Correcting Common English Mistakes

Proper grammar doesn't have to be a daunting task. Using proper English is easy if you learn how to correct a few of the most common mistakes.

By Pamela Rice Hahn

Don't Make Things Difficult    to top

You don't need to have an advanced degree in English to master the techniques necessary to have an efficient command of the English language. In fact, analyzing your sentence structures doesn't necessarily help your objective of speaking and writing with an everyday level of authority that commands respect. That's because the study of grammar usually takes language out of the atmosphere, surroundings, or setting of its context and turns it into rigid syntax.

  • Language Lesson
    Syntax is the relationship between words and word groups within a sentence. How they work together defines their context and sentence structure.

You want your sentences to work together as a whole. You can leave the lofty debates about esoteric punctuation placement and word choices to the academics. Chances are you just want to say what you mean and say it correctly when you do so. Here are some ways to help you do just that:

Trust Your Own Judgment     to top

Those who use proper English command authority. They convey a greater sense of intelligence and mastery of the subject or subjects they address. Therefore, your best approach to grammar in everyday life is to learn the methods of good speech and writing that will help you look and sound like you know what you're talking about.

For example, the last sentence above ended with a preposition—something that's usually considered improper usage. Ending a sentence in that manner would be incorrect in formal, written English. However, there are times when applying all of the rules to the spoken word will create a phrase that's unpleasant to the ear. Consider rephrasing the ending to the last sentence in the above paragraph:

" ... and sound like you know the things about which you're talking."

In some cases, being correct doesn't necessarily make you right.

  • Language Lesson
    Even if it's correct, if the sound of what you say distracts your listener from what you're saying, you've lost your effectiveness.

Get in the Habit of Treating an Infinitive As One Word     to top

An infinitive is a simple verb that's usually formed using the word "to" in conjunction with the verb:

  • to go
  • to complete
  • to learn
  • to smile

It's not uncommon for people to stick an adverb into the middle of an infinitive. In fact, it's now so common that it's become acceptable informal usage to do so. Then why shouldn't you do it? Because it's still wrong! Consider how the following sentences are improved by treating the infinitive as one word:

Split infinitive: We need to quickly complete this work.

Infinitive: We need to complete this work quickly.

Split infinitive: I was too preoccupied to adequately listen to what he had to say.

Infinitive: I was too preoccupied to listen adequately to what he had to say.

It may seem like a lot to worry about, but you have to face the fact that some members of your audience will prefer that infinitives never be split. In such a case, you lose that reader or listener—whereas the people who don't care won't even notice that you're doing it right. A little bit of foresight can remove huge barriers in your communication.

Too Much for Two People to Handle    to top

Too is an adverb that means "excessively" or "also." In the above heading, it modifies much; it creates the air of an excessive amount.

To is a preposition and is used only to introduce prepositional phrases or infinitives. In the example, it is used as a part of the infinitive to handle.

The two forms are different and cannot be interchanged; however, exchanging them is a common English mistake, and you need to be careful that you don't make it yourself.

Two, of course, is a number; as such, it cannot be exchanged with either of the other words.

Your Subject Needs to Match the Verb    to top

A singular subject takes a singular verb. A plural subject takes a plural verb. It's that simple.

One of the ways to ensure that your subject and verb match is/are to reduce your sentence to its simplest form. Showing only the subject and predicate will help you decipher which verb you should choose.

Look at the first sentence in the paragraph above as an example, to see how we know that the singular is the proper choice for the verb:

One of the ways to ensure that your subject and verb match is to reduce your sentence to its simplest form.

One (way) is to reduce your sentence to its simplest form

One is singular, so it uses the singular verb

Possessive Pronouns Never Use an Apostrophe    to top

Unlike a possessive noun, a possessive pronoun will never have an apostrophe. It's something that isn't going to happen. A pronoun becomes a possessive only by changing its spelling. Most people don't mistake personal and personal possessive pronouns because of their distinct spelling changes:

personal pronoun

personal possessive pronoun





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