WestWard Quarterly, the Magazine of Family Reading Writer's Workbench

Common English Errors

Listening to people talk, reading online email or forum messages, and even checking out some web sites we notice several recurrent errors in English usage. Some of these even creep into submissions to WestWard Quarterly! So we thought it would be useful to call attention to a few of them here.

One of the most common errors is to insert an apostrophe in the possessive pronoun its, as in “She returned the item to it’s place.” The word it’s is a contraction for it is, but the proper form of the possessive pronoun is its, by analogy with his or hers (no apostrophe). Even some seasoned writers fail to make this connection.

A frequent mistake is to use lay in place of lie, as in “After supper I will lay down.” Lay is transitive; that is, it takes an object. You can lay something else down, but if you place yourself in a position of repose you lie down (intransitive). The confusion arises because lay is the past tense of lie, as in “Yesterday I lay down for a while.” The past tense of lay (transitive) is laid, as in “He laid the book on the table.”

Another error is to treat lead as a past-tense verb, as in “Then he lead me to the door.” The past tense of lead is led. “I will lead you now as I led you in the past.” The confusion no doubt arises from the other pronunciation of lead as a name for a metal. (English is crazy, isn’t it?)

We often hear something like, “He was reticent to take that step.” The speaker meant, “He was reluctant, ” that is, not eager to do something. The word reticent means to speak little, as in “She was reticent about her many accomplishments.”

Even news broadcasters and politicians commit a frequent speech error when they say something like, “The thing is, is she didn’t really say that.” There is no need for the repetition, is is. Do people not listen to themselves when they speak? If they did, they would recognize the redundancy. And they should recognize the error in “It was a good move for Michael and I.” Would one say, “a good move for I,” instead of “for me”?

How often have you heard something like, “So I brought him all his books and papers, eck-cetera,” taking the abbreviation etc. (Latin et cetera, “and the rest”) as though it were ect. or something similar. That brings up another error, the confusion of bring and take. We hear, “I’ll bring you over to Kristin’s house,” when the speaker is at Justin’s house. The speaker should have said, “I’ll take you over to Kristin’s house.” Only if the speaker were already at Kristin’s would she be correct to tell Justin, via telephone, “I’ll bring you over.” To bring means to transport someone, or something, from there to here. When transporting from here to there, the correct verb is take.

Another mistake is to assert that something is very unique. If a thing is unique it is, by definition, one of a kind, so there can’t be any degrees of uniqueness. It’s either unique, period, or it’s not unique at all.

My favorite overheard expression is, “It’s raining outside.” I’m tempted to say, “Thank goodness—it’s not raining inside.” Hopefully, all your rainstorms will deposit their precipitation on the exterior of your residence. If the situation is otherwise, call a roofer.

Monitor your speech and writing for these and other common errors. They can slip in when we’re not watching. As a friend of mine used to say, “Correct me if I’m not mistaken.”

Happy Writing!