5 Common English Mistakes to Watch Out For
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. For communicating effectively, often taking a little more time to plan what you want to say in advance is better. You don't have to be a grammar nerd to want to write and communicate more clearly. The trick is to pay attention to how someone else would read your work. If you're not sure if you're communicating clearly, try asking a friend to read your work. Or you can read what you've written out loud. Just ask, would my point be understood clearly by my intended audience?
These 5 common English pitfalls sometimes trap even experienced writers. If you learn about them, you can learn how to avoid them in the first place. This will save you time when it comes to having to edit your work less later.
1. Correct Contractions
Most commonly, contraction troubles come from mistaking one of the following:
- They're, their, and there
- You're and your, or
- Its and it's.
These are a commonly mistaken homophones, that is, words that sound the same but mean different things. The problem is that, because they sound the same when spoken, it is easy to forget which one you need to use when writing.
A contraction is formed whenever a word or multiple words are shortened by the omission of a sound or letter. In English, an apostrophe (') is used to show that omitted sound or letter. For example, the word "that's" is a contraction of two words, "that is". Therefore, the apostrophe marks where there would be a missing 'i'.
- "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!
- 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.
- With "Its" and "It's", just remember "It's" is only used in the case of a contraction of "it is" or, less frequently, it could be used as a contraction for "it was" or "it has". But as a possessive, always use "its" without an apostrophe. A possessive is when you mean that some noun belongs to "it". Examples: It's on the 18th, I put it on my calendar. Its exact day could vary from year to year, but it's always on the third Tuesday of November.
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. Word Separation - One Word Or Two?
I ran into this kind of mistake fairly regularly as an English tutor. 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. They usually don't catch these kinds of mistakes in which similar-sounding word is actually the one you wanted, but what you typed is still technically a word.
Here are some of the common mistakes I mean:
- Altogether vs. All together: Use "altogether" to mean "entirely", "completely", "wholly", or "thoroughly". As in, "They were altogether tired after writing their English papers!" On the other hand, "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? Most of the time, you'll want "altogether".
- 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 can say "Walk with me awhile." OR "Walk with me for a while." Confused yet? They're very similar. Just remember you need "for" in "for a while" and you do not need it in "awhile" because the "for" is included in the definition of "awhile". In ordinary conversation, more people use "a while".
- 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, 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. "Anyways" 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. Getting a feel for when to use one word and when to use two for these types of situations will really improve your writing.
4. Homophones - Commonly Confused Words That Sound Alike!
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. There are also many homophones, which are words that sound alike, but 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, It's definitely best to go for the lowest common denominator in terms of vocabulary. 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 by introducing them 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, only then you can skip the explanation.
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.
If you're not sure if you need to explain a term before using it, it's better to be safe than sorry. That is, it's better to use the explanation and not need it than to not have one when you did 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 "irregardless", 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'. This is called a redundant phrase. Here's a good list of them.
- 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. In most cases, it can be left out, since all it means is "actually", and everything that is a statement should be taken literally by default. You may need to make a note of it if you mean something metaphorically, sarcastically, as an example, or in some other way that is not in a literal sense.
- Overuse of adverbs and adjectives. Adverbs modify verbs, but writing experts often say that using a stronger or weaker verb is usually better, if possible. For example, saying someone "walked sneakily" isn't as clear or concise as saying they "sneaked" or "crept". Instead of "talked very loudly", say, "shouted". And so on. Overuse of adjectives can weigh down a sentence, making it overly complicated.
- Run-on sentences. Sometimes people think sounding smart means using long, rambling sentences. Usually, a sentence is a topic (noun) and a verb, along with whatever words or phrases are necessary to modify either the noun or verb. If you find yourself saying "and" a lot, maybe cut out the "and" and write two sentences.
- The overuse of stiff, academic-sounding 'transitional' words. In academic writing in high school and college, we were taught to use these. Begin with a beginning phrase, start a paragraph with a transitional phrase like "Moreover," "Additionally", and the like, and end with a conclusion paragraph that begins with a conclusion phrase, like "In Conclusion,", or "To summarize,". In writing that's meant to be entertaining, these are not necessary. It's the difference between writing that naturally flows in a conversational style and writing that sounds like you're just reading from note cards. Move over, 'moreover'!
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!
What's your personal grammar pet peeve?
© 2015 Rachael Lefler