- Books, Literature, and Writing
Common English Errors Made By Bloggers And Writers
Common English Errors By Bloggers And Writers
Do you ever hesitate over using peek or peak? Do you type there when you mean their? Pause over it's versus its? Been paid a complement? Then you're with 90% of the English-speaking world - these are the most common English errors. They might not obscure the meaning of what you've written but these mistakes can make people doubt the authority of what they're reading.
This page lists some of the common English errors found on blogs and web pages. It gives correct usage with examples. There are also sections on punctuation and two sections talking about sentence construction. New words and terms will be added as and when I come across them or am asked about them.
Common Errors With English
Homonyms and their relations
What's a homonym? A word that's pronounced the same as another but that has a different meaning. If you've ever peeked at a mountain peak then you've used a couple of homonyms. Alas, if the peak peaked your interest then you need to read on ...
The rich history of England, also known as the number of races and tribes that have invaded/inveigled/impregnated/inhabited the sceptred isle, means that the development of the language has taken many paths. Throw in some dialect words and meanings and you have a smorgasbord of words; you also have a minefield for the unwary.
Homonyms and their cousins are the main causes of confusion and common English errors: I list below the main culprits with examples of correct use. If I've missed your bugbear out, please add it via the Comments section at the end of the page.
English Pronunciationview quiz statistics
And the answer is ...
gh = f, as in tough
o = i, as in women
ti = sh, as in nation
It's Only Words
Practical, concise, very readable guide to the grammar rules we all need to know.
The author is an experienced journalist and style guide editor of a major English newspaper.
advice: noun - "give advice to someone", "his advice was to pay up immediately", "we took his advice" means that we did what he'd advised us to do.
advise: verb - "he advised us to pay up immediately".
Note: someone who gives advice is an adviser or advisor. Both are correct. Use either according to taste as long as you're consistent. Do be careful if writing to or about a business where the business's name contains one of the two forms.
affect: Use affect as a verb - eg "how did the medicine affect you?"
effect: Use effect as a noun meaning result or consequence - eg "what were the effects of the medicine?"
There is one sense where you might use effect as a verb, meaning to produce as an effect, to accomplish - "through hard work we effected the transition from Imperial to metric measurements across the store chain".
Less commonly, you can use affect meaning "to assume or pretend" - He affected an air of superiority.
Psychiatrists use affect as a noun, they also use effect with the accent on the first syllable (and having a different meaning to the one above).
any: any is used in questions and negative statements - eg "do you have any money?", "I don't have any money"
some: some is used in positive statements - eg "he gave me some money". Note - "he didn't give me any money."
assure, ensure, insure
assure: assure means to tell or state with confidence - "he assured us that he had enough money to pay for the meal"
ensure to make sure of - eg "he ensured he had plenty of money in his wallet"
insure to guarantee against loss or harm - "the policy insured them against fire and storm damage"
Note that you insure against eventualities.
"Insure for" is a common mistake.
But not koala
bare: unclothed - "bare legs". Various senses of unadorned or open: "four bare walls", "the bare facts", "bare one's soul".
bear: the animal - "bears in the woods", "Brown Bears" (note the capitals because this is the species name). Various senses of carry - "bear the load", "bear a child", "bear fruit". Tolerate - "bear with me for a minute".
bearing: manner, posture, direction. "A regal bearing", "an upright bearing", "bearing 20 degrees south by south west". "Get one's bearings."
koala bear is incorrect - the koala is a marsupial, not a bear.
With bated breath
bate: to restrain or moderate - "given the circumstances we had to bate our pleasure at winning". Also lessen or diminish - "the loss of our guide bated our hopes of returning".
bait: lure or enticement - "he baited his hook with fat earthworms", "they were baited with promises of untold riches".
Common mistake is to put an i in "we waited with bated breath".
bow, bow, bow, bow, bow, bough
Take more than one bow
bow: rhyming with how, incline the head - "he bowed before the king"
bow: rhyming with hoe, what Robin Hood loosed arrows with
bow: rhyming with hoe again, looped or shaped ribbon - eg "she wore a bow in her hair"
bow: rhyming with how, the forward end of a boat. "Land ahoy, off the starboard bow."
bow: back to hoe, what a violinist scrapes across the strings.
bough rhyming with how, a branch of a tree, usually a main or large branch.
buy, by, bye
buy: to purchase, usually for money: "I must buy some coffee beans."
by: a little word with lots of meanings: "I came by bus", "it went by the coffee shop." "The best coffee is made by roasting the beans gently and ...".
bye: Several meanings in sports. Often used to say farewell: "If the coffee's finished, I'm off. Bye-bye."
Expressions: "by-the-by" meaning "incidentally".
caw, cor, core, corps
from birds to ballet
caw: The noise made by crows and ravens
cor: A very old-fashioned English expression of surprise: "Cor, look at the size of that".
core: The centre of something: an apple core, The tragedy struck him to the core of his being
corps: A team or grouping, used mainly in particular circumstances: the diplomatic corps, the Marine Corps, corps de ballet.
chord: Musical term - a group of notes. Used figuratively in "her plight struck a chord with him".
cord: Thin rope or thick string. The umbilical cord. Vocal cords. Plural form cords often used as abbreviation for corduroy trousers.
classic: having long-lasting merit - "Oliver Twist is a classic book" or in the modern vernacular, very good - "last night saw a classic match between ....".
classical: refers to arts and architecture of ancient Greece and Rome, or to formal and sophisticated music (as opposed to folk, jazz, pop).
And something free
complement: Something that completes or makes perfect, nowadays more often just makes better. "Pickle makes a good complement to pork pie." Also number of members of group or team: "John joined last week so we now have a full complement of players". You'll also see reference to complementary colours.
Note: supplement does not mean the same as complement - a supplement is just an addition with no sense of improving or completing. "He supplemented his meagre meal with lots of bread and butter but remained hungry."
compliment: to say something pleasant or to congratulate. "Your baby is beautiful." "He complimented the father on the appearance of his baby."
complimentary: given without charge - "all rooms have complimentary soaps and fruit basket".
criteria: noun plural - criterion is the singular form. I've seen criteria wrongly used as a singular noun in everything from lenses to novels to broadsheet newspapers. Actually more misused than media.
Anglo-American relations at stake here
curb: In the USA the curb is the edge of the sidewalk adjoining the roadway.
kerb: In the UK the kerb is the edge of the pavement adjoining the roadway.
All other senses, use curb.
currant: small, seedless raisin used in cooking. Particularly good in Eccles cakes
current: has several meanings. "The current president is ..", "the strong current overturned the boat", electrical current.
data: how many?
data: plural form of datum but the usage now is overwhelmingly as a singular noun. A few holdouts say "data are ..." but even I think it looks wrong.
desert, desert, desert, dessert and deserted
desert: accent slightly on first syllable, a wasteland, often predominantly sand - "the Sahara is a desert"
desert: accent strongly on second syllable, to abandon or leave without permission - "he deserted his post"
desert: same pronunciation as first definition, often used in combination as "a desert island" meaning no human inhabitants. But watch for the next one ,,,
deserted accent on second syllable, "the island was deserted"
dessert accent on second syllable, a pudding or variation thereof, usually the last course of a meal. "We had bread and butter pudding for dessert." Why did I say "or variation thereof"? Because pudding has several meanings. Of course,
Watch out also for "he got his just deserts", pronounced the same way as desserts. This is often written with a double s but shouldn't be. This meaning of "deserts" is usually only seen in the phrase.
After much poring over dictionaries I can't see any difference between the two other than that there are a couple of meanings where it would be incorrect to use despatch. The main sense where "i" is always used is "mentioned in dispatches", a UK Army term meaning a soldier has performed an act worthy of special praise and so the act has been added to reports sent to senior commanding officers.
Hence, for simplicity, always use dispatch.
Get out the Latin primer
eg:: exempli gratia - meaning "for example". I don't like small yapping dogs, eg Pekinese.
ie: id est = meaning "that is, in other words". I don't like small dogs, ie any breed under a certain size.
Common mistake is to use ie when you mean eg.
Should you use periods after each letter, so e.g. and i.e.? Theoretically yes but modern usage says no, eg ie is valid. But don't use a construction like the one I just have!
No difference, though enquire is more common in the UK, inquire more common in the USA.
Interestingly, the UK is swinging towards "inquire" - several major media have altered their style guides to indicate a preference for that form.
Fare Thee Well, My Own True Love
and fur in Liverpool
Why Liverpool? In my home city we pronounce all word endings of an err sound as "urr" - it's a hangover from the days when all Liverpudlian kids had adenoid problems.
fair: Light coloured, often in combination - eg "fair-haired". Attractive - "a fair maiden". Free from bias: "a fair fight".A gathering for entertainment and/or commerce - "the church Christmas Fair". Lots of other meanings ...
fare: The amount paid to travel on, for example, a bus. A taxi driver may refer to a passenger as a fare. Food - eg "the fare in the restaurant was good". To travel, hence "fare thee well" in the video above. Farewell used to be fare well, a wish for safe and prosperous travel - now it's almost synonymous with goodbye.
fayre: Fake Olde Englishe version of "fare" often seen on the front of overpriced tea shops in English tourist traps.
fur: Skin of an animal used for making coats for owners of Pekes.
father, farther, further
father: male parent
farther: some pronounce it with an "ar" sound, some with a "ur", This means at a greater distance or point. "The pub is farther than the church." "We'll take the matter no farther."
further: same meanings as farther given above. Also sense of improve - "further one's career" or additional - "further conversation seemed pointless".
Sometimes used interchangeably - wrongly!
fewer: Not as many in number - used when you can put numeric values on the items being compared. "You have three dogs, I have one, I have fewer dogs than you."
less: A smaller amount, unquantified. "I eat less broccoli than I should."
flare: Use this for fire and trousers. "The forest fire flared up as the wind rose." "He always wore flared jeans and a .." You can send up a flare if you need rescuing at sea. Grateful Dead Tie Dye T-Shirt
flair: Aptitude or style. "He had a flair for the dramatic." "She danced with flair and grace."
flaw: an error or defect. "There was a flaw in the diamond." "Your reasoning is flawed."
floor: one of those words that everyone knows so it sounds daft to define it. One online dictionary has "that part of a room, hallway, or the like, that forms its lower enclosing surface and upon which one walks."
The usual confusion is using flawed incorrectly in things like "he floored me with one punch".
Bows and floes of angel hair
floe: a piece of floating ice
flow: to move, to circulate. "The river flows into the sea." "Blood flows through the body." Various other meanings, most with a sense of movement.
gib: a castrated cat (yes, really). Various other meanings, none of which a casual writer is ever likely to use.
jib: one of a particular set of sails.
I'm including these words as a common error is "I like the cut of his gib". Remember the castrated cat when you use g instead of the correct j.
hanged: versus hung: Both actually mean the same but the former is nowadays only used by judges delivering a death sentence: "You shall be taken away to a suitable place and on the morning of the 12th of June you shall be hanged by the neck until dead. And may God have mercy on your soul."
By the same logic, "hung, drawn and quartered" is incorrect or at least non-customary usage.
Not that it really matters - any lens delving deep into capital punishment would probably need to be R rated. If you do have a morbid bent, have a look (caution - nasty) at Hanged by the Neck Until You be Dead, Or, Why the Death Sentence Should be Abolished.
No, I'm not risking the other one
hoard: accumulate, store. "The squirrel hoards nuts for the winter."
horde: a large group: "A horde of soldiers came over the hill."
Anyone thinking of a third homonym - it means "misbehaved for monetary gain".
"Horde" is the collective noun for hamsters.
i before e, except after c
The rule that we all learn in about year 2 of school. Alas, there are so many exceptions that we end up thinking weird looks odd and our brains seize up.
See Exceptions to the rule for discussion and lists of exceptions.
I: the nominative singular pronoun, used when you're describing something you've done yourself. "John and I were playing football too close to the house and I broke the window". Often wrongly used as an object - "He punished John and I for breaking the window." (see me:).
me: the objective case of I - so the correct form of the last example is "He punished John and me for breaking the window." If in doubt, try your sentence without the "John and" - "He punished I for breaking the window" is clearly wrong.
Note: good manners say you should always use "and I" rather than "I and"
The perennial favourite ...
it's: contraction of it is - "It's a long and dusty road, with a hard and heavy load"
its: the the possessive form of it - "What has it got in its pocketsessss?"
let's is a contraction of "let us" - "let's go to the cinema tonight".
lets is the plural of let . It's difficult off the top of my head to think of an example other than from tennis - "his service games were littered with lets".
Common mistake is to omit the apostrophe in the first sense.
licence: UK noun - permission or freedom: "James Bond: Licence To KIll".
license: US noun and other forms use license with an "s".
literal: means true to fact, exactly as stated, without exaggeration. "I was literally walking on air after winning [insert name of reality TV show]" is a common error. An Olympic gold medal winner stated "I literally couldn't breathe for an hour after the race," which rather makes me think that blood doping has got a lot better!
littoral: means of or pertaining to the shore of a lake, sea, or ocean. For use in specialised context only.
loose: free, unfettered - "she wore her hair loose", "the prisoner has escaped: he is loose in the castle". Also fire in the sense of "he loosed off an arrow".
lose: to fail to keep possession of - "if you lose that one I'm not buying you another". Also be defeated - "Lose the fight and you're out of the tournament".
Odd that these two get confused - perhaps it's because the oo sound of lose is longer than that of loose.
martial: of or related to war or the military - "martial music" such as that heard on the Black Watch marching
marshal: usually, a US lawman - "Marshal Wyatt Earp". Can mean gather as in "marshalling forces for war".
Marshall, proper noun with two l's is a surname, most commonly seen in The Marshall Plan.
I won't do a detailed breakdown here: I think we all know about things in the middle and people who channel Pocahontas. The one error I'd like to see eradicated is the use of media as a singular noun. It isn't! Media is the plural of medium.
If you're a painter your medium is oils or whatever. If you're a broadcast journalist your medium is television or radio. If you're a print journalist and you refer to "the newspaper media" then you shouldn't be a print jourmalist.
"Can I use mediums?" you ask. "Carefully," I reply. Mediums is indeed correct as the plural of the Pocahontas channellers or for size reference - "large shirts on the right, small shirts on the left, mediums in the middle."
meat, meet, mete
meat: animal flesh,
meet: to come together: "we agreed to meet on Platform 14".
mete: to give out or apportion: "the teacher thought it wise to mete out punishment equally to all of the schoolboys".
moot: open to discussion, debatable (in the sense of dubious distinction) - "It's a moot point whether execution by electric chair or by lethal injection is worse." Moot is pronounced with an oo sound.
mute: silent, not speaking through choice or inability. Causing volume of sound to be dampened, as in a trumpet mute. Mute is pronounced with a you sound.
The Mute Swan is so called because it makes less noise than other species of swan.
pale: lacking in colour - "a pale complexion". A stake in a fence. Limits or bounds - "the pale of the sheriff's jurisdiction" - hence "beyond the pale" - beyond the limits of decency or acceptability.
pail: bucket - "Jack and Jill ran up the hill to fetch a pail of water."
paw, poor, pore, pour
paw: the foot of an animal. Can be used as a verb: "the cat pawed the floor anxiously".
poor: lacking in material wealth, unfortunate, not good. "Being poor, he could not afford the asking price." "The poor chap lost his job last week." "Being a poor shot, he couldn't hit a barn door with a banjo."
pore: a tiny opening such as the pores in human skin. To study intently - "she pored over her books for hours before the exam".
pour: to cause a fluid to flow - "he poured the water carefully into a glass". Movement of great numbers: "the audience poured out of the hall".
Common mistake, I know not why, is to use pour when meaning study intently.
And pawpaw? Another name for papaya, the tree or the fruit thereof.
peak, peek, pique
and perhaps even Peke
peak: the top of a hill or mountain, Can also be used in the sense of most important point - "the peak of his sporting career was the gold medal won in 2007".
peek: look quickly. "He peeked through the window and drew back before they could see him".
pique: arouse (interest or curiosity). "The brief glance into the room piqued his interest." Can also mean irritation: "she flounced out of the room in a fit of pique".
Peke: abbreviation of Pekinese, small, yapping breed of dog owned by women who wear fur.
pedal: a foot-operated lever used to control or propel various mechanisms - "a brake pedal", "a bicycle pedal". Pedaling or pedalling: both one "l" and two are correct.
peddle: to carry small and mixed wares from place to place to sell or to sell drugs (alas, the more commonly seen use these days).
The rain in Spain
plain: clear, unadorned, obvious, simple. A flat area. "The grassy plain was plain to see."
plane: abbreviation of aeroplane. A flat surface: "the planes of a cube".
One of the most confused pairings, this. I blinked a few times whilst writing this short section!
Note: plain is capitalised in "the Great Plains".
pole: a long cylinder, usually thin, of wood, metal or plastic. Telephone pole, fishing pole.
poll: sampling of opinions or voting
Maypoles, pole dancers and polecats, straw polls and pollen. Just testing with that last.
poo: polite euphemism for excrement.
pooh: an exclamation of disdain.
Note: you pooh-pooh a bad idea, you do not poo poo it!
practice: noun - train or repeat to improve proficiency - "She put in long hours of practice on the piano before the concert".. A professional's work and circle of clients - eg a doctor's practice.
practise: verb - "She practised the piano for long hours".
There seems to be a tendency in the USA to use "practise" as a noun when talking about a doctor's "practise". This is incorrect.
To ask that the laws of the universe be annulled in behalf of a single petitioner confessedly unworthy.
Ambrose Bierce The Devil's Dictionary
pray: to beseech or to offer worship to a deity - "I pray to God for your redemption".
prey: an animal hunted for food or a person who is the target of a hunter with malign intentions. "The lion stalks his prey for hours before pouncing." "Con men often prey on the elderly."
Note the praying mantis waits for its prey and captures it as it goes by.
principal: chief in importance, head of an educational establishment. "The principal reason for the selection of Mr Jones as school principal was his ginger hair."
principle: an accepted rule of conduct: "Mr Jones is a man of sound moral principles". Also fundamemtal law or truth - "the principles of modern biology".
prise: to force open ore to extract with difficulty. "The gun had to be prised from his dead hand."
prize: something you win.
rain, reign, rein
rain: water that falls from clouds. Can be used in the sense of a strong and continuous episode: "punches rained down on the unfortunate boxer".
reign: Period of rule by a monarch: "The reign of Henry VIIIth was marked by plundering of the monasteries of England.". Also the sense of dominating or controlling: "fear reigned over the trapped men."
rein: Usually plural, straps forming part of a horse's harness. Often seen with the meaning controlling "the reins of power".
The usual mistake is to confuse reign and rein. Think of the longer word as showing a longer period of control.
raise: lift up
raze: knock down: common phrase is "razed to the ground" - completely demolished.
rest, wrest, wrestle
rest: remainder, stay - "we rested awhile at the inn", Used in polite euphemism for "bury" - "she was laid to rest in the corner of the church cemtery".
wrest: rarely used other than with meaning "seize by force". "He wrested the knife from the villain", "he wrested control of the company from its founder."
wrestle: what large, hairy men do in a wrestling ring. To struggle: "he wrestled with his conscience".
A mistake creeping into use is "wrestled control" - actually seen recently in a so-called quality English newspaper.
retch: unproductive effort to vomit: "After days of seasickness, he could only retch painfully".
wretch : someone who is low, unhappy, despised. "You miserable wretch," intoned the judge, "I sentence you to be hanged by the neck until dead."
Note wretched, used in the sense of "very miserable", pronounced as two syllables: "After days of seasickness, he felt wretched."
rites of spring
right: good, proper, correct, appropriate, the most desirable - "the right man for the job".
rite: formal or ceremonial process, usually plural: "the rites of Baptism"
role: a part played by an actor - "Lindsay Lohan will take the title role, Justin Bieber will appear in the role of Mr Darcy". Normal function - "the role of the teacher in society".
roll: to move along by turning - "the wheels rolled", "the snowball rolled down the hill". By extension, round things such as bread rolls. By wilder extension, "a roll in the hay".
A sportsman winning several matches consecutively is said to be "on a roll".
root, rout, route
root: part of a plant that grows downwards into growing medium. Various uses implying basic/fundamental - "the root of all evil". Also uses such as "the truffle pig rooted through the undergrowth", "she rooted through the drawer in search of ...". Some slang meanings best not explored.
rout: rhyming with shout. To defeat heavily. To hollow or furrow, especially in woodworking.
route: rhyming with root - course, way, paths of travel - "what's the route to Uncle Will's from Crosby?" Often in the sense of a regular journey - "the 53 bus route".
router: rhyming with shouter the tool you rout with
router: rhyming with shooter a piece of computer equipment.
sight: the power of seeing. Can also be used in the sense of glimpse - "we caught a sight of Lindsay Lohan meditating."
site: location, position or scene. "camp site", "site of the crime", "the site of a Roman settlement". Also means website or web site (see below).
cite: Taking this out of alphabetical order as it's not that common. To quote or mention as an authority - "he cited the Medical Board's ruling in 1997 ...". Also a military term - to mention or commend for bravery. Nowadays often used in the sense of credit - "cite the owner of the picture".
spring, summer, autumn, winter
Do you capitalise the names of the seasons? No, unless part of a proper name. "I hope to spend winter in Colorado." "I will watch some of the Winter Olympics."
Note: only as part of proper name. so: "I think that winter football is slower than games played in the spring."
stationary: Not moving, eg "The car was stationary when the cyclist hit it."
stationery: Writing materials, such as pens, paper, envelopes.
I was taught to remember the difference by the "a" in the first - stationary, standing, Knuckles rapped with a ruler if we got it wrong - that helped.
tales of floors
storey: (British) One floor of a building: "The London office building has twenty storeys."
story: (USA) One floor of a building: "The New York office building has twenty stories."
I won't go into the narrative/tales definitions but I will mention the derivation: "[C14: from Anglo-Latin historia, picture, from Latin: narrative, probably arising from the pictures on medieval windows]" Thank you, my favourite online dictionary.
that which we call a rose
I'm going to take the easy way out here and just link to a page that explains the differences between that and which.
Or perhaps "a page which".
there, their, they're
there: in or at a place - "put the catapult down over there".
their: possessive case of they used as an attributive adjective, before a noun - "their catapults".
they're: contraction of they are - "they're disarmed but watch them closely".
threw, through, thru
threw: past tense of the verb throw - "he threw the ball at the stumps".
through: various meanings all with a sense of passing along or going from one end to another - "go through a tunnel", "look through a window". "drive on through the storm". Less often used in the sense of completely - "he read the letter through before speaking".
thru: variant of through, chiefly US.
Note: if anyone's a bit taken aback at throwing a ball at stumps, it's a cricket term - another word for wicket!
The trouble ain't that there is too many fools, but that the lightning ain't distributed right
to, too, two
to: preposition implying direction or movement towards = "he walked over to the table", "he looked to the left".
too: in addition - "I too have a catapult". Excessive - "the music is too loud". More than desirable - "that was too close for comfort".
two: the number or amount - "I have two catapults" "I have two pounds to spend". "I too have two catapults to attack you with."
toe: digit at the end of the foot. To touch with the toes - "he toed the ball".
tow: pull or haul - "a friend towed my dead car to the garage".
The common mistake is the expression "toeing the line" - many people wrongly use towing.
and a real trouper
troop: a band of people, often military - "a troop of cavalry". As a verb, to move in unison - "the crowds trooped through the turnstiles".
troupe: a group of singers, actors, or other performers.
Common error is use trooper instead of trouper in the expression "a real trouper" - someone who continues to perform though ill or unfit,
Many tourists go to London to watch The Trooping Of The Colour. This is a ceremony held on the Queen's official birthday - one of the Household battalions troops its colours. The battalion trooping its colour in any given year is No. 1 Guard. During the parade; they are referred to as 'Escort for the Colour' (and, once they have collected their colour during the ceremony, as 'Escort to the Colour').. Clear?
ware, wear, we're, were, where, whirr
And wares and where's
ware: a class of merchandise - "Denby ware"
wares: general merchandise - "the stallholder packed up his wares at the end of the day".
wear: to have about one's person as a covering - "do you wear gloves when the weather's cold?".
we're: contraction of we are -"we're both wearing gloves".
were: to quote dictionary.com 2nd person singular pt. indicative, plural past indicative, and past subjunctive of be. "We were about to leave when ...." "If I were you I'd take my gloves."
where: question about place or location - "where is it?", "where are you going?, "where's my catapult?".
where's: contraction of where is- "where's she going?". . Note the apostrophe.
whirr: (make a) low buzzing sound - "the whirr of the distant helicopter's rotor blades".
weal, we'll, wheel
weal: a raised mark on the skin, caused by a blow or disease, eg hives. Rare: can be spelled wheal.. weal can also mean wealth or prosperity, as in "for the common weal".
we'll: contraction of "we will".
wheel: a circular frame which revolves, either directing motion "a steering wheel" or enabling it - "the wheels on the car go round and round".
weather, wether, whether
weather: wind, rain, snow and sunshine. Not to be confused with climate as, sadly, many Republicans do.
wether: a castrated sheep. Usually seen in bellwether, a catrated ram with a bell round his neck, leading a flock - more usually, a person or thing that shows the existence or direction of a trend.
whether: Used to introduce two alternatives: It matters little whether we vote or not, they're all the same.
web site, website
Whichever you prefer - just don't mix the two on one page. I tend to use web site for no particularly good reason other than I also use site.
If you wanted to be really pedantic you could argue that if you use website and also site that you should have an apostrophe - but 'site would be ridiculous!
wet: moistened, eg "wet hands". In a liquid state "wet paint".
whet: to sharpen - "he whetted his knife before going hunting". To make keen - "the trailer whetted her curiosity about the movie".
The common mistake is "wetted the appetite".
When I was a kid we sang a hymn each year which contained the line "Their banner the cross which they glory to bear". Unfortunately some of the line was repeated and our childish squeaks used to ring out with:
"Their banner the cross witch
Their banner the cross witch
Their banner the cross witch ..."
Okay, preamble done ...
which: what one - "which cake do you prefer?"
witch: a person, usually a woman, who professes to practise magic.
yaw, yore, you're, your, yours
yaw: of a ship, deviate suddenly from straight course; of a plane, turn about the vertical axis. Also a nasty lesion from the bacterial disease yaws
yore:time past, long ago - "in days of yore, when knights did deeds of derring-do".
you're: contraction of you are - "you're reading a lens at the moment".
your: possessive case of you - "your other glove is on the table".
yours: pronoun - "is this glove yours?" Also that which belongs to you - "yours was the first comment I received?"
I've put yours in as I've seen the dreaded apostrophe creeping in -, as in your's. Eeeugh.
Some Other Common English Mistakes
And some Latin
average and mean: Average in the statistical sense means the total of a set of numbers divided by the number of members of the set. The average of 1,2,3, 4 is 2.5. Mean is the value in the middle, so having equal number of members above and below. A Conservative MP once stood up in Parliament and tried to complain that Labour's education policies weren't working because 50% of the country's children were below the mean ...
hear, hear: Muttered in Parliament and various crusty meetings when you approve of what someone has said. A common error is "here, here".
lo and behold: Note there is no "w" on "lo".
per se: The Latin for "by itself", means literally that or "intrinsically". "He wasn't a bad man per se but could be violent when drunk."
refute: means to disprove with evidence. It does not mean "to deny" - politicians please notice.
sashay: "she sashayed along the catwalk" - not to be confused with chassis, in meaning or pronunciation
shoo-in: as in "a shoo-in for the post of manager". Common mistake is "shoe-in".
wrack: damage, most often in the phrase "wrack and ruin". Also "wracking my brains".
And many, many more
I'm not going to add brake/break - any car driver should know the difference. Osculate and oscillate - well, experiment to see which you prefer. Hoes and hose would take me to a classic Two Ronnies sketch (or worse, in the US).
If you do think I should add anything, please say so in the comments below.
Doubling consonants before ing and ed
I like treading on battered shopping. No, not a new hobby, just a few examples that sprang to mind. Words that end in a vowel/consonant: when do we double up the consonant for past participles etc?
Simple rule: if the vowel isn't stressed or if the vowel itself is preceded by a vowel, don't double up. Thus:
"Pleasantly simple," you think. Sorry, this is English so there are some exceptions. One such set is:
Words ending in ip with second syllable unstressed: British English doubles up, American doesn't: so find out if someone worshipped or worshiped and you know where they're from.
Words ending in vowel c: add k, so "frolic/frolicked, picnic/picnicked".
Acronyms And Initials
Capitals and periods
Acronyms: words formed from the initial letters in a set phrase, eg NATO for North Atlantic Treaty Organisation.
Several major media have begun showing acronyms with a single capital, eg Nato. I'd say this is a matter of personal preference (I think it looks daft) so use whichever you prefer.
Where an organisation or other body is commonly referred to by its initials in non-acronymic form, eg "the UN" for the United Nations", the custom nowadays is to not use periods - UN rather than U.N.
Owning up to an omission
Here's an example. Note the example's use of the apostrophe.
In Place Of Omitted Letters
Can't, for cannot. Haven't for have not. And note ain't for are not (there's a few of these in Dickens).
Not the revolving head and pea soup projectile vomiting possession, but showing ownership. The man's gloves. The people's choice. The children's nanny. The car's wheels (one car), the cars' wheels (several cars). Mr Banks's children.
Main point to note is with plural owners - if the plural form doesn't end in "s" then use "apostrophe s". If the plural form does end in "s" just add an apostrophe.
The Odd Special Case
In time expressions: "a year's time", "in two years' time". "In four days we will ..." No apostrophe on the last one.
Plurals of abbreviations: "In a busy day for the police, they issued forty APB's."
The Unwanted Apostrophe
She had four dog's. She had four dog's whats? We've all seen these on shop signs: - "Fish And Chip's" - and cringed.
Mind you, to set you thinking: "The old man had been a great hunter in his day. Amongst the trophy heads on his walls were four lion's." Correct or not?
All over the place
One simple little punctuation mark that causes a lot of difficulty, the comma actually has several well defined uses. The main things to remember are not to scatter them too liberally and not to use them just because you think a sentence has gone on long enough so it must be time to bung one in.
Where the start of a sentence is a bridge between that sentence and the previous sentence. I learned to play the violin at school. However, it wasn't until I took private lessons that I was allowed to play in public. Note the comma after "However". Note also that running the two sentences together is wrong: I learned to play the violin at school, however, it wasn't until ...
With Quotation Marks
I said, "Stop that at once." Note that the capital letter at the start of the quoted remark does not necessitate a preceding full stop (period).
He famously wrote, "Abandon hope, all ye who enter here." There is a school of thought that says use a colon instead of a comma if the quotation is longer than six words. I'd say it's completely up to you..
"Abandon hope, all ye who enter here," is perhaps his most famous quotation. Note that the comma goes inside the quotation marks if the quotation precedes the rest of the sentence.
Use a comma after an introductory phrase, however long that phrase. Yesterday, I decided to learn the violin. Having learned to play the violin, I can now play "Frere Jacques". (By the way, why haven't I put a comma after "play" in that last example?)
Use commas to separate items in a list. I like apples, oranges, plums and damsons. You might choose for stylistic reasons to drop the "and", in which case you use another comma: I like apples, oranges, plums, damsons.
Bracketed Clauses (And Unbracketed)
John, a self-made man, lacked certain social graces.
However, he was still a generous host, pressing food and drink on his guests.
The use of commas that people usually think of first, separating the parts of a sentence. The bracketed clause is obvious in the first of the two sentences above; the unbracketed less so in the second. A simple rule to follow is: if the phrase is both relevant and subordinate or ancillary, use a comma. Beware tortuous constructions though:
John, a self-made man, who liked dogs, lacked certain social graces.
If you find yourself writing things like that then you need to reconsider what you're trying to say in one sentence. Note that this fails the relevancy test - dogs have nothing to do with the rest of the sentence. Consider though: John, a self-made man who liked dogs, allowed his corgis to beg food at the dinner table.
Is that It? Of course not, that would be too easy, but if you want to go and read up on some more specialised uses, see Grammar Monster.
Sentence Construction: Basics
When I was naught but a child, many years ago, in a primary school in Liverpool (North West England), we were taught that a sentence, to be correct that is, should express a complete thought and begin with a capital letter and end with a full stop or period as you say in the USA. where the rules are the same even if the mode of expression is a bit different (for example in the use of -ise versus -ize).
Okay, hands up anyone who cringed at that sentence. Not that long but truly horrible, albeit a valid sentence. Why is it bad? The criticisms I'd make should cast some light on how to write a good sentence.
- It's too long (but see The Longest Sentence in Literature)
- Too much extraneous information - eg where I grew up is irrelevant in this context
- Too many clauses - sections delineated by commas or brackets
- Too much information; it's indigestible
- Too much non-information; eg the to be correct that is, serves no useful purpose
- Inappropriate stylistic flourishes, eg naught but
Let's delete accordingly and see what we're left with:
When I was a child, we were taught that a sentence should express a complete thought and begin with a capital letter and end with a full stop or period.
That's a lot better but we can probably go a bit further. Consider the a complete thought. Stress the "a"; in other words, singularity of thought. Let's try two sentences:
When I was a child, we were taught that a sentence should express a single complete thought. It should begin with a capital letter and end with a full stop or period.
Much better. Only one thing remaining to be done (and I'm sure some of you have been scowling at it for a while) the full stop or period implies wrongly that the two terms refer to different things:
When I was a child, we were taught that a sentence should express a single complete thought. It should begin with a capital letter and end with a full stop (period).
Sentence Construction: Clauses
Okay, I've stripped down all my sentences and it looks horrible. Too many short sentences. I want clauses.
(a) The man went to the barber. His hair was long and scruffy.
(b) The man, whose hair was long and scruffy, went to the barber.
Consider example (a): syntactically correct but sounds a bit awkward. Also, the second sentence is ambiguous - I could be talking about the barber's hair. Example (b) is much neater and more precise. It works because the clause is relevant to the whole.
(c) The man, whose trousers were pink with small bells, went to the barber.
Clearly poor, and it would frustrate your readers - you're waffling on about barbers but the pink trousers sound much more interesting.
(d) The man whose hair was long and scruffy wore pink trousers.
(e) The man, whose hair was long and scruffy, wore pink trousers.
What's the difference between examples (d) and (e)? "Commas," says a voice from the back of the room. A subtle distinction - (d) identifies one man amongst many while (e) is correct if we've previously identified which man we're talking about. The latter is still awkward as the subclause isn't relevant to the main part of the sentence, though it would work if accompanied by more information in adjoining sentences.
Keep that notion of relevance in mind and expand to aptness:
(f) The man, long hair flowing in the breeze, rode towards the horizon.
(g) The man, long hair flowing in the breeze, walked along the pavement.
In example (f) we can easily envisage a man on horseback galloping towards the sunset. Example (g), on the other hand, just sounds a bit daft.
(h) The man, heedless of other pedestrians, strode along the pavement.
Example (h) reads okay - the subclause is relevant to the sentence and the change of verb is an improvement.
One final example, a construction I hate, "comma this":
(i) Canonical has just released Ubuntu 11.10, this is the latest version of the popular Ubuntu distribution ...
I've tried to find or construct an example with "comma this" that looks and sounds good - I can't. Consider either of the alternatives:
Canonical has just released Ubuntu 11.10, the latest version of the popular Ubuntu distribution ...
Canonical has just released Ubuntu 11.10. This is the latest version of the popular Ubuntu distribution ...
So then, how to sum up? Keep clauses relevant and apt. Don't write overly long sentences. Don't have too many subclauses in any one sentence.
Are you happy with the section on apostrophes?
Are you happy with the section on use of commas?
Are you happy with the section on sentence construction?
email versus e-mail
Do you write email or e-mail? Do you go in for e-Commerce or E-Commerce? And if the latter, why not E-mail?
Most of the e- constructions are too new for traditional bodies (eg the OED) to decide. I go by my own rule:
- lower case "e" and no hyphen if the second part has one syllable, hence email
- hyphen if two or more syllables, hence e-Commerce
It's up to you but, as with other areas where there's doubt, make sure you're consistent.
To hyphenate or not to hyphenate?
Which form do you use?
Cliches And Redundant Words
Basically, horrific murders
What have horrific murders got to do with blog writing? Junior reporters used to be shouted at by sub-editors when they used the adjective, on the grounds that it was clichéd and redundant - all hacks used it and all murders were horrific anyway. Whilst we can be more relaxed on our blogs, we should still beware lest we sound like writers on a Murdoch tabloid.
Redundant expressions do occur more frequently in speech (listen to any sports reporter) but they sound worse in print. Notwithstanding that, basically avoid and dodge phrases like "in a hospital situation". "In hospital" will probably serve better. And yes, ""Notwithstanding that, basically " is an awful way to start a sentence and why do I need "avoid and dodge?" You'll get the added bonus of catering for all those visitors who skim pages quickly or visit fleetingly. (Yes, I did it again - annoying when you're thinking about it, isn't it?)
Great Reference Books
Cheap and cheerful dictionary
Easy to follow grammar guide
Some Useful Links
Rules may obviate faults, but can never confer beauties— Samuel Johnson
Have I caught all of the common errors? Anything you can think of missing? Would you reword that second question?