It’s no secret that English can be a tricky language, both for non-native speakers as well as those who have been speaking it all their lives. As perhaps the most complex of all languages, it’s easy to forget a grammatical rule, misuse a word, or never learn a key concept in the first place. Just because mistakes are commonly made, both in conversation and in the written form, doesn’t mean you have to be one of those getting it wrong.
Are you a non-native English speaker who wants to become more proficient in the language? Don’t be discouraged or intimidated by the challenge! Even people who have been speaking English since their first word make various mistakes every day. Take a look at five methods for teaching English that really work. If you’re a teacher who wants to learn more about teaching English for academic purposes, enroll in this Udemy course. In the meantime, take a look at some of the most common mistakes people make regarding the English language, and learn how you can avoid joining the masses in their errors.
Your / You’re
This is a common written mistake, and a startling number of people have never learned how to differentiate between the two. If you are referring to someone’s possession, you would use your. For example, you might remind someone not to forget their lunch by saying, “Don’t forget to bring your lunch.” Simply put, your means “belonging to you.”
“You’re” has a whole other purpose in English sentences. It’s actually an abbreviated, condensed version of the words you are; it simplified the two words and turns it into one contracted word. When you see an apostrophe in the English language, it signifies an abbreviation. For instance, if you want to compliment someone’s appearance, you might say, “You’re looking nice today.” This is just a different way of saying, “You are looking nice today.”
When you use “your” in the place “you are” should go, simply reading the sentence to yourself will clue you in that you’ve got it wrong. You wouldn’t say, “Your looking nice today,” simply because it’s not possible for “looking nice today” to belong to anyone. Conversely, it wouldn’t make sense to tell someone, “Don’t forget to pack you are lunch.” This is a very simple concept when reasoned out, but many people very familiar with the English language get confused on this issue on a daily basis.
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Chances are if you ask a native English speaker the rules when it comes to using lay vs. lie, you’ll get a blank stare unless you’re talking with an English professor. In short, lay is a transitive verb and requires a direct subject and at least one object. For instance, you might lay your book face up on the ground. If it’s in the past tense, you laid your book on the ground face up.
When you use lie, circumstances change. Since it’s an intransitive verb, it requires no object when used in a sentence. In present tense, a woman may lie on the couch waiting for her headache to go away. In the past tense, she lay on the couch waiting for her headache to go away. It’s easy to get confused and used laid when you mean to describe the process of lying in bed in the past tense, but the proper use in that setting would be “lay.”
Its / It’s
This is a tricky one, as many people see the apostrophe in “it’s” and assume it’s a possessive form of an object. Unfortunately, this is not the case; remember that an apostrophe signifies a contraction. While it can also be used to show possession, in this case, “it’s” is merely a shorter form of “it is.” So when you write out the sentence, “It’s a little past noon,” you’re really saying, “It is a little past noon.”
Its, on the other hand, is used in place of his or her. Some entities, like an inanimate object, don’t have a gender to identify in a sentence, so “its” is used instead. For instance, “That hotel has a pool on its roof.” The specific rules can be confusing, but just remember that “it’s” is a contracted form of “it is” and you will have no trouble knowing when it’s the right time to use which version in a sentence.
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Easily one of the most common sources of frustration for those who are trying to be grammatically correct while speaking or writing English, the who versus whom issue flummoxes almost everyone. To get technical about the issue, who can only be used when describing the subject of a verb. Whom, on the other hand, is never the subject of a verb.
What does that mean? Words like I, he, she, we, and they are subjects, and who is just like those words in a sentence. For instance, if your sentence is, “Who is paying for this?” you can clearly see that who is the correct word to use by replacing who but I, he, she, we, or they. If you switched out who and asked, “He is paying for this?” instead, the sentence would still make sense. That should clue you in to the fact that who is correct rather than whom. If your sentence works with a subject such as the ones listed before, you’ll want to use who.
Whom is a little more complicated. Since it can never be the subject of a verb, you need to be sure it functions as the object for it to be grammatically correct. If you can substitute whom with him, her, it, us, or them, it’s okay to use it in a sentence. As an example, you might call a friend whom you graduated from high school with. Using whom is correct here because you called him, not he.
There is another situation in which using whom is always correct grammatically, and that’s when it follows a preposition. There are many prepositions, but some of the more common ones are to, with, by, near, on, and in. Whenever you are using who or whom after one of these words, it’s always proper to use whom. For instance, if you’re asking, “To whom do you wish to speak?” this is the correct format, as to is a preposition.
This one is so subtle that anyone could go around misusing the words for an entire lifetime without ever knowing it or being corrected. In a technical sense, however, you shouldn’t use “may” unless you’re trying to indicate that something is a strong possibility. For example, if you are in between on deciding whether or not you’re going to go out for the evening, you’d say you may go out. This implies that you’re undecided, but it’s very possible.
Might, on the other hand, should be used to suggest something that is not necessarily likely to happen. For instance, it would not correct to say that anyone who buys a lottery ticket may win the lottery. Because the chances are extremely remote, it’d be more accurate to suggest that someone who buys a lottery ticket might win the lottery. The difference is minimal, and most are unlikely to pick up on the incorrect usage, but if you’re aiming for perfect grammar, it’s important to know the distinction between these two words.
When you’re trying to figure out whether farther or further is correct, there’s a simple rule to keep in mind: are you talking about physical distance or an abstract length? To help you remember when to use which, think about the first three letters in farther: far. When you’re talking about how far something is, you’re talking about actual, measurable distance. So you might say that you can run farther than your little brother if you mean to suggest that he will tire and stop running before you do.
Further is reserved for abstract measurements that may not really have anything to do with distance at all. If a particularly nasty head cold started with just a runny nose but progressed to a fever and sore throat, you might say it caused further damage to your health than you initially believed. Likewise, if you believe a subject has been discussed to the point of exhaustion, you might hold out your hands and say, “I won’t discuss this any further.”
Affect / Effect
There’s only one letter difference between these two words, but the meaning is not similar at all. Affect is typically a verb, implying that something is altered in some way. For instance, a lack of sleep may affect your concentration the next day, or an especially heavy gust of wind may affect the speed of a sail boat.
The effect is what happens by whatever is affecting that object. The effect of a sudden gust of wind is that your sail boat will receive a burst of speed. The effect of not getting enough sleep is that you may not feel as mentally sharp as you normally do the next day. There are rare exceptions to both of these, but generally speaking, use affect as a verb and effect as the result of whatever is affecting the object.
English is spoken commonly throughout the world, and taking the time to learn it will be well worth the effort. Likewise, if you’re a native speaker who doesn’t always feel comfortable with grammar rules, it’s never a bad time to brush up on your skills.
It is certainly not an easy language to master for anyone, and that’s doubly true when it’s not your first language. If you’re trying to get a better grip on the English language but you still find yourself struggling to converse with native speakers or understand someone who speaks it too quickly, don’t despair. Consider the Udemy course entitled 8 Secrets to English Success to help guide you in your quest to be more familiar with English.