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Commmon Errors in English

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Commmon Errors in English
  Common Errors in English by Paul rians  (Brownie points to anyone who catches inconsistencies between the main site and this version.)Note that italics are deliberately omitted on this page.What is an error in English?The concept of language errors is a fuzzy one. I'll leave to linguiststhe technical definitions. Here we're concerned only with deviationsfrom the standard use of English as judged by sophisticated users suchas professional writers, editors, teachers, and literate executives andpersonnel officers. The aim of this site is to help you avoid lowgrades, lost employment opportunities, lost business, and titters ofamusement at the way you write or speak.But isn't one person's mistake another's standard usage?Often enough, but if your standard usage causes other people to consideryou stupid or ignorant, you may want to consider changing it. You havethe right to express yourself in any manner you please, but if you wishto communicate effectively you should use nonstandard English only whenyou intend to, rather than fall into it because you don't know anybetter.I'm learning English as a second language. Will this site help meimprove my English?Very likely, though it's really aimed at the most common errors ofnative speakers. The errors others make in English differ according tothe characteristics of their first languages. Speakers of otherlanguages tend to make some specific errors that are uncommon amongnative speakers, so you may also want to consult sites dealingspecifically with English as a second language (see and There is also a Help Deskfor ESL students at Washington State University at An outstanding book you may want toorder is Ann Raimes' Keys for Writers. This is not aquestion-and-answer site for ESL.Aren't some of these points awfully picky?This is a relative matter. One person's gaffe is another's peccadillo.Some common complaints about usage strike me as too persnickety, but I'mjust covering mistakes in English that happen to bother me. Feel free tocreate your own page listing your own pet peeves, but I welcomesuggestions for additions to these pages.  What gives you the right to say what an error in English is?I could take the easy way out and say I'm a professor of English and dothis sort of thing for a living. True, but my Ph.D. is in comparativeliterature, not composition or linguistics, and I teach courses in thehistory of ideas rather than language as such. But I admire good writingand try to encourage it in my students.I found a word you criticized in the dictionary!You will find certain words or phrases criticized here listed indictionaries. Note carefully labels like "dial." (dialectical),"nonstandard," and "obsolete" before assuming that the dictionary isendorsing them. The primary job of a dictionary is to track how peopleactually use language. Dictionaries differ among themselves on how muchguidance to usage they provide; but the goal of a usage guide like thisis substantially different: to protect you against patterns which areregarded by substantial numbers of well-educated people as nonstandard.Why do you discuss mainly American usage?Because I'm an American, my students are mostly American, mostEnglish-speaking Web users are Americans, and American English isquickly becoming an international standard. I am slowly reworking thesite to take note of American deviations from standard British practice.However, the job is complicated by the fact that Canadians, Australians,and many others often follow patterns somewhere between the two. If thestandard usage where you are differs from what is described here, tellme about it, and if I think it's important to do so, I'll note thatfact. Meanwhile, just assume that this site is primarily about AmericanEnglish.Isn't it oppressive of immigrants and subjugated minorities to insist onthe use of standard English?Language standards can certainly be used for oppressive purposes, butmost speakers and writers of all races and classes want to use languagein a way that will impress others. The fact is that the world is full ofteachers, employers, and other authorities who may penalize you for yournonstandard use of the English language. Feel free to denounce thesepeople if you wish; but if you need their good opinion to get ahead,you'd be wise to learn standard English. Note that I often suggestdiffering usages as appropriate depending on the setting: spoken vs.written, informal vs. formal; slang is often highly appropriate. Infact, most of the errors discussed on this site are common in thewriting of privileged middle-class Americans, and some arecharacteristic of people with advanced degrees and considerableintellectual attainments. However you come down on this issue, note thatthe great advantage of an open Web-based educational site like this isthat it's voluntary: take what you want and leave the rest. It'sinteresting that I have received hundreds of messages from non-nativespeakers thanking me for these pages and none from such peoplecomplaining that my pages discriminate against them.  But you made a mistake yourself!We all do, from time to time. Drop me a line if you think you've foundan error in my own writing. If I think you're right, I'll correct it;but be prepared to be disagreed with. If you write me, please don't callme "Brian." My given name is Paul.For instructions on how to write me, see the bottom of this page.This resource is copyrighted by Paul Brians. Permission is granted toreprint or photocopy small numbers of it in its entirety or in part forall local nonprofit, educational purposes provided that the author iscited and the URL is included. As acourtesy, please notify the author if you copy or link to this material.Because the content changes frequently, and I need to maintain controlover the site, requests to create Web mirrors of the site are usuallydeclined.Recommended in "Yahoo Internet Life Magazine," July, 1997, pp. 82-83 andcited as a Yahoo "Site of the Week." It has also been recommended in thepages of "The Weekend Australian," "The Bangkok Post," the "Los AngelesTimes," the "Seattle Times," the "Indianapolis Star-Tribune," the"Halifax Chronicle-Herald," Ziff-Davis' "Inside the Internet"newsletter, "Netsurfer Digest," and "The Web" magazine.100s/hundreds � It looks cheesy to spell "hundreds" as "100's"; and it isn't reallylogical because "100" doesn't mean "hundred"--it means specifically "onehundred."360 DEGREES/180 DEGREESWhen you turn 360 degrees you've completed a circle and are back whereyou started. So if you want to describe a position that's diametricallyopposed to another, the expression you want is not "360 degrees away"but "180 degrees away."A/ANIf the word following begins with a vowel sound, the word you want is"an": "Have an apple, Adam." If the word following begins with aconsonant, but begins with a vowel sound, you still need "an": "An X-raywill show whether there's a worm in it." It is nonstandard and oftenconsidered sloppy speech to utter an "uh" sound in such cases.When the following word definitely begins with a consonant sound, youneed "a": "A snake told me apples enhance mental abilities."See also "an historic."A.D.  "A.D." does not mean "after death," as many people suppose. "B.C."stands for the English phrase "before Christ," but "A.D." standsconfusingly for a Latin phrase: anno domini ("in the year of theLord"--the year Jesus was born). If the calendar actually changed withJesus' death, then what would we do with the years during which helived? Since Jesus was probably actually born around 6 B.C. or so, theconnection of the calendar with him can be misleading.Many Biblical scholars and historians, and archeologists prefer the lesssectarian designations "before the Common Era" (B.C.E.) and "the CommonEra" (C.E.).All of these abbreviations can also be spelled without their periods.AM/PM"AM" stands for the Latin phrase "Ante Meridiem"--which means "beforenoon"--and "PM" stands for "Post Meridiem": "after noon." Althoughdigital clocks routinely label noon "12:00 PM" you should avoid thisexpression not only because it is incorrect, but because many peoplewill imagine you are talking about midnight instead. The same goes for"12:00 AM." Just say or write "noon" or "midnight" when you mean thoseprecise times.It is now rare to see periods placed after these abbreviations: "A.M.",but in formal writing it is still preferable to capitalize them, thoughthe lower-case "am" and "pm" are now so popular they are not likely toget you into trouble.Occasionally computer programs encourage you to write "AM" and "PM"without a space before them, but others will misread your data if youomit the space. The nonstandard pattern of omitting the space isspreading rapidly, and should be avoided in formal writing.ABJECT"Abject" is always negative, meaning "lowly" or "hopeless." You can'texperience "abject joy" unless you're being deliberately paradoxical.ABLE TOPeople are able to do things, but things are not able to be done: youshould not say, "the budget shortfall was able to be solved by sellingbrownies."ABOUT"This isn't about you." What a great rebuke! But conservatives sniff atthis sort of abstract use of "about," as in "I'm all about good taste"or "successful truffle-making is about temperature control"; so it'sbetter to avoid it in very formal English.
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