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!


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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

Mar Rojo's picture
Mar Rojo February 8, 2012 - 5:49am

<Interesting writ but a lot of them are your personal preferences rather than grammatical mistakes. >

Indeed thay are. Many of them are also examples of "prescription by excision".

toasted's picture
toasted February 8, 2012 - 2:17pm

Usage note

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. 

 

Rocky Jabber's picture
Rocky Jabber February 8, 2012 - 4:43pm

My pet peeve is the misuse of "begs the question" when something like "raises the question" is meant.  Begging the question means making a circular argument, where the conclusion and premise are identical.  I'd love to know the etymology.  My guess is that "question" is the argument, and "begging" is asserting an unearned proof.

Socrates is mortal; therefore Socrates will die.  That is begging the question:  mortality is the condition of being subject to death.*

That Socrates irks powerful Athenians raises (rather than begs) the question, will Socrates be put on trial?

My apologies for any grammatical, semantic, logical, or typographical errors which I got wrong.  I would be nauseous if I were to nauseate anyone.

 

*All men are mortal.  Socrates is a man.  Therefore Socrates is mortal.  That is  a valid argument.

Mar Rojo's picture
Mar Rojo February 8, 2012 - 9:05pm
Deborah Sinclair Black Reed's picture
Deborah Sinclai... February 9, 2012 - 5:21pm

As a former English major, i see/hear many words and phrases that glare at me like a Kleig light. Here in the mid-West, folks sometimes get borrow and loan confused, e.g. he borrowed me $10. 

There also seems to be an issue with freeze, thaw, defrost and "unthaw," a non-word as far as I know. Folks here might "unthaw some burgers for dinner."

The word "nauseous" makes me nauseated.

Finally, I agree with your observation that there are some words that have entered into common usage and have no business being there. "Impact", of course, you already addressed. As a nurse, the word "impacted" has a much more malodorous connotation.

Finally, I am fighting against the tide with this one: transition. Last I heard, words ending in "tion" are nouns, not verbs, yet people and things are transitioning left and right all around us. What happened to the verb "transit." Did it have to be all dressed up with a fancy sounding ending to create more impact? (I think i used it correctly right there?) There are ore that will come to me after I click to send. Please keep up the good work. I am delighted to have a forum to which I may seek proper grammar and punctuation. I guess those things have changed since 1965.

Deb Reed, MIlwaukee

driscool's picture
driscool February 10, 2012 - 6:46am

I disagree with nearly all of your points here.

arparp's picture
arparp February 10, 2012 - 11:57am

There is absolutely nothing wrong or unnatural about "verbing" nouns, especially if there is no serviceable verb form already extant. Even in such a case, as with "verbify," the unmodified noun may be preferable; "impactify" would be extremely odius. Marketing speak will continue to be ridiculous, regardless of concern with grammatical convention. Words that are used correctly can still be the wrong choice; consider the use of "waft" in an offensively pseudo-poetic manner

There are few things more despicable than ill-founded and smug self-assurance in regards to grammatical or linguistic correctness. The perfect case is that of "axe" pronunciations of "ask,"  a legitimacy with an unbroken lineage reaching from African American Vernacular English through Southern American English back to Middle English and Anglo-Saxon.

PeterA's picture
PeterA February 10, 2012 - 1:03pm

To introduce yet another, what about the placement of the word "only"? For example, "I only kicked him once" meaning I kicked him just one time, is wrong, wrong, wrong. What that says to me is that all I did was kick him. I didn't punch him, I didn't maul him, I didn't kiss him, I merely kicked him. The correct way to say he was kicked once would be "I kicked him only once."  It is extaordinary to me to see this error creep in to the language. Creep, hell, it is rampant!

arparp's picture
arparp February 10, 2012 - 1:20pm

Sorry PeterA, that usage has citations all the way back to 1483 and from the likes of Cromwell, Dryden and Tennyson. The OED says "Frequent in speech, where stress and pauses eliminate ambiguity; often avoided by careful writers." A far cry from "wrong, wrong, wrong."

jb3177's picture
jb3177 February 10, 2012 - 4:45pm

Consider adding the difference between "less than" and "fewer than"  (number of items allowed in the speedy checkout lane).

Ben Kilpela's picture
Ben Kilpela February 10, 2012 - 4:48pm

Sorry to be a killjoy, but the article is inaccurate on a number of levels. First, no more than a couple of the so-called "errors" listed are grammatical errors. Most are either usage or vocabulary errors, a very important distinction that should be observed. Second, several of the usage errors are the usage equivalents of old wives' tales. Some grammar dictator of the past decided ad hoc that such-and-such a usage was wrong, and somehow the idea spread. For example, the ol' that-which issue. If you read Webster's fantastically informative Dictionary of English Usage, you learn quickly that this distinction was cooked up by some obscure and long forgotten grammar cop of long ago. Great writers have not kept the distinction for hundreds of years right up to the present moment. There is no reason observe the distinction now unless you prefer it. Most of the rules I observe in writing, but most I also allow for in casual speech. It is time people started consulting the finest book ever written on these issues, the above mentioned Webster's. Get it and stop getting tangled with these grammar cops. It's even worth reading for fun, as I often do.

Mark's picture
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Mark from Lexington, Kentucky is reading The Chronology of Water February 10, 2012 - 6:01pm

Most of the rules I observe in writing, but most I also allow for in casual speech.

This is an important distinction. Please carry it just one step further and apply it to the total context of our discussion. Many people joining the discussion in these comments seem to be responding as though the columnist were out to police casual speech. He's not. As per the mission of the website, Jon is offering advice to aspiring authors, to actual or would-be power users of the language. And he's offering guidelines that such a person might generally want to observe, but especially in writing, and especially when communicating with professionals in the publishing industry.

Three large errors of assumption persist in a majority of the comments. One is that the article is in any way a criticism of daily speech habits instead of a specialized guide for the level of care that's appropriate to the written expressions of professional or near-professional writers.

A second common or repeated error is pretty much every instance where someone feels assured that a single sense of a word is the only right one, as per an earlier gripe about "disinterested" and repeated comments about supposedly the only right meaning for "grammar." In pretty much every case, it's not only musty old rule books, but communities of educated users, both historical and contemporary, who refute these insistences on the one right sense or meaning of a word.

A third very common assumption which amounts to a contextual error--equal and opposite to the second one I've mentioned and closely related to the first--occurs every time someone contravenes a bit of Jon's advice with entries from the OED. The Oxford English Dictionary is a descriptive project and its lexicographers do their best to capture every nuance of a word as it has been and is currently used in the language. This means that if an error persists or is ubiquitous, it will eventually be found in such a reference book. Finding it there doesn't necessarily recommend it as something to use uncritically in your narrative or expository voice.

An obvious example I can think of is people in our culture, including broadcast journalists, who use "enormity" when they simply mean "magnitude." This co-opting is ubiquitous, perhaps because "enormity" sounds like "enormous." The most educated users of the English language, in contrast, usually prefer to reserve "enormity" to its historically rooted sense of "great evil," and to withhold this word from describing something of great magnitude but perfectly amoral, like a desert or a hurricane. A genocidal maniac commits crimes of enormity, of monstrous evil, while a desert--potentially just as deadly to the lone individual--is amoral and simply vast.

Distinctions like this are nitpicking pedantry if used to police the casual speech of everyday users of the language. But the same distinctions are vital to aspiring authors who want to look educated and wield considerable finesse in written queries to agents and cover letters that accompany submissions, etc., in addition to exercising strong, clear expository writing to any purpose.

This matter of contextual appropriateness and for whom the article is intended should not be lost in the greater fabric of the discussion.

Boone Spaulding's picture
Boone Spaulding from Coldwater, Michigan, U.S.A. is reading Solarcide Presents: Nova Parade February 10, 2012 - 10:14pm

Boone, have you spent time at Language Log?

http://languagelog.ldc.upenn.edu/nll/

And what do you all think of this quote?

"Laymen are generally lousy linguists: they do not know what questions to ask, they do not know how to look for answers to them and they are too ready to accept generalizations to which they could easily find counter examples."
---James D. McCawley

@ mar rojo:

1) No, and thanks for the link!

2) Laymen frustrate the highly educated and professionals who chose to work with language. However - the highly educated and professionals need to realize that they can EDUCATE and possibly PERSUADE laypersons regarding language, but they'll have to share the usage with the laypeople. After all, peasants, noblemen, scribes and monarchs all created the language together.Which to me raises the questions on which all this hinges: ON WHOSE AUTHORITY and TO WHAT PURPOSE  do all these language rules apply? It seems that it is all rather subjective...in every case, on whoever's authority, the rules I remember are the practical (as opposed to arcane) rules that make the writer or speaker "best understood." There's another tangled mess - for what audience are you writing/speaking? Here at LitReactor, we have a broad spectrum of writers - familiar, informal and some, highly formal users of the language....

@ Jon: HEY JON! ARE YOU BUSY WORKING ON ANOTHER "GRAMMAR" COLUMN? DID THE 112+ RESPONSES/COMMMENTS FIRE YOU UP OR DAMP YOUR ENTHUSIASM FOR THE SUBJECT???

(hahaha - it was a fine column and the responses were great food for thought & feeling [feeling in the sense of 'value judgment' rather than the sense of 'emotion'])

jesspkt's picture
jesspkt February 10, 2012 - 10:17pm

@avgamber @JakeSF

You are both wrong! When used literally the phrase is "i couldn't care less," meaning that one cares as little as is possible. However, the phrase "i could care less" is also used with the same meaning, but facetiously. It's about tone, and if "i could care less" is said without the tone it becomes meaningless. 

 

Which brings me to my irnoy pet peeve. The overuse/misuse of sarcastic. To be sarcastic there has to be a malicious intent behind the statment. When saying something that is the opposite of what you mean, but without mallice, it is either "ironic" or "facetious." 

 

Don't get me started about analyzation. *waits for someone to pull up a reference to the archaic useage*

custommadename's picture
custommadename is reading Eats, Shoots, and Leaves February 11, 2012 - 12:27am

Grammatical Mistakes

A grammar mistake is probably impossible because it's a fundamental error in the system of grammar.

arparp's picture
arparp February 11, 2012 - 1:17am

I grant that the OED is not prescriptive. Yet there is no true authority. That includes Garner's Modern American Usage, which I use and view as a far superior to the Strunk & White stack of inconsistent hypocrisy. This is largely my point. It is a fine thing to make arguments about preferred usage and a target audience's expectation. It is a far less fine thing to assume smug superiority deriving from another's usage and your perceived correctness. 

As Garner says "Though words that have recently undergone semantic shift are typically unsuitable for formal contexts, we should resist the benighted temptation to condemn all such shifts in a part of speech if they help fill gaps in the language." Further, as argued in http://everythingyouknowaboutenglishiswrong.com/sample-impact.html,there is no exact synonym for impact, and "to impact" sounds like a perfectly good infinitive. Impactful is a bit sour and "full of impact" is pleasantly sonorous; perhaps no gap is filled.

Garner ranks the use of impact as a verb as being "stage 3," avoided in careful usage but still common among many well-educated people. He ranks the figurative meaning of "literally" at the same stage. However, there is a huge difference between the utility of "impact" and the neverending destruction of words to serve as hyperbole that has left very, really and truly trampled in its wake.

So, shift word function. Coin new words. Don't worry that you aren't Shakespeare. You might have a chance at being an English speaking Plautus.

Shaun Batstone's picture
Shaun Batstone February 11, 2012 - 2:46am

The biggest grammar error that get to me at the moment is the misuse of never. "Did you do that?" "No, I never."
I am not that good with my grammar in the first place but wow... Never is present continuous. It refers to the now and into the future for ever. It can not (or "never") refer to the past. Didn't or haven't refer to the past as a timeline until now. "I will never do that" is correct. So is "I never do that kind of thing"

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Mark from Lexington, Kentucky is reading The Chronology of Water February 11, 2012 - 3:21am

So, shift word function. Coin new words. Don't worry that you aren't Shakespeare. You might have a chance at being an English speaking Plautus.

Wasn't Shakespeare already the English speaking Plautus? It's common knowledge that Will stole many of his plots from some of the best-known Roman playwrights.

 

Mark's picture
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Mark from Lexington, Kentucky is reading The Chronology of Water February 11, 2012 - 3:33am

The biggest grammar error that get to me at the moment is the misuse of never. "Did you do that?" "No, I never."
I am not that good with my grammar in the first place but wow... Never is present continuous. It refers to the now and into the future for ever. It can not (or "never") refer to the past. Didn't or haven't refer to the past as a timeline until now. "I will never do that" is correct. So is "I never do that kind of thing"

You're right in that it sounds somewhat illiterate to say: "No, I never." A better answer for "Did you do that?" would of course be: "No, I didn't."

"Did?"

"No, didn't."

A simple reversal using the negatvie form of the same word; in this case, the most common contraction of "did not."

But what if someone asks: "Have you ever done that?" (e.g., "Have you ever committed murder?")

Yes, you could just say: "No, I haven't." But wouldn't it be fine to say: "No, I've never done that!" In this case, using "have never," if only for emphasis. (i.e., "No, I've never committed murder and I likely never will.") 

I've never before heard anyone (until now) proclaim that the word "never" may never be used to refer to the past. I can no longer say that I've never heard (or, more precisely, read) that claim, but until a few minutes ago, I'm pretty sure it was an acceptable or legal statement for me.

I still might say something figurative, like: "These two armies have never slept." In a case like that, it's obvious that the statement isn't literally true or even literally intended, but it makes a point and I don't perceive anything grammatically or logically flawed in the construction.

I do see the reasoning that "never," as an absolutist word, might constrain us to "These two armies never sleep." If the statement is true, it's true for past, future, and for all time. (Ongoing, continuous present.) But we're in the odd realm of proclaiming absolutes in contexts that may carry on long beyond our capacity to stay with and verify the truth of the claims. Meanwhile, the claim: "These two armies have never slept," while pointing strictly into the past and only portending the likely continuation of the same condition, registers to me as proper English grammar.  On a purely logical level, we should probably not get by with this because of the flawed time-binding implicit in this totalizing word. But if we're going to be that precise and strict about it, then there's no sense in ever using absolute or totalizing terms in relative contexts--except to bring out an emphasis, in the way that double negatives are quite acceptable in Spanish and demonstate emotive emphasis, not logical contradiction.

This gets us toward the heart of the matter: in the natural language systems used by human beings, grammar supercedes logic and many expressions coherent and meaningful within the systems of a langauge will not stand up when we apply the most strident, literal, formal, and rigorously binary or Aristotelian logic games to the meaning of each word and every sentence. Natural langauges are not rigorously or simplictically logical. Grammar operates on as many exceptions as rules to cohere into a meaningful set of signs and symbols, brought together first through casual contact and imitative use, as slaves of formerly warring tribes build a common language when forced to work at the common tasks of an oppressive force. Languages are built through so many rounds of violence and sloppiness and accident that it's almost hilarious when we get around to ordering our systems. The bones of highly functional languages are often brought together through some form of cultural mayhem. And then we build libraries on top of those bones. And a few hundred years later, computer networks get built on top of the libraries.

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Mark from Lexington, Kentucky is reading The Chronology of Water February 11, 2012 - 4:49am

In fact, yeah, I had an intuition that "never" reflected an etymology derived from "not ever." A quick look at an online etymology dictionary confirms this suspicion.


never
O.E. næfre, compound of ne "not, no" (from PIE base *ne- "no, not;" see un-) + æfre "ever" (see ever). Early used as an emphatic form of not (as still in never mind). O.E., unlike its modern descendant, had the useful custom of attaching ne to words to create their negatives, as in nabban for na habban "not to have."


I'm pretty sure that "never" points to the past as readily as the present and the future and it means: "Not once in all of recorded time... up to and including right now." Or something close to that. I think it only distinctly points to the future when surrounding grammar yokes it to that purpose, as in: "No, I will never do that." ("No, I will not ever do that.")

The fuller idea of "never," of course, includes: Never have (past) and never will (future,) an encompassing concept that necessarily covers the present, as well, since the speaker is presumably making the claim in an ephemeral blink of time that can't be used simultaneously to contradict the same claim.  The present moment is always evaporating that way.

"Never have and never will" is tautological or perhaps redundant, because built already into the meaning of the word; i.e., strong claims of "never" must point equally toward past and future in order to embrace the full meaning of the word. But here's the rub: the claim of "never" may be verifiable or falsifiable as regards the past, and yet it may be contradicted and made untrue at some as yet undefined moment in the future. Therefore, "never" as a strong claim defeats itself from literal meaning, unless the speaker could be God and proclaim "never" from somewhere outside of time.

Otherwise, it's always only conditionally true and beyond ultimate verification. The strong sense of the word "never" cannot be verified or falsified in experience precisely because it is not time-bound in either direction, but encompassing. The continuous present the word "never" applies to isn't so much a tense as a door with no grooves or hinges. It's infinitely small and far away but we're traveling toward it infinitely fast and if we had any time at all we'd cross our fingers in hopes that it's open instead of inviolable, which would mean "always."

magrello's picture
magrello February 11, 2012 - 8:25am

i won't care 'bout grammar as i write:

great work dude. love u.

i'm a braSilian english teacher, i know u didnt write this thinkin bout brasilian students.

just for the records, the examples u give are somteimes hard for them to see a difference.

by the 'commenters', i believe you're talking to english grammar lords. (;])

i must again say:

i know you were not thinking about english students being taught by braSilian teachers.

but i loved everything you wrote, most of which i always knew, but never thought about.

thank you loads for spending your time on typing it all.

you've made me smarter.

whatsthebigidea's picture
whatsthebigidea February 11, 2012 - 9:48am

Just a note: great thread. I'll need to brush up on my grammar. It can be a bit embarrasing to realize how poor my writing skills can be at times. A full time editor is needed. Any takers?

lampak's picture
lampak February 11, 2012 - 11:03am

Well, a quick look-up of the word "nauseous" in the British Corpus (http://bnc.bl.uk/saraWeb.php?qy=Nauseous&mysubmit=Go) proves at least 1/3 of all uses of this word are the "wrong" ones.

All three dictionaries on TheFreeDictionary which contain the word "since", define it as, among others, "because" (http://www.thefreedictionary.com/since).

What kind of phrase is a "common misuse", actually? When it comes to language, there are no such things - any common usage becomes, by the definition of a language, correct.

(This was a Polish guy disagreeing with an expert on English language. Hurray. Anyway, I don't think I'm going to be that pedantic and learn English from this column.)

Emerjay's picture
Emerjay February 11, 2012 - 12:54pm

Maybe the list should be 21 instead of 20. You missed a major issue in most online writing. Avoid introducing lists of items with references to directions like above, below or the following. It's redundant because it is obvious to the reader. Just start the list.

dgreenwald43's picture
dgreenwald43 February 11, 2012 - 3:57pm

As I understand the word "moot", it started as a legalism referring to a question that did not require a legal finding or judgment by a court. For example, if someone damages a possession of mine, and I accept $100 as full compensation, then the real value of the possession is a moot question - that is, no legal process needs to address/settle the issue. From that meaning it went to a description of a question that was of intertesting philosphical or other speculation, but of no practical purpose.

 

The other misuse of moot" is to pronounce it like "mute".

Paul Danon's picture
Paul Danon February 11, 2012 - 4:43pm

How do you know the which/that rule is true? The words can usually be substituted without changing the sense. The difference is more stylistic. Also, could it be that people make that so-called mistake so often because they don't understand the rule and it's conseqently not a rule? It doesn't exist in British English and we get along fine without it.

michaeldevault's picture
michaeldevault February 11, 2012 - 11:57pm

While I agree with most of the points you raise, I take issue with your definition of moot. Looking up "moot" in the Oxford English Dictionary produces two, (and then some), defininitions of moot. 

One definition is as you describe it, but that is the far less common usage in the United States. The more common usage is "debatable beyond any reasonable expectation of settlement," meaning it is pointless to argue. 

And, in some dictionaries, the "pointless to argue because it is now irrelevant" has become a standard use as well. 

The interesitng part of two of those three definitions is the reliance on the question at hand being "irrelevant"--for whatever reason.

 

LuziAnne's picture
LuziAnne February 12, 2012 - 12:04am

The funny part is that there's a grammatical error in the first paragraph and no one seems to have noticed it.  It reads "If there’s one thing I am grateful for — and it sure isn’t the pay — it’s that...."  But it should read "If there’s one thing I am grateful for — and it sureLY isn’t the pay — it’s that...."

Mark's picture
Admin
Mark from Lexington, Kentucky is reading The Chronology of Water February 12, 2012 - 4:11am

The funny part is that there's a grammatical error in the first paragraph and no one seems to have noticed it.  It reads "If there’s one thing I am grateful for — and it sure isn’t the pay — it’s that...."  But it should read "If there’s one thing I am grateful for — and it sureLY isn’t the pay — it’s that...."

On that note, check out this informative video:

http://www.merriam-webster.com/video/0030-flatadverbs.htm?&t=1329028247

Quite recently, I spotted excellent use of the 'flat' adverb in a reference work:

Shakespeare was as fascinated by the idea of mimesis as all great writers are. In the instruction Hamlet gives the players visiting Elsinore, he tells them to "hold as 'twere the mirror up to nature." The idea of the mirror is a favorite with those explaining the relationship of literature to the "real" world ("nature"). Stendhal described the novel as a "mirror in the roadway." But as any fairground "hall of fun" testifies, mirrors do not always reflect true.

That excerpt is from How Literature Works by John Sutherland, a noted book columnist and critic. My hunch is that it's no accident he didn't say: "mirrors do not always reflect truly." The line is given a more Shakespearean breath or measure by finishing on "true" (not in its usual role as an adjective, but here employed as a flat adverb). Rising gently into the poetic register befits the subject matter.

There's less of poetry in the colloquial-sounding, "And it sure isn't the pay." It reads not so much as a careful measuring of line and resonance, but rather more as a choice for an informal to medium tone: a conversational tone. That might be an odd choice for an article containing prescriptive advice. Or it might be a deliberate informality to warm the audience and curb the too-easy charges of pretension and pedantry. I'd rather call it a slightly mismeasured informality than a stroke of ignorance.

The rule of charity in argumentation, which philosophy students still learn in the best programs, calls for extending the benefit of the doubt.

hodbby's picture
hodbby February 12, 2012 - 5:13am

Hello there.

Although i am Israeli and this is by far so advanced to my skills- i found this post very useful and am going to use it and learn from it.

 

I would like to contribute something i have learned recently:

The letter ' q ' can be used only as last letter or to be follow with ' u '

example for follow with u: quit, queue

example for last letter: NASDAQ or non-english names.

roggy_mcgee's picture
roggy_mcgee February 13, 2012 - 1:16am

I strongly disagree with the characterization of jealousy as "far more nefarious" than envy, when in fact envy is far more nefarious than jealousy. 

As defined in the online OED, jealousy, as mentioned, does capture the "fear of being supplanted in the affection of... a beloved person."  It generally seems to capture a spirit of "suspiciousness" and "anxiety" in addition to "zeal... of feeling against some person or thing..."  Although jealousy is often used to describe that which is sexual in nature, it is not relegated to that domain.

On the other hand, the OED suggests that envy is far more malevolent.  Envy is defined as a "malignant or hostile feeling" associated with "active evil" and "harm."

In this respect, feelings of jealousy might arise upon hearing of a comparably skilled co-worker's promotion and pay raise.  An individual feeling envious might consider committing an evil act in order to get their co-worker fired.

Mark's picture
Admin
Mark from Lexington, Kentucky is reading The Chronology of Water February 13, 2012 - 3:48am

I strongly disagree with the characterization of jealousy as "far more nefarious" than envy, when in fact envy is far more nefarious than jealousy.

I agree completely with this criticism. Jealousy--the fear of loss or rivalry, esp. in sexual or romantic love--produces hot, push button, often predictable responses. Jealousy wears its heart on its sleeve and can't help it, usually can't disguise its true nature, often embarasses the person who's feeling it in a little cascade of very self-aware insecurities; it might even prove endearing for the person who's an object of the feeling and it will sometimes arose compassion in others who perceive what the jealous person is going through. What's more, for as high and as fast as it swells, inflames, takes over a personality, it's a feeling that often dissipates very quickly, spending itself and receding, when the person suffering this particular kind of agony receives the right reassurance or simply can't maintain the energy expended.

It's a fast and honest feeling. 

In the balance with how often human beings experience some form of jealously, it's only on very rare occasions that jealousy provokes "crimes of passion." And sensitive thinkers, from ficitonal detective Sherlock Holmes, to real judges in real courts, feel greater sympathy for the person who kills in a fit of jealous rage than for the person who kills in a more calculated and cold-blooded way.

Envy is but a minor unpleasant mood in very good people. A saint, I suppose, could never feel it. A good person who's a bit less than a saint will catch himself coveting what isn't his (or hers), or hating someone just a tiny bit for good fortune or good looks or better talent or an enviable spouse (or whatever), and will just as quickly say: "Damn, it's ugly that I'm hating this person I should like and admire for no particularly good reason. I'm done with that feeling."

But other personalities get taken over by envy. Someone deep in the grip of envy, when the person they envy is within reach (not necessarily in a physical or literal way, but within their circle of influence/ circle of friends and acquaintances) will do covert things to damage the envied person. It could be as ordinary as spreading a rumor that damages the envied person's reputation, or it could take the form of little digs and jokes and putdowns designed to damage the envied person's self-confidence or lower their standing in a social group. Everyday evil.

On the other hand, the ramifications of envy are occasionally as sinister and outlandish as the headlines: the figure skater who hired someone to break the legs of a better rival or the cheerleading mother who hired someone to kill the mother of her daughter's rival, just to throw the rival cheerleader "off her game" right before tryouts/ eliminations.

The essential and frightening difference between these feelings is that jealousy is uncomfortable for the person feeling it and envy, at its worst, is perfectly at home with itself. Envy has the capacity to take possession of a personality and then walk around quietly, disguising itself, denying its motives, carrying out all sorts of plans that require cleverness and time. Envy works just fine in a cold, calculating, devious way. Where Jealousy is hot-blooded, of the moment, spontaneous, forgivable, Envy has a plan. We might even say that one is a feeling and the other, a disposition. The peak of the envious personality is the very definition of nefarious. 

diane_in_santa_monica's picture
diane_in_santa_... February 13, 2012 - 3:38pm

With "who" and "whom," some people tend to overcompensate with an incorrect (and very odd sounding) result.  "Who" can be the subject of a phrase that is an object.  I am looking for the person who is wearing a red hat.  Not, I am looking for the person whom is wearing a red hat.  Wish I had the nerve to correct people when I hear errors such as that.

Jaq Tkd's picture
Jaq Tkd from UK February 13, 2012 - 5:51pm

As well as the obvious spelling differences, I'm wondering how many of these 'mistakes' are a US/UK English issue.  Blonde/Blond was mentioned earlier which apparently depends on which side of the pond you're living on and whether you're referring to a male or female subject.  I wonder how many more of these 'preferences' are actually national issues rather than personal or historical ones?

Boone Spaulding's picture
Boone Spaulding from Coldwater, Michigan, U.S.A. is reading Solarcide Presents: Nova Parade February 14, 2012 - 9:55am

@lampak:

(This was a Polish guy disagreeing with an expert on English language. Hurray. Anyway, I don't think I'm going to be that pedantic and learn English from this column.)

Hey, we can learn a lot from the Polish guys - one of the most beautiful and profound users of the English language was a Polish guy, ESL: Józef Teodor Konrad Korzeniowski...

(yeah, I'm not going to give his "English" name - you gotta work it out)

(although the answer is in there)

Adam M Craven's picture
Adam M Craven February 14, 2012 - 11:05am

Nice.

I find that many people also have difficulty with:

- "loose" and "lose"

- "compared with" and "compared to"

 

kind regards

Adam

 

Xjy's picture
Xjy February 15, 2012 - 9:40am

I agree with jcasey and the others who think this is a bad article. It's also dangerous and destructive.

Dangerous, because it misrepresents so many aspects of language use, even written fairly formal usage, ie it's misleading. And it's misleading to a high degree and so much the worse because it's written by a practising editor, ie someone sitting in judgment.

Which is why it's destructive - it puts all the focus of writing on the wrong things. A lot of commentators have pointed out that most of the quibbles are about word use, not grammatical structures. Since a lot of the points are (to say the least) "moot", a lot of inexperienced or unsure reader/writers will become even more anxious about their use of language and dry up rather than state their views.

Mark makes a lot of useful distinctions, including prescriptive and descriptive. But prescription, ie language dictatorship, is rooted in description regardless. The distinction of "educated" is more useful, but then the question is educated to what degree? And with what result?

A real education won't lead to mechanical pedantry, and mechanical pedantry is exactly what this article gives us. It's education to the level of Word's grammar and usage check. God help us all. Semi-educated, half-baked. A mid-level language bureaucrat's plateau. Style and usage by decree.

This worked partially and for a time in the heyday of Classical French, but it's never ever worked in English, and in fact it has only served to provoke the scorn and amusement of good English writers. Mocking linguistic hyper-correctness and up-tight (f)rigidity is a red-blooded tradition in our language, as is its whoring around with its own dialects and each and every other language it comes into contact with.

Educated users of language who wants to get their ideas across with vigour (yes I'm British) and grace will follow the adage: "Laws are for the guidance of wise men and the obedience of fools". There are NO FORMAL RULES in English. There are deep-seated grammatical (syntactical, lexical and phonological rules), and breaking these will break communication to a greater or lesser extent, but ain't no way nohow breaking formal rules will blunt an argument or detract from its power. (Check out Labov's 1972 article "Academic Ignorance and Black Intelligence" for an incontrovertible demonstration of this. http://www.theatlantic.com/past/docs/issues/95sep/ets/labo.htm)

Or, as the King of Hearts said to Alice:

"Take care of the sense, and the sounds will take care of themselves."

 

 

 

ThirdCornerPenalty's picture
ThirdCornerPenalty February 15, 2012 - 12:07pm

Thank you for the article Jon.

(This is not a critique, as a third language speaker of English, I do not consider myself qualified to speak deeply about the language. My observations are based on linguistic knowledge of English and two other languages).

The issues you point out are particularly relevant of ESL speakers. I wrestle with "Who/Whom", "Which/that" and others everyday. To that extent, this is very informative.

But I want to bring in a different issue, should I call it logical dimension, of how "common grammar mistakes" are discussed, the seeming face value we take the topic.

Strictly speaking, is it also 'not grammatical' to refer to the above as "grammar mistakes"? Could it be that what you actually wanted to say is 'writing mistakes'?  Where does grammar, syntax (aren't they the same?), and semantics depart or converge?  I ask this because most of the issues pointed here have to do with semantics. So when you call them 'grammar' mistakes, doesn't it beg the mistake?

Where do issues of "grammaticality" and "acceptability" come in since the constructions that have 'grammar mistakes' are strictly grammatical since they follow the English syntactical rules? 

Wouldn't it be more precise to point the specificity of a mistake  as "spelling mistake", "semantic mistakes" "grammatical mistakes".

 

Analinguist's picture
Analinguist February 17, 2012 - 12:05pm

Hey Jon, your column could make more sense. At least half of your examples are vocabulary and not grammar problems, unlike the title suggests. Also, they are only mistakes in case you fail to understand that language is not a mere set of rules controlled by the language police (=you?) but a system under permanent transformation by its users.

 

fjsuarez's picture
fjsuarez February 17, 2012 - 10:32pm

At least half of your examples are vocabulary and not grammar problems, unlike the title suggests.

This. A lot of people tend to confuse grammar and semantics. It's funny it happens most frequently in grammar articles.

a's picture
a February 18, 2012 - 1:09pm

sorry but while this article has its heart in the right place, the author seems (my opinion) to miss 

how "historically contested" these Usage prescriptions are. the main point of all communication is not the letter of law, but the spirit behind it.

further v. farther...does it matter? when would the use of one (as opposed to the other) hurt the clarity of the setence? NEVER. so what's the point in parsing it to death? also, i wanted to, i could go through the author's own sentences--word by word--and show a million little things that are frowned upon by hard-core usage police officers. for example, he wrote the followinog sentence: “Which” qualifies, “that” restricts.

do i need to point out that this is a sentence fragment? no. who cares? he got his point across. being fussy about that v. which...is the same thing...it's not about being right...it's about being CLEAR...and sometimes using which is the better choice even if it's technically wrong. seriously, people, who doesn't know that by now?

ALSO...more important trying to study these usage editcs, reflect on this piece of sagacity.

“The writer should not follow rules, but follow language toward meaning, always seeking to understand what is appearing on the page, to see it clearly, to evaluate it clearly, for clear thinking will produce clear writing.”

Jen Todd's picture
Jen Todd is reading your lifeline and all signs are good February 18, 2012 - 1:44pm

Here's what this article has shown-- none of it really matters.

hunterand's picture
hunterand February 18, 2012 - 7:48pm

RE: Less/Fewer

Generally, the rule mentioned by several commenters that "count" nouns take fewer while "noncount" nouns take less is correct. However, when the countable items are considered in the aggregate and not as individual items, less is more appropriate.

If you do not have a 6-figure salary, do you make less than $100,000, or do you make fewer than $100,000?

If it takes you one minute and 59 seconds to do something, did you accomplish it in less than two minutes or fewer than two minutes?

I have heard both of the above examples used with fewer by people who learned the count/noncount rule, and it sounds atrocious.

Jerry Mercer's picture
Jerry Mercer February 20, 2012 - 8:57pm

I too was once as pedantic as most of the authors who posted comments. After reading Bill Bryson's The Mother Tongue, I began to back off the inconsequential errors, especially spelling and minor infractions of grammar that I commonly see. English is a growing, dynamic language, otherwise it would be as stagnant as French.  

lavonns's picture
lavonns February 24, 2012 - 11:29am

Great Post!  As an English major in the business world I feel like grammar is a forgotten art!  Let's add "more than" and "over" to the list?  To serve over a billion one must be working on a floating cafe with a very broad footprint!

 

Zzzz's picture
Zzzz February 25, 2012 - 6:34pm

I also work as an editor, although I don't claim to be a grammar expert. (An editor is just someone whose job is to look this stuff up!) I ordinarily wouldn't bother to comment, but this article is now appearing on Web sites for people who are learning how to speak English, and it concerns me that they might pick up rules that aren't correct.

Of course, I appreciate what the writer is trying to do, and some of his points are definitely true. However, having said that, I'm afraid that some of his points are also wrong.

Which and That: The explanation is a bit unclear, but I think the writer is talking about the difference between a restrictive relative clause ("I want a car that comfortably seats six") and a non-restrictive clause ("They visited Dominica, which is a pretty island in the Caribbean"). He seems to claim that it is grammatically incorrect to use which in a restrictive relative clause. That's wrong. British people in particular are fond of using which in restrictive relative clauses, and if they see this it will only confirm their worst fears that we are ruining their language. At any rate, the writer himself contradicts his own rule within the very same paragraph.

“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

LOL, that's a restrictive relative clause with which. ("It's vital to the noun which it's referring to.") In fact, if you're going to insist on contorting the relative clause like that to avoid putting the preposition at the end, the use of which is actually required! (It couldn't be "It's vital to the noun to that it's referring.")

At most, you could say that as a matter of taste in American usage, that sounds better than which in restrictive relative clauses. But this is not a grammatical rule.

Envy and Jealousy: It's true that jealousy can refer to a feeling people sometimes have in romantic relationships and envy cannot. But that doesn't mean that jealousy has no other meanings! The Oxford definition of jealous is: "feeling or showing an envious resentment of someone or their achievements, possessions, or perceived advantages." At any rate, this is not a matter of grammar at all, but of usage.

May and Might: This is also a matter of usage, not grammar, and the author is seriously splitting hairs here. The OED defines both words as expressing "possibility," and nowhere does it say that might "implies far more uncertainty." The author may have a personal preference for using might in this way, but that doesn't make it an unbreakable rule of usage.

Whether and If: These two words certainly are interchangeable in embedded or indirect questions. "I don't know whether I'll get drunk tonight" could just as well be "I don't know IF I'll get drunk tonight." The writer may prefer the more formal sound of "whether," but that is just a question of taste. It's not a grammar rule.

Since and Because: Since has been used to express reasons for hundreds of years. The OED example is: "delegates were delighted, since better protection of rhino reserves will help protect other rare species."

Nauseous: Not a matter of grammar but of usage, and as others here have pointed out, this is just a sort of myth passed among aspiring grammar snoots.

We are definitely living in a world in which horrible things are happening to the language every day, and it is great that the writer is trying to improve the situation. A lot of the other points in this article are absolutely true and very important for people to know. My hope is that readers will remember the correct points here and simply forget the ones that aren't correct.

 

 

 

loritwilliams's picture
loritwilliams February 28, 2012 - 11:55am

Great article Jon!  I learned a thing or two myself.  I feel like I've been policing others for misusing anxious and eager, for the past 15 years. That's the grammatical error I see the most.  

Lori T. Williams, Your Legal Resource, PLLC 

 

Diwiyana's picture
Diwiyana March 1, 2012 - 2:33pm

This is an interesting list to a former teacher of English such as myself.  But, like most such lists, it's more a group of pet peeves than a useful teaching tool.  Many of the specific examples are debatable and whether they are acceptable or not depends on which dictionary one uses.  Being old and old-fashioned, I use a dictionary that's not online: Webster's NewWorld Dictionary 1984.  Yes, 1984.  Back in the old days when this dictionary was printed, "since" could also mean "because" (definition 3 as a conjunction); "moot" could also mean "so hypothetical as to be meaningless" (definition 2), "anxious" could also mean "eagerly waiting" (definition 3), and "nauseous" could also mean "feeling nausea; nauseated" (definition described as colloquial).  Thus, these four examples are not true errors, even though certain editors may despise them.  In addition, "less" does not refer only to hypothetical amounts.  The distinction is that between count nouns (discreet objects that can be counted individually) versus non-count or mass nouns.  Thus, one can correctly state that one has less milk than one's neighbor at the restaurant.  The milk is actually there, a real substance and not the least bit hypothetical.  But one cannot count "one milk, two milks," because milk is a mass noun.  Hence, one uses "less milk."

Sorry about that.  I've obviously wielded far too many red pens in my day.  One might even say that marking students' papers with red pens has been impactful on my ability to read.  But I would never say that....

 

mandabean116's picture
mandabean116 March 1, 2012 - 6:07pm

You should add "I could care less." I hate it when people say this. Because if you could care less, then obviously you do care already at least a little bit. They should say that they couldn't care less. It's a pet peeve of mine.

GuidScotsTongue's picture
GuidScotsTongue March 1, 2012 - 8:59pm

Surely:

"Farther" is the comparative of "far"

"Further" is the comparative of "forth", as in "Go forth"

I think that the distinction is worth preserving, as is the verb "Lend" rather than "loan".