Ah, grammar. Some love it. Most hate it. I for one actually like it. Don’t really know why, I just always have. But, personal preferences aside, here is a compilation of the most common grammar and word usage mistakes even native English speakers make.
Language is a complicated thing on a good day, and the English language has to be one of the most complicated things for non-native speakers to learn. Even native English speakers can spend their lives learning grammar rules and never get it absolutely perfect. I can’t even tell you how often English grammar is misused on a daily basis. And in casual day-to-day conversations, that’s fine — the point still gets across.
But when you’re trying to write a story, make a report, e-mail your boss, colleague, or teacher— or anytime you don’t want to appear illiterate— proper grammar is important.
In everyday life, the most common grammar mistakes you will come across (or make— we all do) tend to fall into one of these three categories:
1. Misuses of “is” & “are”
2. Numeric and/or tense agreement
3. Homonym (also known as homophone) misuses
Note: This post will primarily deal with grammatical errors in words. Although punctuation is still grammar, that will be dealt with in a later post.
It’s amazing how much this one gets messed-up. In a sentence, “is” is used with singular words and “are” is used with plural ones. But I just stated an English grammar rule, so there are 20 zillion exceptions, right? Pretty much. But let’s start with the instances that follow this rule first.
Singular: “This book is good.”
Plural: “These books are good.”
The “is” and “are” rule has relatively few exceptions, especially when compared to other grammar rules. (“A” vs. “an”, anyone? But that’s for another day.) The biggest one that actually matters in day-to-day English is when you are writing or speaking in second-person. (The “you” form.) When writing about “you”, use “are”— even though the “you” referred to is only one person. Let me give you some examples:
“What are you doing?”
“Where are you going?”
“You are a really great person!”
Note: Although “are” is used with “you”, it becomes “is” again when a more indirect pronoun is used.
Direct: “You are pretty.”
Indirect: “She is pretty.”
This kind of ties into what we talked about in the last section; all words in a sentence must agree in number. Just like you (generally) use “is” with singular words and “are” with plural ones, the same principle applies to this grammar rule.
For example, you wouldn’t say, “We’re going to see that movies.” You would either stick to the singular form (“We’re going to see that movie.”) or the plural form, (We’re going to go see those movies.”) but not both in the same sentence like that. The exception would be if you have a clause or conjunction. (“We’re going to see that movie, but not those movies.”) This sentence is grammatically correct, even though there are both singular and plural words in it.
Each sentence, in order to be grammatically correct, must also agree in tense. Technically, there are 16 tenses in the English language, but I’ll save elaborating on those for another day. Despite those 16 tenses, they can all be divided into 3 main groups:
• Past Tense
• Present Tense
• Future Tense
Those groups are pretty self-explanatory, but you do have to pick one and stick with it throughout a sentence or paragraph. For example, you wouldn’t say, “Dad stopped the car and my bag falls over.” “Stopped” is past tense and “falls” is present tense, so they are incompatible. You would either have to change the sentence to, “Dad stopped the car and my bag fell over,” (all past tense) or “Dad stops the car and my bag falls over,” which is all present tense.
Style Note: Although you don’t necessarily have to, writing seems to flow better and is less confusing when you use one tense throughout an entire piece of writing. (I.e., all past tense or all present.) At the very least, consider staying with one tense through a paragraph.
These get tricky. Multiple words that have the same pronunciation, but totally different spellings and meanings. A quick internet search will tell you that there are approximately 8-12 thousand of ‘em in this little language we call English. After a while, you can get a grasp on which word means what, but it’s amazing how many times people misuse them. I’ll never forget the time I saw someone use “board” instead of “bored”. Vastly different meanings, people! Although this isn’t exactly a grammar “rule”, nothing makes a person seem illiterate faster than misusing a homonym. So here are some of the most commonly mixed-up ones:
They’re: Contraction for “they are”.
Their: Plural possessive; “It’s their car.”
There: Typically used to show location; “The car is over there.”
It’s: Contraction for “it is”.
Its: Possessive form of “it”; “She pulled the book from its cover.”
Your: Possessive form of “you”; “Is this your book?”
You’re: Contraction for “you are”.
Note: Never say, “your welcome”. It just doesn’t work.
Than: Mostly used in comparisons; “More than anything”, “I’m taller than you,”.
Seen: Past tense of “see”.
Saw: Another past principle of “saw”.
Note: Although these are both forms of the same word, they are NOT interchangeable. It’s kind of hard to explain, so check this out for more info. And whatever you do, NEVER say, “I seen it.”
Principal: The leader of an entity, usually a school.
Principle: Used to describe moral values; “She had no principle.” Also a business term used to describe value or assets; “The company has a principle of $1.3 million.”
Bear: Refers to the animal species. Can also be used to refer to the act of carrying an object or emotional load; “I don’t know how she can bear holding all those books.”
Bare: Without frill or decoration; “The bare bones of a house.”
Board: A piece of material, usually wood.
Bored: The state of boredom or being unmotivated.
If you want to see more homonym examples, try this webpage.
I hope this helped answer some of your grammar questions. If you have more, let us know in the comments and we’ll answer them there!