If you know me, you’ll know I like a ferocious argument from time to time. I find that one of the most fertile topics for arguments is English grammar, and occasionally dip into grammatical controversies on Facebook.
I was inspired to write this post after a recent hoohah, in which my opponent called me a “pretentious non-native speaker”. The implication seemed to be that she was herself a native speaker, but her written English was riddled with errors that made me suspect otherwise.
At the same time, it’s no secret that native speakers of English are quite capable of producing errors in writing. I started thinking about the particular ‘flavours’ of errors that native users of English often make, and realised that a lot of these are totally different from the errors that I see from second-language English learners.
This is an attempt to create a list of the most common categories, drawn admittedly from my own experience and not from any data. I’m excluding slips and typos which may be caused by auto-correct, and keeping the list general to British English, though I will mention a few regional grammar variants just because I like them.
I’ll also be focusing mainly on written English, as it’s the written form that’s supposed to be standardised to some extent.
1. “Your an idiot”
You’re is often simplified to your. Our becomes are. `They’re, their and there often get muddled. These are probably the most familiar types of error, and presumably come from a failed attempt to transcribe spoken English.
2. “You should of known better”
Again, this is a transcription error: should have is often pronounced should’ve, and ‘ve sounds like the weak pronunciation of of (like in the first of December). Similarly, you can often see could of and would of.
3. “If you had of told me earlier, I would of known”
Had of is an interesting one: it’s a failed transcription of a grammar form that is in itself not correct. It’s quite common to hear had’ve or hada in the if-clause of this type of conditional. It’s as though the speaker feels a need to balance both clauses by adding -‘ve to each.
Less frequently, other conditionals get a similar balancing treatment e.g. if I would win the lottery, I would buy a yacht and even If you would of told me earlier, I would of known.
4. “We sell cabbage’s”
Somewhat snobbishly known as the ‘greengrocer’s apostrophe’, this one is widely ridiculed but still seen pretty often. There is even an Apostrophe Protection Society, devoted to eliminating its misuse.
Native English users who would baulk at cabbage’s are still inclined to use an apostrophe in pluralised acronyms, numbers, or letters (for example CEO’s, NGO’s, the 60’s and x’s). Opinions differ on these forms, but only the last is commonly accepted as correct.
5. “Me and Sandra are going to London”
Pronouns are another source of confusion. The sentence above is one which a lot of English speakers know to be wrong, and the types of people who take pleasure in correcting others will certainly pounce on the opportunity to hiss “Sandra and I”. However, there are other not-quite-correct formulations which more careful speakers will often use:
- Sandra and me are going to London. (Reversing the order sounds less obviously wrong).
- Myself and Sandra are going to London. (The reflexive pronoun myself is often borrowed for use as a subject pronoun. This happens especially in formal situations, perhaps on the basis that we’re making the extra effort to use a longer word).
- The next meeting will be chaired by myself. (Here, myself is used incorrectly as an object pronoun, probably to avoid sounding too egotistical by ending the sentence with me).
Then there’s this perfectly correct use of the object pronoun:
- While we were on the train, a strange man started talking to Sandra and me.
Some native speakers will over-correct this, particularly in writing, to Sandra and I. I heard an anecdote about a news show in which the presenters’ usual goodbye greeting, From Kelly and me, goodbye, had to be changed to From Kelly and from me, goodbye, as a result of the volume of letters from viewers insisting that From Kelly and me was ungrammatical.
6. “I drunk it”
While we’re on the topic of over-correction, this can happen with irregular verb forms too, particularly where the vowel shifts between the second and third forms. I’ve swam is sometimes heard, but is generally known to be incorrect; some English users tend to over-generalise this rule to produce I swum and I drunk as past tense forms.
Non-standard verb forms are also a hallmark of regional dialects. If you travel to Kent you’ll probably hear you was (but not you is). Further north, in Yorkshire, I were is quite common. Northern Ireland has some juicy inflections like et (past form of eat), brung (past form of bring) and hut (replacing any form of hit). Sometimes these forms appear in writing, although with dialects this may be by choice rather than through error.
7. “It doesn’t effect me”
Word formation can be taxing for native speakers and non-native speakers alike. One particular case concerns verbs and nouns which are spelled differently:
*Effect and affect are technically not forms of the same word; however, they are typically confused. Making matters more challenging, effect can be used as a verb meaning initiate, while affect can also be a noun meaning emotional state. However, both tend to be used wrongly in contexts that rule out these alternative meanings.
Another very common error in word type is to write loose (which is most commonly an adjective) instead of the verb lose.
8. “This is all very interesting, however, I’m not sure it’s useful”
Another tricky thing for all learners and users of English is sentence punctuation. Shamefully, written English is often taught more thoroughly abroad than in the UK, and I can say I left school with very little explicit knowledge of the conventions applying to sentence structure in my own language. Some of us did a lot of reading outside school lessons and managed to learn by osmosis, but, sadly, there are far too many adults for whom writing remains a scary challenge. Others write confidently enough, but unknowingly make errors that could affect perceptions of their intelligence or capability:
- It’s common to see two short sentences linked with a comma: this is called a ‘comma splice’. Here’s an informal sentence with two comma splices: I emailed Sylvia, she mentioned that she wants a meeting with you, is that OK? In a quick email to a colleague, this sentence isn’t a problem, but too many native speakers would be unaware that it’s technically wrong.
- When comma splices carry over to formal writing, they do matter! However and nevertheless can easily trip up the unwary writer. For instance, this sentence needs a semicolon (;) before nevertheless: There was some opposition to the new proposals, especially from residents living near the site, nevertheless, the councillors unanimously voted in favour.
9. “Your behaviour is a bomb in a ball”
This is something that my mother said to me when I was five years old: or, at least, I thought she said it. Of course, what she really said was abominable.
The term for this type of misheard word or phrase is eggcorn, and you can find some collections of funny eggcorns online. For instance, someone who has never seen the words Hollandaise sauce in writing might think it’s called holidays sauce, and someone who hasn’t seen Sanskrit written down could imagine the word was sandscript.
Everyday eggcorns usually aren’t that funny, and involve only a small change:
|uncharted territory||unchartered territory|
|as opposed to||as a pose to|
|home in on||hone in on|
|wreak havoc||reap havoc|
|a damp squib||a damp squid|
I’ve also heard specifically turned into Pacifically, although that’s more of a malapropism than an eggcorn.
10. “This article immediatly dissapointed me”
I couldn’t really finish without mentioning some of the typical spelling errors that one encounters. Certain words have a reputation for being hard to spell, particularly if they contain one or more of the following:
- double consonants (accommodation, apparelled, disappear, disappoint, parallel)
- chains of vowels (receive, foreign, bureaucracy, beautiful, manoeuvre, liaise)
- a ‘schwa’ sound in a long word (immediately, correspondence, definitely, dependent, separately)
- a ‘sh’ sound (excursion, comprehension, spatial, conscientious, luscious, vicious)
The last set are less common words, but include my favourite misspelling: a vicious crime sometimes appears as a viscous crime. Perhaps this would be appropriate for misdemeanours involving honey, or jellyfish.