Common English Mistakes
In the digital age, and an age of fast-paced commerce, we often overlook grammar because we are using technology which facilitates speedy communication. However, sometimes, this speed can come at the expense of clarity and precision. Faster is not always better. When it comes to communicating effectively, it can often be true that taking a little more time to plan what you want to say in advance is the better way to be well understood. You don't have to be a real grammar nerd to want to write and communicate more clearly.
1. You're/Your and They're/Their/There
These are a set of commonly mistaken homophones, that is, words that sound the same but mean different things. (Homophones will be another point later.) The problem is that, because they sound the same when spoken, it is easy to forget which one you need to use when writing.
So, just to remind everyone:
- "You're" is a contraction. It is used whenever you are mashing together the words "you" and "are".
- Examples: If you're going to the store later, could you get me some bread? When you're done with that sandwich, please do the dishes.
- "Your" is a possessive pronoun. That means it describes a thing which belongs to whoever the "you" in the sentence is.
- Examples: Do you wash your car on Sundays? We should take your picnic basket when we go to the park.
- Do not use "Ur" as a shorthand for any of these. It looks terrible and it makes you come across as a kid or unprofessional. Ur is an ancient Mesopotamian city!
- So then, as for "they're", "there" and "their":
- "They're" is a contraction of the words "they" and "are". Don't use this one unless you could replace the "they're" with the words "they are", similarly to "you're".
- Examples: They're not coming to the bridal shower. What's the name of the play that they're part of?
- "Their" is a possessive pronoun that refers to an object possessed by they/them.
- Examples: The guests had to remove their shoes when entering the temple. At the wedding reception, everyone placed their gifts on the far table by the punch bowl.
- Finally, "There" is a preposition, which means it indicates a place or direction. "There is" and "There are" can also be used to indicate that something, or some things, exist in general.
- Examples: There is no precedent for this type of funding bill. She put the keys over there, by the door.
- Why it matters: Knowing the right one to use will help you sound not only more educated, but also like you care and are holding yourself to a higher standard of professional quality when writing. You would not want an email to your boss, for example, to use the wrong "your" or "there".
2. One Word or Many?
As an English and Essay Writing tutor at Tutor.com, I run into these kind of mistakes fairly regularly. When people rely too much on spell checkers (the little red squiggly lines that indicate a misspelled word) or worse, auto-correct, they can often overlook the fact that the software cannot detect your intentions and which similar-sounding word is correct in your sentences.
So here are some of the common types of mistakes I'm referring to:
- Altogether vs. All together:
- Use "altogether" to mean "entirely", "completely", "wholly", or "thoroughly". As in, "They were altogether tired after writing their English papers!"
- "All together" means a collection of nouns is all collectively in the same place or doing the same thing. In a correct usage of "all together", you could separate the "all" and "together" in the sentence and it would still make sense. Example: "The nuns were all together in the convent." This could be rewritten as "All the nuns were together in the convent." Make sense?
- Already vs. All ready:
- "Already" means "done before", as in "I already did the dishes."
- "All ready" means "completely ready", as in "I am all ready to go to the movies." Like with "all together", one way to know is if you could take out "all", and just say "ready", your sentence should still make sense.
- Awhile vs. A while:
- Awhile means "for a time", and a while means "a length of time. So you cans say "Walk with me awhile." OR "Walk with me for a while." Confused yet?
- Anyone vs. Any one
- "Anyone" is a pronoun, meaning all people, any individual person.
- Examples: I can invite anyone to the party. Anyone could take his place, he's nothing to me.
- "Any one" is used to refer to any particular noun out of the group that noun belongs to.
- Examples: Any one of these guys would be fine to dance with. They told me I could pick any one of the prizes on the table when I won the raffle. Note: "Anyone" always refers to a person only, but "Any one" can refer to a person or object.
- Everyone vs. Every one
- Similarly, "Everyone" is a pronoun, and refers to all people, or all the people in a given group or situation. "Everyone loved the new dress she was wearing." "Everyone came from very far away to see you."
- "Every one" is similar in usage to "any one", referring to all of the members in a collection of similar objects, or every person of a particular group. "Every one of these buildings was constructed in the 19th century." "She talked to every one of the stock brokers at that dinner."
- Everyday vs. Every day
- "Everyday" is an adjective that describes something average, typical, or mundane. "Jogging has become part of my everyday life." "I'm just so sick of the everyday hassles of my job." It does not mean necessarily that something is actually happening every single day, but just that it's a usual, expected, regular, and recurring thing.
- "Every day" means more literally describing something that occurs once a day, on every day. "Every day, I water my plants before going to work." "She does an hour of yoga every day."
- Anyway vs. Any way
- "Anyway" means "in any case", or "whatever happens" meaning whatever the circumstance A is, B is still the case.
- Examples: It's okay, I didn't have the money to go tonight anyway. Anyway, you're still grounded, so it doesn't matter what parties there will be on Saturday.
- "Any way" means "by any means", or "in any manner". The "way" is separated as its own word, because it's acting like an object in this sentence, as in similar examples in this section. (Like the "one" in a separated "any one" or "every one".)
- Examples: I'm going to see you again, by any way I can think of. He's not sure there is any way he can prepare for the test on Monday.
- "Anyway" is a very informal way of saying "anyway" in some dialects within American English, but I would refrain from using it in formal writing of any kind.
- Often, when using the two-word construction, you can tell if it's right or not by taking out the modifying word such as "any" or "every". For example, "He could go to any one of the restaurants on this list." You could say "He could go to one of the restaurants on this list." Or "I want every one of these lipstick shades." It is still a correct sentence to say "I want one of these lipstick shades." But to use it incorrectly, such as in "I didn't go the the party that night any way." You mean to say "anyway" there, which is made clear when you see that "I didn't go to the party that night way." doesn't make grammatical sense.
Its vs. It's: Possession vs. Contraction
This is one I'm so often guilty of myself. I usually have to do an "it's/its" check every time I write an article on here, and sometimes I don't even catch all my mistakes with this. The problem is, of course, that we usually use an apostrophe + 's' after a noun to show that that noun is possessing another noun, which follows it.
Examples: I'm borrowing Miranda's shovel. The waiter's tips were good tonight.
So, when you say "it" is possessing something, it seems reasonable to think "it's" is the correct way to communicate that. But it is not. A possessive of "it" is "its". In fact, you just have to remember that we don't always have to have an apostrophe + 's' in order to have a possessive. "Her/hers", "Their/Theirs", "Your/Yours" etc. show possession also without an apostrophe. (The difference between, say, saying "her" and saying "hers", if you're wondering, is that we use "her" when the object possessed is immediately following the possessive pronoun in the sentence, as in, "I borrowed her car.", but if the object is not immediately following the possessive pronoun, or not there in the sentence, we use "hers", as in "That car is hers.")
So remember: Use "its" as a possessive, and "it's" only when you are doing a contraction of the words "it is" or "it has". It's confusing, but it's not going away anytime soon, and correct writing is worth its weight in gold!
4. Homophones and Commonly Confused Similar Words
No, not "homophobes", "homophones". The English language has one of the largest lexicons (the greatest number of words) of all world languages. In English, we have many synonyms (different words with the same meaning), and many homophones, which are words that sound alike and have different meanings. Sometimes, synonyms can be tricky, because often, a word is not exactly the same in meaning as a word that ends up being called a "synonym" of it in a thesaurus, or can have a very different connotation, or implied meaning, than a different synonym.
But the real struggle for trying to write well, especially in an internet age, is to avoid confusion with homophones. This mistake is not caught with spellcheckers, because those programs don't know that you wanted to say "To be or not to be", not "Too bee or not two bee". Many common words, such as two/to/too and there/their/they're (which we've talked about earlier), should be used with care since they are commonly confused with their homophones.
There are many, many, commonly confused homophones. The trick to navigating this minefield is to:
- Always consult a dictionary to make sure the word that you want to use is the correct one if you're unsure.
- For common issues, I would use Google, just using "X vs. Y" in a Google search can usually lead you to a good grammar site, just be wary (but not weary!) because not everything on the internet is accurate (although, if I may be permitted to throw my two cents, and not my two sense or too scents in: internet writers who talk about this stuff tend to strive for accuracy because that is what the market for online writing demands).
- There are lists like this, this, and this. Find a list you like, bookmark it in your browser, and use it as a reference guide for whenever you're stuck in your writing. A good one to use will include the definitions of each word.
5. Pitfalls of Pretentiousness
When you're writing, I definitely think it's best to go for the lowest common denominator in terms of vocabulary. What I mean is, try to avoid using slang or jargon particular to a smaller group, especially if your intent is to reach a wider audience. If you must use jargon, that is, words that only experts tend to know, a good idea is to explain your terms to people before using them. If you think your target audience knows the jargon already (for example, if you're writing about how to fix up old cars, your audience is probably familiar with most basic car parts), then you can skip the explanation.
For me, when I talk about anime, I have a pretty good idea that I won't have to spend time defining things like "anime", "manga", etc. But I always try to make clear what I mean when I use the more esoteric terms, like "doujinshi" and "lolicon". In your area of expertise, sometimes it can be hard to remember who your average reader is and how much they know and don't know relative to your own knowledge. But basically, if you're not sure if you need to explain a term before using it, always it's better to be safe than sorry (to use the explanation and not need it is often better than to not have one and need it).
In addition to jargon, sometimes writers and speakers try to go out of their way to sound smart, which leads to blunders like:
- Using "regardless", which is not a word (you want "regardless). Extra syllables add pomp, so people often want to use them to sound smarter, but it doesn't fool anyone if you're doing it wrong.
- Misuse of "irony" or "ironic" (TV Tropes explains this well here). Understanding of irony is often a way of trying to prove that one is deep and clever, but misunderstanding it can make you sound phony.
- Using words that don't need to be there because they're included in the acronym, like "HIV virus" when the 'V' stands for 'virus', "ATM machine" when the 'M' stands for 'machine'. More words is not always better.
- Using "SAT words" incorrectly. Make sure you check your dictionary any time your intention is to use a rare or elevated-sounding word, to make sure you're not confusing it with a similar-sounding word.
- "Infer" vs. "Imply". Using these correctly makes you sound smart, using them incorrectly, not so much. "Infer" means to grasp a concept or make a guess based on some kind of information being communicated or data being gathered. "Imply" means to suggest. In everyday speech, "Imply" is going to be a lot more common. Examples: She inferred from the biology experiment that her hypothesis about rat intelligence was correct. At the ball, Rosetta subtly implied that Charlotte had gained weight recently, but never said as much directly.
- "Literally". Too often used for emphasis, such as with "like" as a slang word. But "literally" means the opposite of "figuratively", and when people use it just for emphasis, they're misusing it. "I am literally going to die of thirst." means, "I am truly going to die of thirst." A better word to use instead of "literally" might be "really", "totally", or just not having a word at all. The problem is, some people use it sarcastically, but other people use it without understanding that it's supposed to be sarcastic, without knowing what it literally means.
Basic Tips to Remember:
Sometimes, using your intuition can help.
- Double check with a dictionary if you're not sure which word to use.
- Bookmark a good homophones list and it will help you be more assured that you understand the differences between various homophones.
- Simple language is better, because it communicates effectively to more people.
- It's good when editing to cut out superfluous adjectives and adverbs to achieve this simplicity.
- After you write, check through for the common mistakes, such as it's/its and they're/there/their and your/you're.
- Remember not to use excessive scholarly vocabulary unless you really feel that you can't say what you need to say without using it; and, if you do, make sure you use your "SAT words" correctly, using a dictionary if necessary.
Have fun with the mastery of one challenging, but worth studying, language!