Common Grammar Mistakes

Survey of five common grammar mistakes with advice on how to cope with each.

A debate rages in academe concerning the teaching of Standard English. Some contend that attempting to instill Standard (i.e. correct) English in students amounts to an act of cultural fascism, encouraging class divisions and perpetuating stereotypes. Perhaps, the most extreme form of this position is the Oakland, California, school district's abandonment of Standard English in favor of Ebonics or Black English.

The opposite side of the debate contends that Standard English is a tool for effective thought and without its mastery a student is condemned to second-class citizenship in the world of work and letters. It's probably safe to say that a majority of English teachers subscribe to this position.

Whatever the status of the debate and the response of the school, one thing is clear. Speech and writing will go on, and unfortunately, despite the pleadings of idealists, some of us will be judged by lapses from Standard English. In short, speaking and writing errors signal one's background, the success of one's education, and one's own concern for correctness just as blatantly as an arm-cast signals a broken arm.

Since this is true, what then are some of the most common spoken and written errors and what if anything can or should be done about them?

Wrong Form of Verb

This mistake serves as a glaring marker of humble social origins or failure to master elementary school training. Depending on tense (time element) verbs have different forms or principal parts. The most common forms of this mistake are: He "come" late to school, and I "set" in the back row. These two gaffes are easily mastered if one remembers that "set" means to place, while sit and its past tense sat refer to putting one's weight on the posterior. For example, I sit in a chair, and yesterday I sat in a chair. With "come" the key is remembering that the past tense of come is came. Hence, Joe comes today and Joe came(not come) yesterday.

The absolute essential principal parts to master are these. I see today; I saw yesterday (not seen). He gives today; he gave yesterday (not give).

On the other hand, lie and lay constitute another bugaboo of the same type, but failure to use these forms correctly is so widespread at every social level, that the mistake is unlikely to even be noticed. For those who care, however, "lie" is to recline and "lay" is to place something down. However, the issue is confusing because the past tense of "lie" is, also, "lay"; thus, I lie (not lay)in bed today; I lay in bed yesterday.

Subject-Verb Disagreement

In standard English verbs agree with subjects in number. This type of mistake in its simplest form is another obvious social marker. A common glaring example is "it don't." The problem here is that "it" is singular and "don't" is plural. The correct form is it doesn't or he doesn't. The trick is to make the subject and verb match in number (not tense, which is another issue altogether).

Additional examples of this type error are-- Dogs with puppies "needs" (should be plural need)lot of vitamins, and Sailors with scurvy "has" (should be plural have) sore gums.



There is, however, a second type of subject and verb disagreement that commonly occurs where the speaker is confused because a second noun intervenes between the subject and the verb. For example--the captain of the guards "don't" like ice cream. This is incorrect since the subject governing the verb is captain, not guards.

Unfortunately, this type of error is not easily corrected because one must be able to successfully identify the subject as opposed to the noun nearest the verb. Furthermore, correctness demands a kind of instant grammatical analysis that only those who are not likely to make the mistake in the first place can perform while speaking on their feet.

The Good or Well Dilemma

If there's a single usage error that can be said to be afflicting well-meaning Americans today, it's when to use "good" and when to use "well." A bad choice here can make one look incredibly naïve. The problem centers around school warnings against "good" used as an adverb. For example, schools have rightly taught that He hits the ball "good" or She bowls "good" is incorrect. Yes, but while incorrect, the preceding errors are essentially minor and unlikely to provoke scorn.

The problem occurs when one develops an inordinate fear of good and begins substituting "well" in every normal "good" slot. Then egregious errors pop up. People then say, "Have a well day" or She's a pretty "well" singer. Horrors! The cure here is just to go with "good" and take the blame for an occasional slip.

However, purists will want to get it right. In that case, remember "well" is an adverb, for instance, she knits well. "Well" here modifies the verb knits. "Good," on the other hand, is an adjective. He's a good singer. Good modifies the noun singer.

The tricky decision happens after a linking verb which will not use an adverb. Therefore, I feel "good" or he's "good" at pool are correct because "feel" and "is" are linking verbs, and linking verbs don't take adverbs.

Pronoun Hell

Pronouns like nouns have what is known as case and shift their form depending on case. In other words, within a sentence they may function as subject, direct object, object of preposition, or indirect object and vary their form depending thereon. The dilemma for the speaker is inserting the correct pronoun in terms of its function in the sentence.

Garden variety pronoun errors include--him and me went downtown, or the boss gave he and I a raise. Unfortunately correcting this type error takes a modicum of grammatical skill, for one must determine the role of the pronoun in the sentence. Thus, "he" and I went downtown is correct inasmuch as "he" is the subject of the sentence and "he" is a subject-case pronoun whereas "him" is an objective case pronoun. Ironically, and much like the school-inculcated fear of "good," "him" has developed an aura of incorrectness that then drives a speaker to say gave "he" and I a raise, when in fact "he" and I stand in an indirect-object position in the sentence and therefore demand objective case pronouns--"him" and me.

Other common pronoun errors are--talks to "hisself" (should be "himself;" "hisself" is always wrong) and taller than "her"(should be "she"). The latter of the two mistakes is so widely made that the correct form actually sounds stilted, but technically speaking taller than "she" is correct since "she" is the subject of an understood verb "is."

Who or Whom

And finally there is the dilemma of whether to say who or whom as in these situations--Who/whom was at the door? or Who/whom did you give the money to?

The good news is this. Speakers at all academic and social levels tend to either ignore or be confused by the distinction between who and whom, generally choosing "who" and letting it go at that. A result of this is that in situations where "whom" is the correct form, choosing the correct form again may again actually sound somewhat stilted. The bottom line for most social situations is go with "who" as chances are your listener won't know the difference either.

However, if one chooses to be fastidious, it works like this. Because "who" and "whom" are pronouns, they have case as determined by function in a particular sentence. Thus, getting back to the examples above. "Who" was at the door is correct because "who" is the subject of the sentence and "who" is a subject-case pronoun. On the other hand, in the second example--"whom" did you give the money to is technically correct because the pronoun "whom" is the object of the preposition to and "whom" is an objective-case pronoun. Especially sharp readers will note the second example leaves a hanging preposition which is also often considered a grammatical faux pas. So if we want the second example to be grammatically perfect we would say: "To whom did you give the money"

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