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how to speak proper englishThe English language has a lot of grammatical rules to follow, both in speaking and writing. This can make learning English difficult for non-native speakers, but it can also cause occasional confusion for those of us who have grown up speaking English as well. Additionally, the majority of people does not often speak proper English these days, particularly in the United States. There are numerous common phrases and sayings that include grammatical errors, but they are so popular and repeated so often that people don’t realize they’re speaking improperly. Examples include “on accident” rather than “by accident,” the misuse of the word “literally,” replacing “should have” with “should of,” and tossing around the term “irregardless,” which is not a real word.

You may be guilty of one or more of these improper English transgressions, which is understandable due to the exhaustive nature of English grammar rules. However, learning how to speak proper English is important; speaking properly will change the way you talk, but more importantly, it will change the way people listen to you. This guide will explain the importance of a few key aspects of speaking proper English.

Noun and Pronoun Agreement


In English, any word that refers to a person, place, or thing is considered a noun. A pronoun is a word used to take the place of a noun. A personal pronoun takes the place of a person. A personal pronoun can be classified as first, second, or third person, as well as singular or plural.

Everyone is familiar with personal pronouns; we use them every day in our speech. But it is very common to form sentences and phrases in which the noun and pronoun do not agree. These sentences or phrases are considered grammatically incorrect. For example, in the phrase, “He ate his dinner,” he is the noun, while his is the third person singular pronoun. The noun and the pronoun agree in this phrase. A common mistake people make, however, is using a plural pronoun for a singular noun, as well as the opposite. If someone says, “Each person had their own book,” they are using the singular noun person but using the plural pronoun their. The correct way to structure that sentence is, “Each person had his own book.” You can also say, “Each person had his or her own book,” if the group being discussed contains both males and females. To some people, the correct form of the sentence looks and sounds very strange, because it is so common to hear incorrect pronouns being used in similar sentences. A similar instance of this kind of mistake is seen in the sentence, “The group had their class outside.” The group indicates several people, but the noun group is still singular, so the pronoun must be singular as well. The correct version of the sentence is, “The group had its class outside.”

A related grammar mistake people often make is to interpret words such as everybody, anybody, neither, either, and any as plural nouns. They indicate a plural in the sense that they are often referring to more than one person, but they still require a singular pronoun. For example, it is incorrect to say, ‘Everybody was happy with their work.” Instead, one must say, “Everybody was happy with his or her work.” Similarly, you wouldn’t say, “Neither of the girls were happy about the situation.” The correct phrase is, “Neither of the girls was happy about the situation.”

Subject and Verb Agreement


Subjects and verbs need to agree in the same way that nouns and pronouns do. Verbs, like pronouns, can be classified in varied ways. A verb form can be written in the first person, second person, or third person, and also in the singular or plural. When using the words either, neither, each, or everyone, the verb should be in singular form, the way the pronoun should be. It is incorrect to say, “Either of the women are available.” The correct sentence is, “Either of the women is available,” because the singular either agrees with the singular is. Similarly, “Each of the doctors are very qualified” is incorrect, and should be replaced with, “Each of the doctors is very qualified.”

You may be familiar with some nouns that have the same form whether they are singular or plural, such as deer or moose. Similarly, there are several nouns that require a singular or plural verb, even if it doesn’t seem to make sense. Some unique nouns that require a singular verb include furniture, mathematics, news, poetry, and politics. It is incorrect to say, “Mathematics are difficult to learn,” even though the presence of an “s” makes the word seem plural. The correct sentence would be, “Mathematics is difficult to learn.” Similarly, “Politics are a tricky business,” would be incorrect, and should be replaced with, ‘Politics is a tricky business.” Some unique nouns that require a plural verb include scissors, spectacles, riches, and measles. One would not say, “The scissors is very sharp,” but, “The scissors are very sharp.” Similarly, “The spectacles is dirty,” should be replaced with, “The spectacles are dirty.”

Commonly Confused Words

Though people often make mistakes related to noun and pronoun agreement, as well as subject and verb agreement, a majority of proper English mistakes are made when people aren’t sure which word to use in which situation, leading them to confuse two similar words or phrases and use them interchangeably.

One of the most confusing of these pairs is who and whom; many people are reluctant to ever use whom, because they aren’t sure when it is appropriate. The easy way to remember the rule is this: who is a pronoun referring to the subject of a sentence, and whom is a pronoun referring to the object of a sentence. Who replaces he, she, we, and they. Whom replaces him, her, us, and them. If a sentence would normally be “He is happy,” the sentence can be changed to “Who is happy?” Similarly, if a sentence would normally be, “I’m happy with him,” the sentence can be changed to, “You’re happy with whom?”

People often use farther and further interchangeably as well. Farther, however, should only be used when the distance described is literal and measurable, as in, “I drove farther than you did to get here.” Further is used in an abstract way when measurement is not possible, as in, “She was further worried by the new development.”

Fewer and less seem like synonyms, and people usually use them without any regard for their intended meaning. One famous misuse of the word less can be seen at your local grocery store; there is usually a sign on the express checkout lane reading, “12 items or less,” but the proper way to express that is really, “12 items or fewer.” Less should be used only for amounts that cannot be quantified, or counted. Fewer should be used anytime an actual number is involved. It would be incorrect to say, “I have less cars than he does,” because you can actually count the amount you’re referring to. It would also be incorrect to say, “I have fewer courage than she does,” because you cannot quantify the thing you’re talking about.

The difference between affect and effect is barely a difference at all; one letter separates these two words, and people tend to use one version of the word all of the time. However, affect should be used as a verb, while effect should be used as a noun. If something changes you or a situation, it affects you or affects the situation. The result of something affecting you is an effect. It is incorrect to say, “The storm caused several negative affects.” It is also incorrect to say, “The storm effected the town negatively.” The correct phrases are, “The storm caused several negative effects. The storm affected the town negatively.”

Another popular error made frequently by English speakers and writers is the confusion of the words lay and lie. Lay is a transitive verb, and it requires an object. For example, you would lay the blanket down on the bed. In the past tense, you laid the blanket down on the bed. But if you yourself are getting into bed, you are lying down, because lie does not require an object. If you already did get into bed, in the past tense, you would say that you lay down. Lay is used for an object, and the past tense is laid. Lie is used for a subject, and the past tense is lay.

Perfecting Your Grammar

Clearly, there are a lot of grammar errors being made by English speakers every day. You may have noticed that you make many of these errors while speaking as well. Though it can be challenging to stop saying something a specific way, it’s important to try if you’re using incorrect English grammar. A sharp and strong understanding of how to speak proper English will benefit you whether you are still in school, breaking into the professional world, or even if you have an established career. This can be accomplished by studying grammar rules, but also by reading. Written material, particularly fiction books, are edited to be grammatically perfect, and those who read a lot tend to use better grammar when they speak and write themselves. It always pays to sound smart, especially when you’re talking to someone who understands English grammar conventions.

Page Last Updated: February 2020

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