistakes I see routinely, not only in editorial queries and submissions, but in print: in HR manuals, blogs, magazines, newspapers, trade journals, and even best selling novels. If it makes you feel any better, I’ve made each of these mistakes a hundred times, and I know some of the best authors in history have lived to see these very toadstools appear in print. Let's hope you can learn from some of their more famous mistakes.

Who and Whom

This one opens a big can of worms. “Who” is a subjective — or nominative — pronoun, along with "he," "she," "it," "we," and "they." It’s used when the pronoun acts as the subject of a clause. “Whom” is an objective pronoun, along with "him," "her," "it", "us," and "them." It’s used when the pronoun acts as the object of a clause. Using “who” or “whom” depends on whether you’re referring to the subject or object of a sentence. When in doubt, substitute “who” with the subjective pronouns “he” or “she,” e.g., Who loves you? cf., He loves me. Similarly, you can also substitute “whom” with the objective pronouns “him” or “her.” e.g., I consulted an attorney whom I met in New York. cf., I consulted him.

Which and That

This is one of the most common mistakes out there, and understandably so. “That” is a restrictive pronoun. It’s vital to the noun to which it’s referring.  e.g., I don’t trust fruits and vegetables that aren’t organic. Here, I’m referring to all non-organic fruits or vegetables. In other words, I only trust fruits and vegetables that are organic. “Which” introduces a relative clause. It allows qualifiers that may not be essential. e.g., I recommend you eat only organic fruits and vegetables, which are available in area grocery stores. In this case, you don’t have to go to a specific grocery store to obtain organic fruits and vegetables. “Which” qualifies, “that” restricts. “Which” is more ambiguous however, and by virtue of its meaning is flexible enough to be used in many restrictive clauses. e.g., The house, which is burning, is mine. e.g., The house that is burning is mine.

Lay and Lie

This is the crown jewel of all grammatical errors. “Lay” is a transitive verb. It requires a direct subject and one or more objects. Its present tense is “lay” (e.g., I lay the pencil on the table) and its past tense is “laid” (e.g., Yesterday I laid the pencil on the table). “Lie” is an intransitive verb. It needs no object. Its present tense is “lie” (e.g., The Andes mountains lie between Chile and Argentina) and its past tense is “lay” (e.g., The man lay waiting for an ambulance). The most common mistake occurs when the writer uses the past tense of the transitive “lay” (e.g., I laid on the bed) when he/she actually means the intransitive past tense of “lie" (e.g., I lay on the bed).

Moot

Contrary to common misuse, “moot” doesn’t imply something is superfluous. It means a subject is disputable or open to discussion. e.g., The idea that commercial zoning should be allowed in the residential neighborhood was a moot point for the council.

Continual and Continuous

They’re similar, but there’s a difference. “Continual” means something that's always occurring, with obvious lapses in time. “Continuous” means something continues without any stops or gaps in between. e.g., The continual music next door made it the worst night of studying ever. e.g., Her continuous talking prevented him from concentrating.

Envy and Jealousy

The word “envy” implies a longing for someone else’s good fortunes. “Jealousy” is far more nefarious. It’s a fear of rivalry, often present in sexual situations. “Envy” is when you covet your friend’s good looks. “Jealousy” is what happens when your significant other swoons over your good-looking friend.

Nor

“Nor” expresses a negative condition. It literally means "and not." You’re obligated to use the “nor” form if your sentence expresses a negative and follows it with another negative condition. “Neither the men nor the women were drunk” is a correct sentence because “nor” expresses that the women held the same negative condition as the men. The old rule is that “nor” typically follows “neither,” and “or” follows “either.” However, if neither “either” nor “neither” is used in a sentence, you should use “nor” to express a second negative, as long as the second negative is a verb. If the second negative is a noun, adjective, or adverb, you would use “or,” because the initial negative transfers to all conditions. e.g., He won’t eat broccoli or asparagus. The negative condition expressing the first noun (broccoli) is also used for the second (asparagus).

May and Might

“May” implies a possibility. “Might” implies far more uncertainty. “You may get drunk if you have two shots in ten minutes” implies a real possibility of drunkenness. “You might get a ticket if you operate a tug boat while drunk” implies a possibility that is far more remote. Someone who says “I may have more wine” could mean he/she doesn't want more wine right now, or that he/she “might” not want any at all. Given the speaker’s indecision on the matter, “might” would be correct.

Whether and If 

Many writers seem to assume that “whether” is interchangeable with “if." It isn’t. “Whether” expresses a condition where there are two or more alternatives. “If” expresses a condition where there are no alternatives. e.g., I don’t know whether I’ll get drunk tonight. e.g., I can get drunk tonight if I have money for booze.

Fewer and Less

“Less” is reserved for hypothetical quantities. “Few” and “fewer” are for things you can quantify. e.g., The firm has fewer than ten employees. e.g., The firm is less successful now that we have only ten employees.

Farther and Further

The word “farther” implies a measurable distance. “Further” should be reserved for abstract lengths you can't always measure. e.g., I threw the ball ten feet farther than Bill. e.g., The financial crisis caused further implications.

Since and Because

“Since” refers to time. “Because” refers to causation. e.g., Since I quit drinking I’ve married and had two children. e.g., Because I quit drinking I no longer wake up in my own vomit.

Disinterested and Uninterested

Contrary to popular usage, these words aren’t synonymous. A “disinterested” person is someone who’s impartial. For example, a hedge fund manager might take interest in a headline regarding the performance of a popular stock, even if he's never invested in it. He’s “disinterested,” i.e., he doesn’t seek to gain financially from the transaction he’s witnessed. Judges and referees are supposed to be "disinterested." If the sentence you’re using implies someone who couldn't care less, chances are you’ll want to use “uninterested.”

Anxious

Unless you’re frightened of them, you shouldn’t say you’re “anxious to see your friends.” You’re actually “eager,” or "excited." To be “anxious” implies a looming fear, dread or anxiety. It doesn’t mean you’re looking forward to something.

Different Than and Different From

This is a tough one. Words like “rather” and “faster” are comparative adjectives, and are used to show comparison with the preposition “than,” (e.g., greater than, less than, faster than, rather than). The adjective “different” is used to draw distinction. So, when “different” is followed by a  preposition, it should be “from,” similar to “separate from,” “distinct from,” or “away from.” e.g., My living situation in New York was different from home. There are rare cases where “different than” is appropriate, if “than” operates as a conjunction. e.g., Development is different in New York than in Los Angeles. When in doubt, use “different from.”

Bring and Take

In order to employ proper usage of “bring” or “take,” the writer must know whether the object is being moved toward or away from the subject. If it is toward, use “bring.” If it is away, use “take.” Your spouse may tell you to “take your clothes to the cleaners.” The owner of the dry cleaners would say “bring your clothes to the cleaners.”

Impactful

It isn't a word. "Impact" can be used as a noun (e.g., The impact of the crash was severe) or a transitive verb (e.g., The crash impacted my ability to walk or hold a job). "Impactful" is a made-up buzzword, colligated by the modern marketing industry in their endless attempts to decode the innumerable nuances of human behavior into a string of mindless metrics. Seriously, stop saying this.

Affect and Effect

Here’s a trick to help you remember: “Affect” is almost always a verb (e.g., Facebook affects people’s attention spans), and “effect” is almost always a noun (e.g., Facebook's effects can also be positive). “Affect” means to influence or produce an impression — to cause hence, an effect. “Effect” is the thing produced by the affecting agent; it describes the result or outcome. There are some exceptions. “Effect” may be used as a transitive verb, which means to bring about or make happen. e.g., My new computer effected a much-needed transition from magazines to Web porn. There are similarly rare examples where “affect” can be a noun. e.g., His lack of affect made him seem like a shallow person.

Irony and Coincidence

Too many people claim something is the former when they actually mean the latter. For example, it’s not “ironic” that “Barbara moved from California to New York, where she ended up meeting and falling in love with a fellow Californian.” The fact that they’re both from California is a "coincidence." "Irony" is the incongruity in a series of events between the expected results and the actual results. "Coincidence" is a series of events that appear planned when they’re actually accidental. So, it would be "ironic" if “Barbara moved from California to New York to escape California men, but the first man she ended up meeting and falling in love with was a fellow Californian.”

Nauseous

Undoubtedly the most common mistake I encounter. Contrary to almost ubiquitous misuse, to be “nauseous” doesn’t mean you’ve been sickened: it actually means you possess the ability to produce nausea in others. e.g., That week-old hot dog is nauseous. When you find yourself disgusted or made ill by a nauseating agent, you are actually “nauseated.” e.g., I was nauseated after falling into that dumpster behind the Planned Parenthood. Stop embarrassing yourself.


If you’re looking for a practical, quick guide to proper grammar, I suggest the tried-and-true classic The Elements of Style, by William Strunk, Jr. and E. B. White. A few of these examples are listed in the book, and there are plenty more. Good luck!


Want to take your writing to the next level? Check out our slate of online workshops.

Image of The Elements of Style (4th Edition)
Author: William Strunk, E. B. White
Price: $9.01
Publisher: Longman (1999)
Binding: Hardcover, 105 pages
Jon Gingerich

Column by Jon Gingerich

Jon Gingerich is editor of O'Dwyer's magazine in New York. His fiction has been published in literary journals such as The Oyez Review, Pleiades, Helix Magazine, as well as The New York Press, London’s Litro magazine, and many others. He currently writes about politics and media trends at www.odwyerpr.com. Jon holds an MFA in creative writing from The New School. Some of his published fiction can be found at www.jongingerich.com.

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Comments

Joshua Chaplinsky's picture
Joshua Chaplinsky from New York is reading The Bone Clocks January 30, 2012 - 10:18pm

This is a great article, Jon; I have to stop and think about these things all the time.

How do you feel about the fact that in certain cases, when enough people use a word incorrectly for a long enough period of time, the incorrect usage becomes accepted as correct? I know diehards rail against this.

Also, this sentence is fucked up: I was nauseated after falling into that dumpster behind the Planned Parenthood. I love it.

justkristin's picture
justkristin from the basement is reading whatever is within reach January 31, 2012 - 5:03pm

What a useful article! It has been pasted into my notebook. An aside:

The example sentence

"I recommend you eat only organic fruits and vegetables, which are available in area grocery stores."

would change with the removal of the comma, correct?

"I recommend you eat only organic fruits and vegetables, which are available in area grocery stores."

as opposed to

"I recommend you eat only organic fruits and vegetables that are available in area grocery stores." (...and not the ones from farm stands.)

postpomo's picture
postpomo from Canada is reading words words words January 31, 2012 - 5:31pm

bow down to Jon ~ I'm a big grammar geek, and was unaware of the majority of these. The most surprising is "moot". Although I checked it via the online etymology dictionary, and the mistaken usage dates to law students considering hypothetical cases.

I still can't accept "impact" as a verb. I ranted at a manager about "impactful", but he ignored me, so I started using impactment, impactitude, impateriffic, impactible, impactation, impactatory, in all my correspondence.

great article - well beyond the usual grammatical villains. cheers.

RinkWorks's picture
RinkWorks January 31, 2012 - 5:48pm

I'm all for fighting most of these fights, but the "nauseous" one is one of those urban legends of the grammar world.  This note, from dictionary.com:

The two literal senses of nauseous,  “causing nausea” ( a nauseous smell ) and “affected with nausea” ( to feel nauseous ), appear in English at almost the same time in the early 17th century, and both senses are in standard use at the present time. Nauseous  is more common than nauseated  in the sense “affected with nausea,” despite recent objections by those who imagine the sense to be new.

So there is neither a historical nor a common use reason not to use "nauseous" to mean "nauseated."  It's perfectly legitimate, and it's what virtually everyone understands the word to mean in the first place.

Liana's picture
Liana from Romania and Texas is reading Disgrace by J.M. Coetzee and loving it! January 31, 2012 - 7:43pm

I read this like it was an action sequence! (and I probably shouldn't use "like" here). Very useful, I'll have to print that out.

Now, some words first sneak into our language through common usage, then may (or may not, or might) become accepted. There is such a thing as an evolution of language where grammar has to step back at some point and allow intruders in. "Thru," I'm not including you.

Will "to impact" and "impactful" eventually become official words? I guess if people get bored with using them, they'll be forgotten, but they may one day be real words. I was having a similar dispute in relation to "adjunct" - as in "someone teaches as an adjunct, not as full professor." Many people who actually do that job will say "I'm adjuncting at such and such college," and those unfamiliar with the usage will say that's not a word. Same (and weirder) with TA-ing.

I'm ambivalent about pushing them out of use when they become common shortcuts. Is "trending" a real word?

 

Komal J Verma's picture
Komal J Verma from London January 31, 2012 - 7:48pm

Yeh I didn't know that about 'nauseous' because I am guilty of using that (all the time!) but thanks for the additinional research, RinkWorks. I too have found that though there is a distinction between them, 'nauseous' has become an accepted standard to refer to the affected form. 

MercRoyce's picture
MercRoyce January 31, 2012 - 7:53pm

You should add that "to" and "and" are not interchangeable.

"Oh yeah, I'll definitely try and make it."

What are you trying? You're still going to come after you try whatever it is, right? I'm so confused!

avgamber's picture
avgamber January 31, 2012 - 8:02pm

I would like to point out a grammical error if I could, despite the irony. In the paragraph about disinerested and uninterested the last sentence you have 'someone who couldn't care less' I do believe it should be someone who could care less, using couldn't implies that they could care more. Right?

Mark's picture
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Mark from Lexington, Kentucky is reading The Chronology of Water January 31, 2012 - 8:26pm

Contrary to common misuse, “moot” doesn’t imply something is superfluous. It means a subject is disputable or open to discussion. e.g., The idea that commercial zoning should be allowed in the residential neighborhood was a moot point for the council.

While not everyone who uses the word understands the etymology or derivation--by a long shot--this is the odd case where they don't really need to in order to get it right. 

I tend to think that the most common or popular usage for the word "moot" blunders its way 'round to being right again. And that's not a claim I make often or lightly.  

Yes, as one commenter pointed out, it once may have meant "hypothetical" or "raised only for the point and exercise of debate" (among law students.  And yes--could still mean that within specialized contexts.) But if a point is "moot," in the most common sense and usage, it's not merely debatable or open to debate, it's endlessly open to debate.  That's in the connotation, if not the denotation of the word.  Though not always recognized, the endless part is actually built right into the word "debatable."

I don't use the word "moot" very often, as it's a canceller word. I sometimes detect a note of haughtiness when the word "moot" gets thrown around, because it's used to cancel a certain line of inquiry or debate.  That gives me pause, as haughtiness is a conversational tone I generally avoid. But when someone else uses this word in the most common fashion, I take them to mean they regard a particular conversational topic or line of reasoning as fruitless for one of two principal reasons:

  1. The topic is no longer important, because a particular sitation has changed or no longer exists. The subject of debate has receded into a merely hypothetical or counterfactual mode of inquiry, good only to philosophy students.
  2. The debating point reflects an issue that people disagree upon so broadly, legitimately, and endlessly/ irreconcilably, that no amount of discussing it will lead to definitive agreement or well-reasoned action.

So, "moot" is a way for self-styled pragmatists to attempt to shut up the idealists in any debate, in what they believe to be the general interest of best use of time within a conference.  And this is so for them even if the judgment of "mootness" turns out to be rash or unjustified. It gets to be kind of a horrid and superior airs word, like that, but I do believe that in the sense of a moot point being one that's endlessly debatable, it circles right back around to impute the unneeded extra or superfluous thing.

Mark's picture
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Mark from Lexington, Kentucky is reading The Chronology of Water January 31, 2012 - 8:49pm

My observation may be practically identical to saying that years of derivation and popular use have rendered the word "moot" into a functional pejorative with a meaning that registers as almost a direct contradiction of the word's earlier or more specialized sense.  I believe that the common connotative meaning of "moot" is a little ugly and most often rash, but not exactly wrong.

postpomo's picture
postpomo from Canada is reading words words words January 31, 2012 - 8:57pm

all that may be true Mark, but it's awefully fun to say. Makes me feel like an academic owl.

Mark's picture
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Mark from Lexington, Kentucky is reading The Chronology of Water January 31, 2012 - 9:07pm

all that may be true Mark, but it's awefully fun to say. Makes me feel like an academic owl.

Indeed. As sweet as my name to the mouth of a hairlipped beagle.

Mark's picture
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Mark from Lexington, Kentucky is reading The Chronology of Water January 31, 2012 - 9:19pm

Here's the question that's a bit riveting and disconcerting about "moot," at least for word geeks like me:  

If one in a thousand people who say it are city council persons conditioned by a special context to use the word to mean, "on the table, open for us to debate," and the other nine hundred ninty-nine use it to mean "Let's take that dispute off the table, because it's fundamentally undecidable," doesn't the popular usage ultimately oversway and attach to the word's definition, rendering the more specialized use as a jargon?  

I would think that's largely the case, regardless of etymological or historical precedence, because the meanings of words morph and change, sometimes expanding to incorporate new meanings without necessarily dispatching the old ones. 

jakeSF's picture
jakeSF January 31, 2012 - 9:41pm

Speaking of grammar mistakes: the headline is a rather glaring one!

"20 Common Grammar Mistakes That (Almost) Everyone Gets Wrong"

If everyone gets the mistake wrong, doesn't that mean they've gotten it right?  Shouldn't it be something like

"20 Common Grammar Mistakes That (Almost) Everyone Makes"

or

"20 Common Grammar Rules That (Almost) Everyone Gets Wrong"?

Not trying to be an ass...it's just that such an error in the headline of a post on this topic is...ironic.

Boone Spaulding's picture
Boone Spaulding from Coldwater, Michigan, U.S.A. is reading Solarcide Presents: Nova Parade January 31, 2012 - 9:44pm

Oh, excellent grammar shortlist. I forever trip on the "who/whom" and "lay/lie" usages. I almost always write that "I laid down" for "I lay down." It's my upbringing. Absolutely everyone said "I laid down" or "She laid down."

The only example from your list that really stands out and annoys me is the "ironic/coincidence" issue. Almost every instance of someone writing, "Ironically...", is followed by something that is not ironic at all.

MAY I SUGGEST (Please!) that everybody consider replacing your "ironically" with "strangely enough?" Please please please. Stop bastardizing irony...

jakeSF's picture
jakeSF January 31, 2012 - 9:47pm

@avgamber

Wrong, actually.  People frequently use the phrase "could care less" to indicate that they don't care.  This intended meaning makes "couldn't care less" the proper phrase to use.  If one "couldn't care less" that would mean one cares as little as it's possible to care.  By saying that you "could care less" you are saying that you do, in fact, care. This is generally the opposite of the intended meaning most people are going for when they pull this phrase out.

Squirrel Says's picture
Squirrel Says February 1, 2012 - 12:30am

I would say that these are "20 Common Grammar Mistakes That (Almost) Everyone Makes."  Getting a mistake wrong would be... right?  It's redundant, anyway.

 

[Edit:  Speaking of redundant, JakeSF made exactly the same point a few comments above mine!]

JiminNC's picture
JiminNC January 31, 2012 - 11:22pm

I agree with most of these, except the claim that "since" can only be used in a temporal sense. "Since" has been used to mean "inasmuch as" for 500 years (OED). And how else are you going to translate the Latin word "quoniam"?

Masonite's picture
Masonite January 31, 2012 - 11:43pm

Regarding words like "Impactful"

If coining new words and/or word variations were bad grammar, then Shakespeare would be the worst offender of all. There's a long tradition of coining and/or adapting words going right back at least to our Indo-Eurpoean roots. Even though many of these modern coinages are rather ugly, they are not invalid at all, but indicate the natural course of a growing, evolving language. Whenever people try to force fixity upon a language, you can be pretty sure it's on the way out.

Mark's picture
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Mark from Lexington, Kentucky is reading The Chronology of Water February 1, 2012 - 12:39am

Regarding words like "Impactful"

If coining new words and/or word variations were bad grammar, then Shakespeare would be the worst offender of all. There's a long tradition of coining and/or adapting words going right back at least to our Indo-Eurpoean roots. Even though many of these modern coinages are rather ugly, they are not invalid at all, but indicate the natural course of a growing, evolving language. Whenever people try to force fixity upon a language, you can be pretty sure it's on the way out.

The difference, for me, is that Shakespeare was inhabited by genius and he coined, created, or generated lasting and significant new uses for words like gossip, radiance, lustrous, and flawed.  The most sensitive scholars know his impact upon our language as thus far unparalelled.  It isn't an obsequience or blind genuflection or chains of musty tradition to proclaim the Bard in top esteem if you know why you say it.  

The marketing hacks of late 20th and early 21st centuries are not his peers.

Lola Lola's picture
Lola Lola February 1, 2012 - 1:02am

If you're going to write a post presuming to correct grammar mistakes you may wish to start with a stronger first sentence than "I’ve edited a monthly magazine for more than six years, and it’s a job that’s come with more frustration than reward."

Porn stars come with more frustration than reward, my dear sir and/or madam, editors "arrive".

Please, find a new topic in which to meet your deadline and/or quota. You have begun to bore those of us with both sense and sensibility. You and I both know you are a poseur, unfit to preach to others. Mend your ways.

Mark's picture
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Mark from Lexington, Kentucky is reading The Chronology of Water February 1, 2012 - 1:12am

Porn stars come with more frustration than reward, my dear sir and/or madam, editors "arrive".

Wittier than wise.  Editors who prefer their English words to stink of French "arrive."

binhnguyen's picture
binhnguyen February 1, 2012 - 2:32am

Shouldnt it read, "I met him in in New York," rather than, "I consulted him"? The pronoun is part of the second clause, not the first one. You could write, "I consulted an attorney who met me in New York," and you would still say, "I consulted him."

JYH's picture
JYH from the place is reading the thing February 1, 2012 - 3:00am

What about impacted bowels?

Cerulean's picture
Cerulean February 1, 2012 - 3:56am

I must object to the weak explanations of "Fewer and Less" and "Farther and Further", in which both are described as a difference between concrete and figurative, and in which the word "hypothetical" is egregiously misused to mean figurative.

"Fewer" applies to countable objects; if what you are talking about takes a plural form, the appropriate question is "How many fewer?" "Less" applies to uncountable stuff, and the question is "how much less?" You can have less water, less sand, less pudding, less rope, etc., even though these are tangible things. In fact, "less" should be applied to any mass noun such as "junk" even if it describes something that technically consists of discrete objects. As for the intangible, one may have less joy in one's life, but fewer regrets.

There is one clear and simple thing to know about the word "farther." It means "more far." "Farr-er" sounded terrible so we stuck in an extra phoneme. It doesn't really matter if the distance is literal or figurative; if you can use the word "far," then you can compare how far with "farther."

The meaning unique to "further" is "to a greater degree, extent, or duration." For instance, you can explain further, procrastinate further, become further agitated, or further understand something.

The reason this topic gets so confusing, and why so many people try to pin down the difference and fall short, is that "further" has also been a valid variant of "farther" for as long as it has been in the language. This is mostly because English grew from sloppy beginnings, but practical logic tends to make the equivalence endure: If you have been running, and then you run further, i.e., you continue to run, then in most ordinary circumstances you will have run farther.

SarahM's picture
SarahM February 1, 2012 - 5:43am

I have to agree with binhnguyen: the example for 'whom' turns on its relating to "I met him," and not "I consulted him".  One has only to consider, "I consulted an attorney who wore a hat."

Given this is uppermost amongst the bugbears of the author, it is probably worth correcting.

Noratorious's picture
Noratorious February 1, 2012 - 5:51am

@Cerulean: YES

The distinction between "fewer" and "less" is vital to mathematics because it illustrates the difference between "continuous" and "discrete," which are two distinctly different types of sets.
 

Debbie Hoad's picture
Debbie Hoad February 1, 2012 - 6:14am

The mistake in the title was golden!

@rinkworks I didn't not know that! And unlike another commenter who claimed to be a grammer geek, I knew all of the mistakes listed here, except that I thought Jon was right about 'nauseous'. Fun to learn something new.

@Cerulean Exactly! Countable and uncountable nouns. My bugbear on that one is newscasters who consistently say 'less people' instead of 'fewer people'. I hear it all the time and it always grates.

@Lola Lola Are you always pretentious or had you just had too much wine? 'Arrive' would make no sense in that sentence. And editors may arrive, but in that sentence the subject was the job and to say the job has arrived with frustration would be completely inane.

danismom's picture
danismom February 1, 2012 - 6:17am

I was really enjoying this article until I read the final passage about "nauseous". Mind you, I am certainly not the type to be easily offended. Not by a long shot. But your example has truly crossed the line! "I was nauseated after falling into that dumpster behind the Planned Parenthood." Really?! On a day it was announced that the Komen Foundation would no longer fund breast-health screenings to Planned Parenthood (due to heavy Anti-Choice influence), THIS was the example you chose?! I realize (I hope?) you were trying to be humorous, but considering the fact that fewer than 3% of Planned Parenthood's services are related to abortions, your example merely perpetuates the grossly incorrect stereotype of this much-needed program. Because of these types of mind-sets (very misguided, in my humble opinion) tens, if not hundreds, of thousands of low-income and at-risk women will no longer have access to breast- and reproductive-health screenings. Shame on you, I say! Shame, shame, shame! I sincerely hope you will find a better, more constructive way to exempilfy "nauseated". How's this? Your commentary and example made me feel nauseated?!?!

San Daly's picture
San Daly February 1, 2012 - 9:29am

One would think that the author of such an article would do their research properly.

Apparently this one didn't.

Re: -nauseous

Merriam Webster says: 

Definition of NAUSEOUS

1
: causing nausea or disgust : nauseating
2
: affected with nausea or disgust
— nau·seous·ly adverb
— nau·seous·ness noun
See nauseous defined for English-language learners »
See nauseous defined for kids »
Usage Discussion of NAUSEOUS

Those who insist that nauseous can properly be used only in sense 1 and that in sense 2 it is an error for nauseated are mistaken. Current evidence shows these facts: nauseous is most frequently used to mean physically affected with nausea, usually after a linking verb such as feel or become; figurative use is quite a bit less frequent. Use of nauseous in sense 1 is much more often figurative than literal, and this use appears to be losing ground to nauseating. Nauseated is used more widely than nauseous in sense 2.

 

gaveeno's picture
gaveeno February 1, 2012 - 10:45am

I'm surprised that the common "Jane and I / Jane and me" flub didn't make your list. It seems like the majority of people I encounter think that it's never correct to say "Jane and me", and will say "please join Jane and I for dinner" instead of the correct "please join Jane and me for dinner". Knowing that it's such a common mistake, it peeves me that others must think I'm wrong whenever I use the correct form.

jcasey@thenonsequitur.com's picture
jcasey@thenonse... February 1, 2012 - 11:22am

Nice.

Two things.  1.  These are not "grammar" mistakes, they're mistakes in the use of individual words (save one or two of them).  

2.  If they're "mistakes everyone gets wrong," then they get them right? (that was a grammar mistake).

 

rareasasparagus's picture
rareasasparagus February 1, 2012 - 12:35pm

Eager is not a good substitute to describe the pain of waiting for a much dreamed of event, especially for a child. That big wrapped box that may contain a much wanted toy in the days leading up to a birthday, the long car ride to the amusement park, those are painful situations. The kind of pain that is akin to dread of something bad because what if the outcome doesn't measure up, which is why I think the word anxious gets used in that case.

Joshua Chaplinsky's picture
Joshua Chaplinsky from New York is reading The Bone Clocks February 1, 2012 - 1:37pm

The title has been amended. The rest of your points are debatable. Have at you!

chipmyers's picture
chipmyers February 1, 2012 - 1:37pm

Good list, Jon. Didn't know about "moot." It's interesting to read the reactions and see - embedded in their criticisms - the folks I would deem "nice guys" or not so nice.

As I was reading the list, I thought of a couple of "errors" I thought should certainly make the top 20:

One was the "couldn't care less" (the correct form) versus "could care less" (totally illogical and basically in need of eradication from the language). Please write about that and straighten out the poor misled person who wrote in.

The second (as someone has already written in) is the "I versus me" mistake. I saw in a dictionary once some phraseology I loved and have never forgotten, used to describe the use of I in the objective case: "A prissy avoidance by people of little minds, taught early in life that 'me' was a dirty word."

And one more to add: "infer" versus "imply." Unless they've been told (or remember that short lecture from their grammar and usage class), most folks really don't know the difference. And the difference is huge. Please add that one and explain it to the group, Jon.

Thanks and keep up the good work.

Chip

Mark's picture
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Mark from Lexington, Kentucky is reading The Chronology of Water February 1, 2012 - 2:01pm

What about impacted bowels?

Precisely the sense of the word that's always evoked for me, making me shudder a little when broadcast journalists yoke the word to mean the past tense of "having a strong influence or effect."

But then, Jon was after "impactful," which is more a marketing buzzword than journalistic jargon, though it's possibly infected journalists and politicians by now, too.

Unrelated: I assumed the peculiarity in the original title was intended for irony.

postpomo's picture
postpomo from Canada is reading words words words February 1, 2012 - 2:52pm

When I asked a friend what the title of her dissertation was, she told me "the impact of..." and I stopped listening to rant about the overuse of that word.

She patiently waited me out. She's an engineer, and her paper was on the subject of train collisions.

SGJ's picture
SGJ from Midland, Texas (but in Boulder, Colorado, now) is reading weird fiction and horror fiction and science fiction and literary fiction and innovative fiction, or maybe a romance or a western or a magazine on bowhunting or show trucks or anthropology February 1, 2012 - 4:11pm

very nice. thanks. had somebody explain that 'nauseous' thing to me the other day, and by the end I was A) nauseous and B) sure I was never using that word again. too, seems 'blond/blonde' and 'duck/duct' (as in TAPE) could be additions. 

postpomo's picture
postpomo from Canada is reading words words words February 1, 2012 - 5:32pm

'duck/duct' (as in TAPE)

 

originally duck because of its waterproof qualities - apparently, it isn't ideal for ducts.

ex0du5's picture
ex0du5 February 1, 2012 - 5:52pm

It is always fair to mention common and accepted usage of grammar to help people understand how to better communicate.  However, grammar is never wrong or mistaken.  Language is not given to us with a rule book.  People create language, and every person has the right to be a point of language evolution and change.

We do not ask people to spell "our" as "ure", because we have evolved new spellings.  I use "it's" as my preferred form for both possesive and contraction, in better parallel with the rest of English usage for other nouns and pronouns.

Your list indicates places where language is evolving.  Some of your points help make the argument that language is clearer with a particular traditional usage - that is a good argument.  However, it does not mean that your preferred grammar is "right" and others are "wrong".

If there is understanding in a communication, then it is working as language.  Language evolves.  People need to get used to that and stop finding things to feel superior about.  Grammar nazis are the hipsters of linguistics.

ex0du5's picture
ex0du5 February 1, 2012 - 5:54pm

Also, MAJOR nit here: most of your issues are semantic, not grammatical.

ckruz's picture
ckruz February 1, 2012 - 6:13pm

I've been using "healthful" instead of "healthy" when referring to food that is good for you. My wife is skeptical, but I haven't yet found any solid justification. Anyone have thoughts?

mgolden's picture
mgolden February 1, 2012 - 6:22pm

If you're going to write a pedantic article like this, you have to get everything right.  "Disinterested" does not mean impartial.  It means not having a (financial) interest.  The hope usually is that such a person is impartial, but he could be disinterested without being impartial.

Timothy Johnson's picture
Timothy Johnson February 1, 2012 - 6:25pm

Common misuse is how words change in English. Moot more frequently means something no longer worth discussing as it is no longer important. In a similar case, decimate also no longer means "to reduce by one tenth."

Leslie in CA's picture
Leslie in CA February 1, 2012 - 6:53pm

A mostly useful list, with my thanks to the commenters who have offered corrections as well as the observation that words inevitably take on new meanings with time. In the case of "nauseous," for example, since the overwhelming number of English speakers (at least in the U.S.) both use it and understand it to mean "nauseated" and not "nauseating," it has for all intents and purposes taken on the first meaning. Before long, the second will be an archaism. As ex0du5 notes, it's better for those of us who sling the red ink to focus on "errors" that produce actual confusion in the reader; they are, ultimately, the only ones that matter, except for questions of style and tone in a given piece.

I'll now contradict my essential agreement with ex0du5's point by addressing one additional error that occurs in your paragraph on "who" vs. "whom," namely, the uses of "substitute" and "replace." While these terms have similar meanings, they call for different prepositions. In recent years, it's become quite common for writers to mix them up, resulting in sentences that are technically nonsensical. 

To wit: "substitute" always calls for the preposition "for," while "replace" always uses "with." One either substitutes one thing *for* another, or replaces one thing *with* another. Either of the following sentences, e.g., is correct (grammatically if not culinarily): I substituted chile powder for cinnamon while making the recipe, or I replaced the cinnamon the recipe called for with chile powder.  Note that in the first sentence, the new item -- the one being substituted -- is listed first, while in the second the old item -- the one being replaced -- comes first, in order that verbs and their referents not be separated. (Formula: substitute A for Z; replace Z with A.)

I sometimes also see sentences that use one verb when they mean the other, as in a recipe that calls for yogurt, but then says If you don't have any on hand, you can substitute the yogurt with milk and lemon juice.

Leslie in CA's picture
Leslie in CA February 1, 2012 - 7:00pm

@ckruz, I remember long ago reading an example sentence that used "healthful" to describe food, as in "Fruits and vegetables are very healthful foods that should be eaten every day." I think "healthful" is one of those words that while technically correct, as you're using it, has largely fallen into misuse and is on its way out.

@mgolden, as long as we're being pedantic, the dictionary disagrees with you:

dis·in·ter·est·ed   [dis-in-tuh-res-tid, -tri-stid]  

adjective
1.
unbiased by personal interest or advantage; not influenced by selfish motives: a disinterested decision by the referee.
2.
not interested;  indifferent.

Origin:
1605–15; dis-1  + interested

Related forms
dis·in·ter·est·ed·ly, adverb
dis·in·ter·est·ed·ness, noun
non·dis·in·ter·est·ed, adjective

Can be confused:  disinterested, uninterested (see usage note at the current entry).

Synonyms
1.  impartial, neutral, unprejudiced, dispassionate. See fair1 .

Antonyms
1.  partial, biased.

Usage note
Disinterested  and uninterested  share a confused and confusing history. Disinterested  was originally used to mean “not interested, indifferent”; uninterested  in its earliest use meant “impartial.” By various developmental twists, disinterested  is now used in both senses. Uninterested  is used mainly in the sense “not interested, indifferent.” It is occasionally used to mean “not having a personal or property interest.”

Ricardo Barrera's picture
Ricardo Barrera February 1, 2012 - 7:27pm

The title of the post may have been amended, but not the file name of the post: http://litreactor.com/columns/20-common-grammar-mistakes-that-almost-everyone-gets-wrong

jadamslh's picture
jadamslh February 1, 2012 - 10:12pm

As a noob here I'm enjoying reading what everyone's had to say regarding grammar [or semantics]. I've always loved language and appreciated its use in conveying meaning with precision. Reading or hearing someone's subtle play on words brings me smiles. Thanks, everyone!

Mordechai Kushner's picture
Mordechai Kushner February 1, 2012 - 10:49pm

IMHO, some of these points are moot . . . .

adrianmander's picture
adrianmander February 1, 2012 - 11:12pm

Jon, great article.  But I'm just wondering how you grammar enthusiasts learn grammar rules? Do you just get them all out of  books written by other grammar enthusiasts? Or is it possible to learn a grammar rule  by observation only? If this is so, then how do you tell if what you are observing is a legitimate rule?

Regards, Adrian