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: $8.85
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

HannahWillison's picture
HannahWillison November 7, 2012 - 1:08pm

Excellent article as it's always nice to learn about the more obscure mistakes. However, you have made a grammatical error when using your quotes. When quoting a word, the word is bookended by the quotation; the punctuation is not included. Take your sentences under "Anxious":* 'Unless you’re frightened of them, you shouldn’t say you’re “anxious to see your friends.” You’re actually “eager,” or "excited."' This should actually say 'Unless you're frightened of them, you shouldn't say you're "anxious to see your freinds". You're actually "eager", or "excited".' Doens't it look so much better this way? The words are cosy in their quotational house; poor punctuation is kept outside. C'est la vie.

However, when quoting sentences, it is often the case that the punctuation is included so that the quote is complete. It is VERY complicated. Hence no one's doing it.

*How werid would it look if I'd have said 'Take your sentence under "Anxious:" 'Unless you're...'?

K.J. McIntyre's picture
K.J. McIntyre November 11, 2012 - 3:24pm

The number and quality of comments augur well for effective implementation
Unfortunately, so much of the output of media bodes ill for the English language. (Employing my favorite cringes in correct applications.) Perhaps one commentator was correct in citing preferance over rule, yet I'd suggest education over lazy parlance.

Alys B. Cohen's picture
Alys B. Cohen November 19, 2012 - 10:19pm

I'm a stickler for grammar and have had to learn to let go of it after I was in a Facebook fight for always using correct grammar.  Some freinds accused me of being pretentious and looking down on them.  Typing "Who are you going with?" (both who/whom and prepositional errors) drives me up the wall, but the penalty for doing the opposite is people mad at me.  These days it's rarely worth the hassle and headach of following high school grammar rules.

Nick Herndon's picture
Nick Herndon December 14, 2012 - 12:45pm

Adjective: anxious (angk-shus)

1. Causing or fraught with or showing anxiety

"spent an anxious night waiting for the test results"; "cast anxious glances behind her"

2. Eagerly desirous

"anxious to see the new show at the museum"

 

So...you can be anxious to see your friends, even if you aren't afraid of them.

Dan Harkin's picture
Dan Harkin December 23, 2012 - 3:09pm

This is really cool but the nauseous one is just complete rubbish :( Its root means seasickness and it has always had both meanings.

JohnDoe1111's picture
JohnDoe1111 January 2, 2013 - 1:32pm

If I remember correctly, it is valid to replace "whether" with "if" but not necessarily vice versa, e. g., you can say:

"It is unsure whether this will happen." = "It is unsure if this will happen."

But:

"That will not happen if this happens." != "That will not happen whether this happens."

The latter is nonsense.

jyh's picture
jyh from VA is reading whatever he feels like January 2, 2013 - 10:35pm

əffect

Michał B. Paradowski's picture
Michał B. Paradowski from Warsaw January 4, 2013 - 9:12am

While the motivation behind this text was no doubt a noble one in that it raises a few frequent concerns, on a substantive level the piece itself is sadly fraught with numerous flaws and misrepresentations, rendering it quite pernicious given its outward credibility and potential coverage. A few objections to the most glaring inaccuracies:

- who vs. whom
The reason you use 'whom' in your example sentence "I consulted an attorney whom I met in New York" is not because "you consulted him", but because "you met him".
The distinction between the subjective and objective forms, however, is now increasingly being confined to formal and written registers.

- which vs. that
'That' and 'which' both (can be used to) introduce relative clauses, the coarse-grained distinction being that the former pronoun is prescriptively circumscribed to so-called restrictive (also called 'defining' or 'integrated') relative clauses, which express an essential part of the reasoning, while the latter can be used both in these and in non-restrictive ('non-defining' or 'supplementary') ones, which merely add parenthetical information. A sentence "The house which is burning is mine" (this I suspect was your intended example) is perfectly well-formed. Where the two relativizers are systemically interchangeable, the choice is more a matter of conventional or stylistic preference; for instance, the non-wh form is typically favored after indefinite pronouns and determiners, adjectives in the superlative, and ordinal numerals, while avoided after demonstrative pronouns.

- moot
While in the collocation 'moot point' the modifier indeed has the meaning of 'debatable' or 'disputed', in the U.S. legal context it also has the other use of having little or no (more) practical use, relevance, or significance:
"I think they were wrong, but the point is moot. Their decision has been made and it can't be changed now." (Merriam-Webster)

- envy vs. jealousy
'Jealousy' is indeed commonly associated with fear of rivalry, but need not be restricted to it; it may just be 'an unhappy feeling because someone has something that you would like or can do something that you would like to do' (Macmillan).

- may vs. might
Grammars would recommend using a past tense form also in the second clause of your example sentence, thus: "You might get a ticket if you operated a tug boat while drunk", to render the likelihood of either event taking place consistently hypothetical in both clauses. This, of course, is a prescriptive rule that is not always obeyed (just as is the case with the distinction between the default and past tense forms of the modal).

- whether vs. if
Both 'whether' and 'if' can be used to introduce embedded questions associated with a (disjunctive) alternative ("I don't know if you prefer tea or coffee"; "I don't know if he's there"). Then, the former item is typically preferred in more formal registers. From a syntactic point of view, 'whether' has been argued to have the status of an interrogative adverbial phrase (and thus filling the specifier position of CP; Kayne 1990), while 'if' that of a lexical complementizer (and as such occupying head C). This accounts for i) the restriction on the use of 'if' to finite clauses, while 'whether' can occur in both finite and infinitival contexts ("People wonder whether to trust what politicians and the media tell them" vs. *"People wonder if to trust what politicians and the media tell them"), ii) the fact that 'if' cannot introduce a clause serving as the complement of a preposition ("They were not certain about whether they should dress formally or casually" vs. *"They were concerned over if taxes are going to be increased"), and iii) that it cannot be coordinated with a negative clause ("We don't know whether or not that gun was planted" vs. *"We don't know if or not that gun was planted"; see Radford (2003) for more examples).

- fewer vs. less
'Less' is used not for 'hypothetical quantities', but for (nominal phrases used in) mass contexts, even if you can quantify them: I may have less money than you do, or take less milk in my tea, in actuality, with both qualities quantifiable (in terms of currency or volume); or "be there in less than 10 minutes" (where despite the presence of a numeral, time is conceived of as a stretch, hence non-plural). 'Few' and 'fewer' occur with (noun phrases used in) discretely countable contexts, whether tangible or not ("I have few qualms about it").

- since vs. because
'Since' as a conjunction has had both a temporal and causal meaning for centuries, and the sequential aspect may actually be absent from the situation altogether:
"Since you have no money, you can't come." (Collins)

- disinterested vs. uninterested
Disinterested can mean unbiased, but it can also mean unconcerned:
"Her father was so disinterested in her progress that he only visited the school once." (Oxford)
Merriam-Webster actually provide a more detailed commentary on the issue:
"Uninterested originally meant impartial, but this sense fell into disuse during the 18th century. About the same time the original sense of disinterested also disappeared, with uninterested developing a new sense—the present meaning—to take its place. The original sense of uninterested is still out of use, but the original sense of disinterested revived in the early 20th century. The revival has since been under frequent attack as an illiteracy and a blurring or loss of a useful distinction. Actual usage shows otherwise. Sense 2 of disinterested [free from selfish motive or interest: unbiased] is still its most frequent sense, especially in edited prose; it shows no sign of vanishing. A careful writer may choose sense 1a of disinterested [free from selfish motive or interest: unbiased] in preference to uninterested for emphasis <teaching the letters of the alphabet to her wiggling and supremely disinterested little daughter — C. L. Sulzberger>. Further, disinterested has developed a sense (1b) [no longer interested], perhaps influenced by sense 1 of the prefix dis- [do the opposite of], that contrasts with uninterested <when I grow tired or disinterested in anything, I experience a disgust — Jack London (letter, 1914)>. Still, use of senses 1a [not having the mind or feelings engaged: not interested] and 1b [no longer interested] will incur the disapproval of some who may not fully appreciate the history of this word or the subtleties of its present use."

- anxious
True, this adjective is primarily associated with a "looming fear, dread", but not only so, and can mean "you're looking forward to something", as the following dictionary definitions demonstrate: 'intensely desirous; eager' (Collins), 'wanting something very much, especially when this makes you nervous, excited, or impatient' (Macmillan), 'very eager or concerned to do something or for something to happen' (Oxford), 'ardently or earnestly wishing' (Merriam-Webster):
"My parents were anxious that I get an education." (Oxford)

- impactful
While this word is not widely attested in dictionaries yet, it has already found its way into Oxford in the sense of 'having a major impact or effect': "an eye-catching and impactful design". After all, it is but a result of derivational morphology in use, of the same rule that brought us 'eventful' or 'successful'. Time will tell if this expression spreads and becomes an established part and parcel of English speakers' vocabulary or not.
Incidentally, I am concerned with the phrase "a made-up buzzword, colligated [sic] by the modern marketing industry". The definition of 'colligate' is to 'be or cause to be juxtaposed or grouped in a syntactic relation' (Oxford); perhaps you meant 'coined'?

- nauseous
The use of this adjective to mean 'sickened', 'affected with disgust', or 'nauseated' is perfectly legitimate. Merriam-Webster elaborate on this thus:
"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 [causing nausea or disgust: nauseating] 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 [affected with nausea or disgust]."
"Riding in buses can make me nauseous." (Macmillan)
Besides, your last example is rather ill-chosen.

On a last side note, two thirds of the points are of a lexical, not grammatical nature.
It is a pity that the prescriptive bashing has been applied rather indiscriminately in the original piece. When it comes to language usage, even our strongest introspective intuitions may be misleading guidance as to how language actually functions and which forms are and are not licensed. The rules we were once taught at school or university need not necessarily be valid (any more), either. The text would be much more helpful if it had been backed up by some conscientious fact-checking. Indeed, it could then result in less "slinging of red ink" around for its author.

P.S.
A side remark that shows something interesting: some readers on the East coast of the Atlantic may wince at your following statement under the entry 'nor': "You're obligated to use the 'nor' form ...". "The verb obligate in non-legal use ... is not now found in standard use in BrE, having been replaced in all main uses by obliged. It is a routine example of a word that was once (17-19 c.) standard in BrE but has retreated into dialectal use, while remaining common (beside obliged) in AmE and to some extent elsewhere" (The New Fowler's Modern English Usage). This at once shows how language is constantly evolving. But even leaving the varietal differences aside, isn't 'obligate' too strongly connected with legal or moral constraints, unwarranted in our context?

Richard Dietzel's picture
Richard Dietzel January 17, 2013 - 11:47pm

"Stop embarrassing yourself."  Get over yourself.

David Harley's picture
David Harley January 19, 2013 - 1:31pm

 I do not myself make any of solecisms that the author finds so objectionable. I am something of a precisian, so I object to some, but that is merely a sign of linguistic conservatism and of regret at the loss of some useful descriptive distinctions.

Few of these are actually grammatical errors. In the case of who/whom, which makes pedants flinch, we are simply watching the inexorable disappearance of an accusative case in some contexts. Does anyone object to the disappearance of "whomever,"  or "whomso," or "whomsoever"?

Most are the author's objections to shifts in the usage of words. Some of these are probably lost causes -- affect/effect; envy/jealousy; uninterested/disinterested. There are many such. One always hears "verbally," as opposed to written, where "orally" might be thought correct. One might as well fight against the use of the word "prestige" no longer referring to legerdemain.

Dictionaries are not sacred prescriptive texts. They describe usage. Lexicographers miss words and the OED employs people to search for missing words, senses of words, and missed first recorded usages from all past periods of the language I used to be one such. Nevertheless, one should surely not reject a sense of a word as false when it is well rooted in historical examples.

One should especially avoid making assertions on such matters without checking whether one's own tastes, prejudices, or misinformation underlie the objection.  In rejecting out of hand the usual US usage of "moot", for example, one is denying the existence of two centuries of usage.

"Whose house is of glasse, must not throw stones at another.  -- George Herbert

Gingerich -- Moot -- Contrary to common misuse, “moot” doesn’t imply something is superfluous.

OED -- moot (adj.)
2. N. Amer. (orig. Law). Of a case, issue, etc.: having no practical significance or relevance; abstract, academic. Now the usual sense in North America.

Gingerich -- Since and Because -- “Since” refers to time. “Because” refers to causation

OED -- since
II. 4. a. Because that; seeing that; inasmuch as.

I recall long exchanges with an editor about my using "since" in a non-temporal sense. This seems a peculiarly American rule, probably perpetrated by some prescriptive tome, such as the Chicago Manual.

Gingerich -- Anxious -- Unless you’re frightened of them, you shouldn’t say you’re “anxious to see your friends.

OED -- anxious
3. Full of desire and endeavour; solicitous; earnestly desirous (to effect some purpose).

Gingerich -- Irony and Coincidence -- Too many people claim something is the former when they actually mean the latter.

As usual, an American does not mention either Socratic irony or the trope of irony, as if only what is called dramatic or poetic irony is of any significance. Even many of the devoted American members of the Janeist cult fail to appreciate the layers of irony created by the unreliable narrator in Austen's novels.

Gingerich -- Nauseous -- Undoubtedly the most common mistake I encounter.

OED -- nauseous
1.b. orig. U.S. Of a person: affected with nausea; having an unsettled stomach; (fig.) disgusted, affected with distaste or loathing.

Gingerich -- Impactful -- It isn't a word

All words get invented at some time or other. "Tactful" appeared in the late 19th century.  Words disappear into dialect usage, and sometimes reappear, centuries later.  Words suddenly acquire new meanings, as the word "paradigm" did in 1962, and then new usages branch out from that. 

If this ugly word proves useful, it will survive. Americans are unusually apt to turn nouns into verbs, and verbs into adjectives, and so on. In the same way, Germans cope with new needs by creating long compound words.  Complaining about this word because it is marketing jargon is snobbish. Consider all the medical and psychiatric neologisms that have been accepted. As for computer jargon.....

David Harley's picture
David Harley January 19, 2013 - 1:36pm

I see that the points I was making informally have been made more fully by another.  I apologize for such duplication as has occurred.

Mary W. Shaw's picture
Mary W. Shaw March 3, 2013 - 1:12pm

How nice it is to find a site where the author is literate and cares about grammar. Thank you. My frustration is with so many educated individuals who seem to believe they know how to write; i.e.. journalists and the like. I hope the art of writing is not going by the wayside; that would be a tragedy.

 

egumpel's picture
egumpel March 7, 2013 - 12:20pm

Misuse of nauseous and nauseated have always been among my pet peeves -- but I checked a dictionary a few months ago, and lo and behold, "nauseous" is now an acceptable term for "nauseated." Sadly, when enough people use a word incorrectly, it becomes the correct term.

Eve Gumpel
 

BGriffin's picture
BGriffin March 17, 2013 - 8:13pm

Jon, you wrote:

'...This is one of the most common mistakes...'

 

With the understanding that 'most' (as 'the most') is a superlative adjective, doesn't your construction represent a inconsistent treatment of gramatical number?   There can't be more than one 'most common mistake' for any given comparison.

 

It seems like it should either be,

 

'...This is the most common mistake...'

or

'...This is one of the more common mistakes...'

.

I am not a grammar expert, so I look forward to any explanation you are willing to provide.

Scott Amundsen's picture
Scott Amundsen March 20, 2013 - 8:38am

Great article.  Regarding the word "different," I have also come across the phrase "different to" in British writers; Nevil Shute's ON THE BEACH comes to mind.  I don't know how common it is.

 

Robert How's picture
Robert How April 2, 2013 - 5:54am

I wonder why Americans say "I could care less", when they mean "I couldn't care less".

If you could care less, it means that you do care. If you couldn't care less, you don't care at all. I guess it's an idiomatic contraction that's evolved from people not thinking what they're saying, but I always think it makes people sound very stupid.

Riprake's picture
Riprake April 5, 2013 - 8:24pm

For some of these, usage depends on purpose. With laid and lay, the difference is between being active and being passive. Case in point: "I laid myself down and waited for Lord Voldemort" is active, because it means you weren't lying down before and now you are. "I lay waiting for Lord Voldermort" is passive because it means you were already lying down.

The expression "I could care less" is inaccurate if you are implying you don't care at all, but it could be accurate if you are speaking somewhat sarcastically to imply you're losing interest in something that holds minimal appeal in the first place, meaning "I care extremely little now, but I could care even less than that. The subject at hand is hanging by a thread."

One of my pet peeves is seeing "different than" used indiscriminantly. "Different than" only applies when difference is expressed as a comparative amount, e.g. "Ebert says this film is 'different' from any other; indeed, it is even more different than he realizes." In all other circumstances, use "different from" when saying one thing is not like the other.

In British writings, I also run across the phrase "different to" in place of "different from" sometimes. Technically, that might actually be grammatically accurate, but in a way that makes it sound really awkward and bizarre. Saying "I'm different to him" means, basically, "From his perspective [i.e. to his way of thinking], I seem different." Unless you are specifically trying to draw attention to another's perspective, I recommend that you stick to "I'm different from him."

Finally, my biggest pet peeve is "alright." There is no such word! "All right" is the proper thing to say, and "alright" is forever and always an illegitimate and unnecessary contraction no matter how many people may use it. "All though" and "although" have different meanings. "All ready" and "already" have different meanings. "All right" and "alright" have no distinct meanings and the latter is therefore redundant. I don't care if your spellchecker lets "alright" through; mine shall forever abhor and despise it. Away with the fake word "alright" already!

Riprake's picture
Riprake April 5, 2013 - 8:43pm

Oh, and one more complaint: quit splitting infinitives! It's bad enough when people do it online, but I see split infinitives even in supposedly serious professional publications all the time. The only time the article "to" should be split from the verb it precedes is for purposes of poetic license (as with "...to boldly go where no man has gone before" in Star Trek, which just doesn't sound as impressive without the emphasis on "boldly") and comic license: "Tune in next week when these three yammering chuckleheads and I are going to NOT settle the debate over the root causes of poverty, war, and injustice." (Even there, one could just say "...when we'll NOT settle...") In all other instances, place the adverb before the "to" or somewhere after the verb. "This powerful new antimatter engine will allow us to go boldly... where no man has ever gone before!"

kittykat's picture
kittykat April 9, 2013 - 1:40pm

What about the difference between "instant/ly" and "instantaneous/ly"? Is it correct to say/write "death was instant" or "death was instantaneous"? I hear the two words used interchangeably.

Great article and comments/thread--thanks to all for contributing!

Mallikarjuna Konduri's picture
Mallikarjuna Konduri April 10, 2013 - 10:37pm

A very informative article. Thank you.

About 'Bring and Take': Wife says "Take your clothes to the cleaners". The cleaner says "Bring your clothes".

What is the proper usage if I am the subject in the sentence? Do I say "I will take the clothes to the cleaners" or "I will bring the clothes to the cleaners"?

lalimanju's picture
lalimanju April 13, 2013 - 6:59am

This is urgent!
"It was the first time for us to visit an Indian restaurant!"
This sentence sounds wrong to me . I feel it should be "It was the first time we visited an Indian restaurant." I would really welcome convincing explanations for why the first sentence is not correct.

lalimanju's picture
lalimanju April 13, 2013 - 6:59am

This is urgent!
"It was the first time for us to visit an Indian restaurant!"
This sentence sounds wrong to me . I feel it should be "It was the first time we visited an Indian restaurant." I would really welcome convincing explanations for why the first sentence is not correct.

lalimanju's picture
lalimanju April 13, 2013 - 7:00am

This is urgent!
"It was the first time for us to visit an Indian restaurant!"
This sentence sounds wrong to me . I feel it should be "It was the first time we visited an Indian restaurant." I would really welcome convincing explanations for why the first sentence is not correct.

lalimanju's picture
lalimanju April 13, 2013 - 7:00am

This is urgent!
"It was the first time for us to visit an Indian restaurant!"
This sentence sounds wrong to me . I feel it should be "It was the first time we visited an Indian restaurant." I would really welcome convincing explanations for why the first sentence is not correct.

lalimanju's picture
lalimanju April 13, 2013 - 7:01am

This is urgent!
"It was the first time for us to visit an Indian restaurant!"
This sentence sounds wrong to me . I feel it should be "It was the first time we visited an Indian restaurant." I would really welcome convincing explanations for why the first sentence is not correct.

lalimanju's picture
lalimanju April 13, 2013 - 7:01am

This is urgent!
"It was the first time for us to visit an Indian restaurant!"
This sentence sounds wrong to me . I feel it should be "It was the first time we visited an Indian restaurant." I would really welcome convincing explanations for why the first sentence is not correct.

lalimanju's picture
lalimanju April 13, 2013 - 7:01am

This is urgent!
"It was the first time for us to visit an Indian restaurant!"
This sentence sounds wrong to me . I feel it should be "It was the first time we visited an Indian restaurant." I would really welcome convincing explanations for why the first sentence is not correct.

lalimanju's picture
lalimanju April 13, 2013 - 7:01am

This is urgent!
"It was the first time for us to visit an Indian restaurant!"
This sentence sounds wrong to me . I feel it should be "It was the first time we visited an Indian restaurant." I would really welcome convincing explanations for why the first sentence is not correct.

lalimanju's picture
lalimanju April 13, 2013 - 7:01am

This is urgent!
"It was the first time for us to visit an Indian restaurant!"
This sentence sounds wrong to me . I feel it should be "It was the first time we visited an Indian restaurant." I would really welcome convincing explanations for why the first sentence is not correct.

Christopher Allen's picture
Christopher Allen April 27, 2013 - 5:45am

While of course all of these are correct, I've found that the distinction between farther and further is primarily American when it comes to its meaning concerning distance. The British use further and furthest almost exclusively as the comparative and superlative forms of far. This one has been debated for years.

I would also include the misuse of the word everyday (adj. as in The sunrise is an everyday occurrence.) with an adverbial meaning -- as in I go to work everyday (incorrect). I see this mistake at least once a week. Rampant.

Richard Schweitzer's picture
Richard Schweitzer May 9, 2013 - 3:26pm

then vs than

scotnick75's picture
scotnick75 May 16, 2013 - 3:59pm

gaveeno:

Hi - not trying to be rude, but, "Jane and me" is WRONG.
It can be explained thus:
Who's going to the zoo
A: I (am)
A: Jane and I (are going to the zoo)

or
Who's going to the zoo?
A:  Me
A:  Me and Jane (I think many parents, or people) would even correct someone from saying
Me and Jane, to say "Jane and I"

You wouldn't, or shouldn't, if you want to use correct English (which is of course the British kind, not the bastardized American kind..sorry!) say "Jane and me"
To get to your incorrect example, as I demonstrated with the zoo, a person would say:

Please, join me for dinner
Please, join me and Jane for dinner
Please, join Jane and I for dinner
It can be explained thus:

Again, take away the additional person in the sentence, to see which one to use...
Therefore, you take away "I" and you get: Please Join Jane for dinner.
Or, you take away "Jane" and you get "Please join me for dinner"
Thank you!

scotnick75's picture
scotnick75 May 16, 2013 - 4:06pm

Jon: I like most of this article, and I can't believe some of the responses, arguing semantics on the points you have made, but one thing I agree with, though I am not sure why, but the article title sentence, whether or not you intented it to be, just sounds wrong. Doesn't it?
I don't think it should be "makes" at the end of the sentence. Maybe it is just your intentional example of bad English. I guess then, that the correct title should read;
20 Gramatical Mistakes made by (almost) everyone!

jyh's picture
jyh from VA is reading whatever he feels like May 16, 2013 - 4:33pm

Almost everyone makes these [twenty] common grammar mistakes, which shall now form a list of no particular order, featuring explainations occurring in the order in which they fall without anymore attention paid to their particularity than is called for by the demands of reason and comprehension.

To wit [:::]

 

Meenu Raj's picture
Meenu Raj May 19, 2013 - 4:00am

I'm just glad I came across this! Thank you :D

Touseef Malik's picture
Touseef Malik June 3, 2013 - 8:03pm

nice post Mr. JON GINGERICH,

This is really helpfull for learners.you have point out mistakes very gracefully,

but i have a suggestion for the readers and  , i am going to shares a link which is great source of english resources and will help you in learning english grammer and helps in overcoming these mistakes.

Click This link: http://englishtuto.com

thank you

 

Patricia Gibson's picture
Patricia Gibson June 9, 2013 - 1:35pm

I bet you were also nauseous after being in the dumpster.

Ryan Blood's picture
Ryan Blood July 11, 2013 - 7:08pm

Really useful, but I immediately regretted posting it despite not reading the entire thing. The Planned Parenthood quip at the end is just... unnecessary. 

Megha Sharma's picture
Megha Sharma July 18, 2013 - 4:36am

Hi. I have a quick question. In a group conversation of three people, when two people are talking, do we address the third  person as "him or her" or by their name?

Thanks

Megha

KAMIKAZEROBOT's picture
KAMIKAZEROBOT July 23, 2013 - 3:29pm

My boss just corrected me on one of the emails I sent out, and I'd like to know if I was truly wrong so I don't do it again.

 

What happened was that I sent out an email subject: "Please make attention to these files".  He corrected me staying that its "Please pay attention to these files". Can someone please clarify this for me?

Dalai Llama's picture
Dalai Llama August 9, 2013 - 10:02am

Eeech.

- "Which and that", "farther and further", "different than and different from" are all purely American distinctions. We don't adhere to any of them in the UK.

- The explanation for "less and fewer" is wrong - the distinction is 'count vs. non-count nouns', not 'hypothetical vs. quantifiable'. Water is not a hypothetical idea, but we say 'less water', not 'fewer water'.

- The points on "since and because", "anxious" and "nauseous" are simply incorrect. Language use evolves, and words gain new meanings over time - it's just semantic change. Using 'since' to denote causation, 'anxious' to mean 'keen' or 'nauseous' to mean 'sick' are all perfectly acceptably uses of the terms. We don't prescriptively insist that 'awful' can only mean 'full of awe', despite that being the original meaning of the term.

Dalai Llama's picture
Dalai Llama August 9, 2013 - 10:08am

Also, to counter some points made in the comments.

Rules such as 'no splitting infinitives', 'no flat adverbs' and 'no sentences ending in prepositions' are fallacious. They derive from over-excitable grammarians who believed that English should follow the grammatical rules of Latin. For obvious reasons, this is a stupid idea (they are different languages, from different families, with different rules), but it nevertheless caught on. For example, in Latin, the infinitive is a single word, so of course you cannot split it. There is no reason to forbid doing so in English. All three of the above 'rules' are broken by authors such as Shakespeare, Dickens, Austin and so on.

Cyberlit's picture
Cyberlit August 29, 2013 - 9:29pm

That's why the English language is so pervasive and popular; just like Photoshop, you can use plug-ins, it's expandable.

just a guy's picture
just a guy September 4, 2013 - 11:17pm

Author! You foolishly forgot that "may" can refer to actions which are permitted, as in "May I go to the bathroom?"  And the distinction you do actually make between "may" and "might" is ridiculous and incorrect.  Whatever magazine you edited for six years was obviously poorly served.  Also, I don't know who's responsible for this, but Strunk and White is garbage.  Read Garner.  He's the guy to listen to.

I agree with somebody who posted something about your "fewer" and "less" also being stupid.  "Fewer" is for countable things, whereas "less" is for uncountable.  The hypotheticality is irrelevant.

Plus, all you people are nerds for even being here and caring enough to post.

Shit.  I guess that includes me.

Ian Geoghegan's picture
Ian Geoghegan September 13, 2013 - 7:23am

There's no difference between 'further' and 'farther'. 'Further' is more common in British and Irish English and 'farther' is more common in American English. In Ireland we'd almost always say 'further' rather than 'farther'. 

And the difference between 'may' and 'might' is not so big as to constitute a mistake in most cases, but I can imagine cases in which there is some difference. 

But well done for putting the 'lay'/'lie' difference near the top of the list! Sentences like 'I was just laying there' really annoy me.

Valarie Kuykendall Rogers's picture
Valarie Kuykend... September 18, 2013 - 7:45am

I think THE most common mistake, made by educated people all the time, is the incorrect usage of the word I.   "Tracy and I are going with Bill and Ted."  That is correct.  "Bill and Ted are going with Tracy and I." is absolutely never correct.  And NOBODY says the word "me" when they should!

My English teacher taught us that the quickest way to know if it should be "me" or "I" is to omit "Tracy".  "Bill and Ted are going with I".   That's the way people say it all the time, and it's wrong.  Educated, famous, politicians, they all say it.

Memememememmeeeeeee!

Basic rule"  I=subject.  me=object

Valarie Kuykendall Rogers's picture
Valarie Kuykend... September 18, 2013 - 7:49am

@KAMIKAZEROBOT - "please make attention to these files" ... sounds like you're from India.  No offense meant, just an observation from dealing with ESLs a lot.  That might actually be how they say it in a different language.  In English, we do indeed say "pay attention", not make attention.

 

Yonatan Shaked's picture
Yonatan Shaked October 4, 2013 - 11:36am

How about "theirs" often written as "their's"?

My English editor told me it's wrong to write theirs and that it must have an apostrophe!

I therefore asked an American and he too said I'm wrong. Now I am not sure - but even as a child I remember it as theirs and I have left it in my manuscript as theirs. Is it wrong?

Ian Anderson's picture
Ian Anderson from Newark, Nottinghamshire in the UK is reading The Beach October 5, 2013 - 12:31am

Now I know why I'm struggling to learn Norwegian, I hardly know my own bloody language!

Duly cut and pasted about half of these into a new doc entitled, "for those moments when I don't know my mother tongue"

Cheers :-)

 

ethacetin's picture
ethacetin October 18, 2013 - 7:34pm

@Boone

You said "in every case, on whoever's authority, the rules I remember are the practical..."

Correct me if I'm wrong, but shouldn't this be "on whomever's authority"?  It was my understanding that anything following a preposition would fall into the object case.  In this case, "I" would be the subject of the sentence and "whomever's authority" the object.