On this page I list common errors people make in their usage of English, and provide the corrections. You'll notice that I can't make up my mind whether English is capitalised or not. I have the same problem with "earth." Anyone want to correct me?
PS If you don't think learning to spell is important, please consider the below:
Apostrophe, possessive and plural forms. This is used to indicate a missing letter which was historically present. Hence, the word "don't" contains an apostrophe because it is a contraction of "do not." the apostrophe replaces the O. Other examples are "let's", which is short for "let us", and "he's", which is short for "he has" or "he is". E.g., "He's got a car" means "he has got a car". Similarly, in the past, i.e., about 1000 years ago, English used -as for plural and -es for possessive (genitive). Since the loss of the vowel in these suffixes, we now use the apostrophe to denote the E in -es (genitive). e.g., John's apple's red colour—meaning, the red colour of the apple of John. If John has more than one apple, it would be apples (without an apostrophe) to indicate the presence of more than one apple, however, if we still want to talk about the red colour of John's apples, we have to add an apostrophe to indicate that we're not putting the -es of possessive form, but we know it should be there. So it would be: John's apples' red colour. American usage retains the second S, i.e., John's apples's red colour.
Now let's look at personal pronouns (he, she, it, and so on). Since the pronouns have had possessive forms for a long time, we do not indicate the possessive form on the pronouns with an apostrophe. So, "He owns the ball, the ball is his" is correct, but "He owns the ball, the ball is he's" is wrong. "He's" does not mean "that which belongs to him," it means "he is." It is a contraction. The same applies to "It's" versus "Its." "Its" means "that which belongs to it," whereas "it's" means "it is." So "That is its problem" is correct, but "that is it's problem" is incorrect, because it means "that is it is problem," which makes no sense.
Plural, except cases like mouse/mice, goose/geese, foot/feet, is always just "-s" without an apostrophe in all cases. So "The five barbecue's" is wrong because it means "that which belongs to the five barbecues." Some cases are debatable, e.g., the plural of abbreviations, such as CD or DVD. Is the correct plural CD's and DVD's or CDs and DVDs? Since apostrophe indicates possessive form, I lean to the view that CDs and DVDs is correct. However, if the abbreviation is in lowercase, it looks odd: cds and dvds, so in that case I think an apostrophe is acceptable because it is signifying the missing letters of the abbreviation—so, in the case of "CD's," the apostrophe is signifying the missing "-isk" letters. But if that were the case then we should have "C'D's" like we have "Don't." Of course, the old convention with abbreviations was to use dots, so, it would then be: C.D.s, which is ugly.
There is a similar problem with dates: "In the 1940s, there was a dictator"—I have indeed seen "In the 1940's, there was a dictator," but I suspect it's wrong. If in doubt, substitute "of" and see if it makes sense—because "of" is genitive like the apostrophe-s. "In the 1940 of there was a dictator." This doesn't make sense, so we can argue that "1940s" is preferable. If it were written in full, we'd not have "nineteen-fortie's," so it shouldn't take an apostrophe.
Lastly, because the apostrophe is used to abridge words by removing a letter, such as "a" in "are", people consequently fail to hear the word "are" in phrases such as "you're" and "how're", "they're". As a result of this lack of understanding of basic grammar, they leave the word "are" out, and write things that are grammatically incorrect such as "how you?" instead of "how are you?" or "they big" instead of "they are big". We'll see more symptoms of this lack of understanding later on.
Question mark. This is often left out when it should be present. All questions take a question mark. So, "where are you going" is not a question unless you put in the question mark.
Colon, semicolon and M-dash. These are used to signify pauses, pending an explanation or elaboration. A colon (:) is followed by a list of items being enumerated, or, an explanation. A semi-colon (;) is a pause with an elaboration forthcoming, e.g., "The weather was sweltering; it was like being in a steam bath." Whereas the colon is for lists, e.g., "The items are as follows: bananas, apples, oranges," or for really big pauses or explanations, e.g.: "Behold: The Lord is Come." You should not separate list items with a semicolon, you always use a comma or a new line. M-dash (the wide dash that connects words) is also used like a semicolon. e.g., "The weather was sweltering—it was like being in a steam bath." It can also replace parentheses (). e.g., "The large man (who, we might add, was tall)—" can also be written: "The large man—who, we might add, was tall—."
Hyphen. The hyphen is only used to join words, e.g., anti-social. Using a minus sign is incorrect, as is using an m-dash. Words that have been joined for a long time, such as "everyday," do not need a hyphen.
Punctuation mark names.
() Parentheses (pa-ren-thee-sees). Singular: parenthesis.
& Ampersand. A cursive Latin "Et." (meaning "and").
# Hash. Not "pound." It just happens to reside on the same key on a keyboard. Means "number."
The British use No from Latin "Numero." Similar abbreviations are Wm (William), Thos (Thomas), and Bros (Brothers).
Spelling and the History of Languages
Most people can't spell, which is something I find mysterious. Understandably, English consists of a whole lot of merged languages, primarily Germanic and Latin, but once you know the aetiology of a word or its parts, you know what spelling convention to use. So, for example, Latin-based words do not often use double-letters to signify the length of a vowel sound. Latin-based words are also often pronounced as they are written, except for the suffix -tion which is pronounced "shun." This is because many Latin words came into English via Old Norman French, and the French tend to drop or slur most sounds.
As a general rule, longer words are Latin and therefore spelt more or less as they're pronounced, whereas shorter words are Germanic and therefore older, and therefore have gone through more spelling changes that don't correspond to their pronunciation changes. As an example, consider "rough" and "through." 1000 years ago they were pronounced rooch and throoch, where -ch is the guttural -ch seen in the Scots word "loch." For those of you who have not heard this sound, you pronounce it as follows: Position your vocal apparatus as if you were going to say a K. But instead of a K, exhale heavily while keeping your tongue in that position. It should sound like you're coughing or clearing your throat. A bit like the H in the word "Ahem." Now, in Middle English, the guttural sound dropped out of favour to a heavy H, which diverged into an F and a silent-H, now seen in our modern pronunciations. It is for reasons like this that English spelling and pronunciation, especially of older words, seems erratic. It's not; you just have to understand a bit about history.
A useful thing to understand with spelling is that some words are composites. So, for example, aggression and agglomeration, are spelt with two Gs because actually the Latin has ad-, meaning towards. The ad- was assimilated (ad-similated) into the subsequent letters (sub: below, seque-: to follow, -ent: -ing, thus, "subsequent" means "following under.") Another example of a similar phenomenon is "thunder," which originally didn't have a D; the D was added. Similarly, consider words like "knives," "gnome," etc., where we don't pronounce the stop-consonant (K/G, P/B, T/D are stops)—because it is assimilated into the subsequent nasal consonant. The K/G etc is still there for historical reasons to retain a link to the original; so, e.g. Knave, Knight, Night (English); Knabe, Knecht, Nacht (German); Knife (English); Kniv (Swedish); Gnosis, Psyche (English); Gnosis, Psuche (Greek).
Then there's the famous rule of "I before E except after C," e.g., "Ceiling" but "Brief." This rule works fairly well, but there are exceptions, and you just have to make note of them, such as "seize".
The letter C is generally pronounced as an S only in Latin-derived words, and only before a front-vowel (E, I, Y). So: cyan, ceiling, accelerate. Since Latin doesn't take double letters for a short vowel (E in accelerate is short), one can guess, when spelling the word, that there'd be only one L. If it were a Germanic word, there'd be two Ls. Why then is the first C pronounced K? (I.e., why is it pronounced "Aksellerayt")? Well, the first C is before another C, so it is a K. The second C is before an E, so it is an S. Some scholars believe that Latin was pronounced like Italian, in which case it would originally have been a "ch" sound, i.e., "ach-chelerate." In Germanic words in English, the C is pronounced K or CH, for example: Church, child, kick, and so on. To make sure you don't mispronounce it, a K is used where it might be ambiguous, hence: King, kin, kind, ken. But originally, Old English spelt these words with a C as well, but this was changed to a K when more Latin words entered the language and took the S- pronunciation. If you understand these pronunciations, or you're familiar with them, then you ought to know exactly which spelling to use. Basically, Germanic favours K, Latin favours C. Remember:
- If it's a long word or "fancy" word, it's probably Latin, and if you're saying an S before a front vowel (E, I, Y), then it's probably a C, e.g., cede.
- If it's an S-sound before a front vowel in a basic word, e.g., seed, then it is probably an S.
- If you're saying a K and it's before a front vowel and it's a fancy word, e.g., accelerate, then it's probably a C as well.
- If it's a K-sound before a front vowel in a simple word, e.g., kite, then it's Germanic, in which case it's a K.
- If the consonant comes before a back vowel (A, O, U), then spell it as it's said (K is K, S is S), except:
- If the word is fancy (Latin) and the K-sound is before a back vowel (A, O, U), then it's a C.
The same logic applies to G. If you hear a hard G sound, like "go," then it's always a G (except "ghost" and "aghast," which both come from Old English "gast," meaning ghost). Before E, I or Y, G is, however, a J, with a few exceptions, most significantly, "get" and "give." These are old Germanic/Old English words, so, they kept their older spelling. So, if you understand the rules above for C, use them for G as well. Incidentally, Italian has a similar convention: Ce, Ci are pronounced "che" and "chi," but Che, Chi are pronounced "ke" and "ki," respectively. Italian is just more consistent on this because it is a purer language with fewer foreign words. So if you hear a word with a "J" sound in it, the spelling generally follows Latin rules: if it derives from a Latin word with an I, such as justice (ius), Jupiter (iupiter) or eject (iacta), it has a J. If it derives from a Latin word with a G, then it takes a G, such as General, gentle, genuflect, etc.
The latter pronunciation of the G derives from Italian convention, and the former (I becomes J) derives from French. Think also of Spanish, where J is pronounced like German Ch (soft guttural), e.g., Jose, pronounced "hozey." The I before the vowel (Latin: iosephus) becomes a Y (yosef), which becomes an H or guttural, hence the swishing sound of J. Most pronunciation changes are due to slurring and regional accents. Once an accent is written formally as a difference, you get a new dialect or language emerging. So, for example, the Scots say "hoos," "loos" and "moos" for "house," "louse" and "mouse," as the English did 1000 years ago, and as the Swedes still do. The Germans and Southern English, however, underwent a vowel shift in their accents, hence the Germans and Southern English say "house" (Haus), "louse" (Laus), "mouse" (Maus), which are pronounced the same in both languages. So the rules from G/J are:
- G sound: always a G (unless followed by a front vowel, e.g. Ghent, and there's the exception Ghost... without the H it would be gosst).
- J sound followed by a front vowel (E, I, Y): Assume it's a G at the beginning of a word, except "jet." Examples: genuflect, gentle, Genevieve, gender, German, agitate. Otherwise, spell with J if the Latin word has an I (eject vs iacta, as in alea iacta est).
- J sound followed by a back vowel (A, O, U): spell with J always, except "margarine." (You have to memorise that one). Examples: Joke, Jack, John, Japan, January, Jupiter.
Lastly, as we saw above, there's a simple rule that long vowels are followed by single consonants, e.g. cattle (short A), Kate (long A), rattle (short A), rate (long A), and so on. The exception is short words which do not end on E, such as "cat" and "rat." The -e on the end of "Kate" and "rate" signifies that the vowel is long, whereas if we leave it off, it is short. This only applies to Germanic words; Latin and Greek words, like Apostrophe, don't have double consonants (e.g., Apposstrophe) simply because they weren't written with double consonants in their original language. English tries to retain original spellings of words as far as possible, hence the use of Ph in Greek-derived words to emphasise the Greek letter Phi (Fi).
If you understand these rules above, you cannot make a spelling mistake ("Spelling" is Germanic so it has a double L to signify that the E is short).
Short vowels in English
"a" in "cat"
"e" in "net"
"i" in "thin" or "tilling"
"o" in "not"
"o" in "nor"
"u" in "but"
"oo" in "foot"
schwa, the blank vowel, occurs in almost every English word. It's transcribed in the international phonetic alphabet as an upside-down e, ə. Almost all vowels which are not the emphasised vowel in the word are pronounced as a schwa. This is the "a" in "sofa" or the "e" in "the". For example, if we write schwa as an apostrophe, a word like "religious" is pronounced "r'l-IH-j'ss" (only the i in -lig- is emphasised, the rest are schwas).
"a" in "Kate"
"a" in "Father"
"e" in "meet"
"ai" in "air"
"i" in "machine"
"i" in "tiling" or "high"
"o" in "note"
"u" in "cute"
"oo" in "root"
These two lists above should help in judging whether the letter takes a double consonant after it or not. Incidentally, some English long vowels, especially A, I and O, are diphthongs, literally two vowels pronounced together. So long-A is actually short-A,Y and long-I is actually short-English-U,Y and long-O is actually schwa-W. W and Y are also not really vowels or consonants; they're semivowels; Y derives from I and W from U; hence the Welsh word "cwm" (coom).
Diphthongs (double vowels) and certain combined consonants indicate the origins of a word. E.g. Th- (the, then, that, this, their) almost always indicates an ancient Germanic origin (except Thames, which is Gaelic). Sh- (should, ship, show) likewise. Ch- (child, church, chin) likewise. Other combinations give away that a word is loaned from elsewhere, e.g. Ph, Ps- is Greek. Bh is Gaelic. -ng is Germanic. -ant, -ent, -tion is Latin or French. Etc., which means you can guess the spelling conventions.
aa — Usually in foreign words. Scandinavian pronounces this "aw" like in "law", however it appears in some Biblical names like Canaan and Baal. In both cases it's pronounced approximately "ay" like in "day", however, South African English, under the influence of Afrikaans, also uses "Ah" like in "father".
ae — Usually found in Latin words, pronounced "ee", however, in the original Latin it was "i" as in "high". So we pronounce Caesar as "See-zer" but the Romans originally said Kaizer. As in the football club. The spelling Kaiser is the German spelling of Caesar. Also seen in Russian as Czar or Tsar.
ai — eh, as in "air", "hair", etc. This pronunciation often indicates a French word (except if the word is basic like hair, fare, fair, etc, where it was originally spelt -aeger in Old English, and pronounced "ayer" like in "layer" ).
au —usually "o" like in "nor" or "aw" like in "law", however, Americans say "ah" like in Father.
ea — "ee" as in "meet". Almost all these words are native Old English (meat, beat, eat, heat).
ee — "ee" as in "meet", however, where it occurs in French loanwords it is "ay", e.g. Fiancee (fee-ahn-say).
ei — "ee" as in "ceiling"
eo — "ee-oh" as in "neo".
eu — "ew" as in "new". Usually indicates a Greek word, in which case the native Greek pronunciation is Eff.
ie — "ee" as in "meet"
ii — "ee-eye" as in "radii" (ray-dee-eye). Aways indicates a Latin plural, e.g. Octopi, Radii, etc.
oa — "oh" as in "boat". Almost all these words are native Old English (oak, loan, goat).
oe — "ee" as in "foetus". Always indicates a Greek loanword.
oi — "oy" as in "boy". There are some exceptions where it indicates a Greek loanword, in which case it might be an "ee", however, I can't think of an example offhand; I'll update this page when I do.
ou — "ow" as in "now" or "uh" as in "nut", but "oo" in French and Greek loanwords, e.g. Noumenal (noo-men-al, from Greek Noos, the mind).
ui — oo-ah, as in "suicide" or oo as in "sluice". Indicates a Latin loanword.
Miscellaneous common errors
Abbreviations of "are." A lot of people don't know that you need to put the "are" after words like "they," in sentences like "they are coming." In casual speech, most people pronounce "they are coming" as "they coming," but in fact there is a subtle "are" being pronounced, hence the correct form is "they're coming." This error is particularly noticeable in the later British Empire—i.e., English-speaking places other than America, Ireland and Scotland, because in the 1800s the English stopped pronouncing their Rs on the ends of their words. Hence, "Car" is pronounced "Kah," whereas the Americans and Scots say "Karrrr." So the same thing happened to "are," which the latter peoples pronounce "arrrr" but which British-RP and Southern Hemisphere speakers pronounce "ah." Hence, "they are coming" becomes "theyah coming" which becomes "theya coming," hence the lazy "they coming." But it's wrong. It's written "they're" and pronounced, at worst, "theya." Another common error is "your" for "you are." The correct version is "you're." "Your" means "that which belongs to you," so, saying "your so annoying" means "that which belongs to you so annoying," which doesn't make sense. The Southern Hemisphere pronunciation of "you're" vs "your" is "year" (often transcribed "yer" when mocking e.g. cockney accent) vs "yaw". So "yaw book" (your book) vs "yer right" (you are right).
Everyday vs every day. "Everyday" means "mundane," "boring," "normal," "common or garden." Why? Because if something is "everyday" it is something you are likely to see every day. "Every day" (two words) means "on each day." So, the following is incorrect: "We will help you everyday." This means, literally, "We will help you boring." Similarly, "This is a very every day kind of thing" is no longer correct; it would mean "This is a very on each day kind of thing." We now join "every" and "day" if we mean "boring" to signify that we don't mean "on each day."
"Would of" instead of "would have." This problem arises from people saying the contraction "would've" and not realising it means "would have." If it meant "would of" it would be written "would'f." Furthermore, "would of" means nothing; "would of gone there" means "wanted to OF go there but didn't." How do you Of-go? That is meaningless. The "have" indicates the past tense, as in "have had the will to go there."
"ECT" instead of "Etc." Etc is a Latin abbreviation, for "et cetera," meaning "and various others." This is why it is Etc. The ECT spelling arises from a pronunciation error where some people pronounce "et cetera" as "eksetera." The correct pronunciation is "et setera".
Then vs than. Some people who do not pronounce English correctly do not understand that "then" and "than" sound different. "A" in English is usually pronounced as "ey"—e.g., "day," or, it is pronounced as "ae," in other words: make your mouth shaped like you are going to say "a" in "father," then say "eh." The result should be RP (received pronunciation) "a," as in "cat." This is a different sound to "e" as in "net." You can only make the "then/than" mistake if you're not pronouncing them correctly. This is particularly true outside the British Isles. "Then" means "consequentially," whereas "than" means "by comparison to." So, for example, "If he is bigger than her," means, "If he is bigger by comparison to her." If we substitute "then," the meaning of the sentence is ruined because "If he is bigger then her" literally means "If he is bigger consequentially her," which is meaningless. Similarly, "If we go to the shops than we buy something," is also meaningless. It should be "then," as in: "If we go to the shops THEN we buy something," meaning, "If we go to the shops, consequentially, we buy something."
Calling a letter an alphabet. A single character, such as "A," or "B," or "C," is called a "letter" or "a letter of the alphabet," or, amongst computer experts, a "character." "The Alphabet" refers only to the WHOLE SERIES of letters, from A to Z. When you talk about "An alphabet" you mean a series of characters used by a language to designate sounds, such as, "the English Alphabet," "the Cyrillic Russian Alphabet," etc. Calling the letter "A" an "alphabet" is as wrong as calling a cow a herd, or a car a traffic, or a house a city. The word "letter" means one of two things: either a single alphabetic character, or, a piece of correspondence, usually on paper. "Alphabet" comes from the Greek "alpha beta," the names of the two first letters of the Greek alphabet. Ultimately these names came from Semitic (Aleph, Beth—meaning an ox and a house, because that's what they originally were—drawings of an ox's head and a house).
Double-negatives. A double negative is a positive. Saying "I don't know nothing" means "I do know something." The phrase "I don't know nothing" is not correct English.
"Alot." The phrase "a lot" is two words. "Lot" means a "batch," so "a lot" means "a batch." "Allot"—one word—means "allocate, give or award." So if you say "I like you allot" you're actually saying "I like you award," which doesn't make sense.
They VS He/She Debate
It is quite common these days to use "they" as a neutral pronoun to avoid the implicit sexism in using "he."
So, for example, these days, we regard sentences such as this as sexist: "If the candidate wishes, he may apply for the job," because it implies only men will be candidates. So many people these days use "they" instead, e.g., "If the candidate wishes, they may apply for the job." This is slightly incorrect because people then proceed to use plural forms to agree with "they," since "they" actually refers to a group of people. So we end up with weird things like "If the candidate wishes, they may bring their ID books to prove their identity"—which is broken, because it says "ID books," which agrees with the plural "they," but "prove their identity" literally means "prove those many people identity" (just so). The currently recognised officially politically neutrally correct way of using pronouns is the awkward "he/she" construct. e.g., "If the candidate wishes, he/she may..."
The use of "they" as the neutral singular personal (as opposed to "It" which is the neutral impersonal), is, however, becoming more popular and prevalent and I fully expect it to be regarded as correct within twenty years. I have seen it in published books and heard it in films. Don't be too horrified; German uses "sie" as the respectful singular second person pronoun (Thou), but it also means "They." French has Tu and Vous. So I suspect it is inevitable that English will eventually use "They" as a singular, too; the personal version of "It". Try avoid it for now until Oxford declares it to be correct.
A lot of people can't tell when to use -tion, -shion or -sion. The rule is simple: if the word's stem ends on D, or S, then use -sion, eg., tension (tense/tend), lesion (laedere in Latin), abrasion (abrade). If the word's stem ends in something else, e.g., N, or T, then use -tion, eg., retention (retain), invention (invent), discretion (discreet). The only exceptions are fashion and cushion, which take -shion.
These two words have the same origin in Latin but they mean different things. Discreet means polite or unobtrusive, whereas discrete means separate and distinct. Remember it this way: with "Discrete", the two Es are separated by a T. So they're separate and distinct. Whereas, one should eat DISCREETLY.
Obscure Plurals and words that are spelt the same
For the most part, English uses -s for plural (house, houses). But it has some obscure plurals. My favourite is words ending on -is, such as thesis, analysis, and so on. They take -es as the plural, hence, theses, analyses. What's particularly interesting about analyses is it can mean "does analyse" (pronounced ANal-izez), or it can mean "many analysis" (anallis-SEEZ). Both are spelt "analyses". It's a bit like "Polish" (the nation), and "polish" (the cleaning agent). Remember: polish (the cleaning agent) is spelt with one L because it comes from Latin (polire), which doesn't do the double-consonant thing for short vowels (IE pollish). Polish (the nation) is spelt with one L because the O is long (Poh-lish), and the Poles themselves call themselves Polska (one ELL).
Other obscure plurals are -us (from Latin), e.g., octupus, virus, which can take -es or -i as plural: octopuses, octopi, viruses, viri. The plural viri is something of a joke because the correct accepted form is viruses, but people love talking about virii on the internet. However, if the word was virius, then the plural would be virii. Since it's virus (no second I), its plural can only be viri. Stick to viruses.
Strong plurals, where a vowel is changed, are rare. I think the exhaustive list is: goose/geese, foot/feet, tooth/teeth, brother/brethren, mouse/mice, woman/women, man/men, child/children, ox/oxen, die/dice. If you can think of any more, let me know.
Old past tenses
The past tense of "wend" is "went". So what is the past tense of "go"? We use "went" these days, but "went" means "wended". The original past tense of go was yede/yode. The reason is that in Old English, the letter Yogh (shaped like a 3 or lowercase g), was used instead of a G. This was understood to mean either a G or a Y according to context. It survives in Shakespeare as "clept" or "yclept", which are the past tense of "clipode", the Old English for to be named/called. The German equivalent of "Clip"/"Clep" is "Heisse" - Ich heisse John - I am named John. Now, why do I say that the Yogh survives in "yclept"? Because in Old English, some past tenses were formed with Ge- like in modern Germanic languages. So Yclept would have been Geclipode in Old English (pronounced roughly: yiclipoder). So, similarly, Go's past tense was "gede", pronounced "yedduh". This became "Yede" in Early Modern English.
Here's an except from Le Mort d'Arthur by Thomas Malory, written in the 1400s. It has both Yode and Yede in it:
AND soon as Sir Launcelot came within the abbey yard, the daughter of King Bagdemagus heard a great horse go on the pavement. And she then arose and yede unto a window, and there she saw Sir Launcelot, and anon she made men fast to take his horse from him and let lead him into a stable, and himself was led into a fair chamber, and unarmed him, and the lady sent him a long gown, and anon she came herself. And then she made Launcelot passing good cheer, and she said he was the knight in the world was most welcome to her. Then in all haste she sent for her father Bagdemagus that was within twelve mile of that Abbey, and afore even he came, with a fair fellowship of knights with him. And when the king was alighted off his horse he yode straight unto Sir Launcelot's chamber