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Grammar Police – Mistakes Native English Speakers Make

by Nico De Napoli

Back in the noughties, I taught English as a second language for several years. Being a foreign national made it trickier to find work, as many of the language schools in London had a policy of employing native teachers only.

But during the training, I realised that being a non-native had its advantages. Having grown up in a country in which grammar is taught as part of the primary school curriculum, I was very familiar with the basic notions of nouns, verbs, adjectives, etc – unlike the vast majority of the native trainees, who were coming across these concepts for the first time.

The teaching work was fun. London being such a multicultural city, the students came from all over the globe and their ages ranged from 16 to 64.

While teaching these lovely people English grammar and phonology, I learnt about their cultures: from Brazil to Japan, Poland, Azerbaijan, Nauru… I’d never even heard of Nauru!

Another advantage of being a non-native speaker is that it’s far easier to teach one’s second or third language than one’s first – for the simple reason that we would have had to learn the second or third language much more consciously than the first.

I once tried to teach Italian to a friend and I was surprised, and embarrassed, by the fact that I struggled to explain certain things regarding the syntactic structure of the language.

I realised that – no matter how linguistically aware – we all have a tendency to take our mother tongue for granted.

So we mustn’t judge native English speakers too harshly for the grammatical and spelling errors they tend to make when writing and speaking in their language. But we can kindly point out to them what they are:

Affect vs. effect

‘Affect’ is a verb meaning ‘to have an impact’: The rightwing press affected the election results. Or ‘to upset’: His death affected her deeply.

‘Effect’ is a noun meaning ‘impact’, ‘outcome’: The food we eat has an effect on our health. – The weather has an effect on my mood (or: It affects my mood).

‘Effect’ is also a rarely used verb meaning ‘to bring about’, ‘to cause’.

Phonetic sameness is what effects the widespread confusion.

Less vs. fewer

‘Less’ and ‘fewer’ share the same meaning, but ‘less’ is used before uncountable nouns, such as ‘sugar’ or ‘money’: I consume less sugar than I used to. – He earns less money than you do.

Whereas ‘fewer’ is used before countable ones: Berlin has fewer inhabitants than London. – In order to pass the test, you will need to make fewer mistakes than that.

Fewer people than you’d expect are aware of or follow this rule.

Practice vs. practise

In British English, ‘practice’ is the noun: I haven’t had much practice lately. And ‘practise’ is the verb: She has been practising yoga for years.

In American English this differentiation does not exist: both the noun and the verb are spelt with a C.

Its vs. it’s

A very common mistake, often found even in reputable publications (though autocorrect can probably take a share of the blame there), is the confusion between ‘its’ and ‘it’s’.

‘Its’ (without the apostrophe) is a possessive pronoun: A country and its people. – The house and its contents. It is the equivalent of ‘his’ and ‘her’ for genderless nouns (things, places, ideas).

‘It’s’ (with the apostrophe) is the contracted form of ‘it is’: It’s a good idea. – It’s none of your business.

The third conditional

In England, we hear this a lot: If I’d have known, I’d have come along; i.e. If I would have known, I would have come along. This is a wrong construction of the so-called third conditional.

The correct version is: If I had known, I would have come along. Or in contracted form: If I’d known, I’d have come along.

Your vs. you’re

This is probably the most widespread grammatical mistake in the English language. The fact that the two are phonetically identical does not help.

‘Your’ is a possessive pronoun: Your sister is lovely. – I like your socks.
‘You’re’ is the contracted form of ‘you are’, a personal pronoun followed by a verb: You’re so sweet. – You’re such a nuisance!

Should’ve vs. ‘should of’

You should of told me! Another common – and rather serious – grammatical error: ‘of’ is a preposition, not a contracted verb.

Phonetics is to blame, as the words ‘have’ and ‘of’ share the same pronunciation when found between any two other words (the infamous schwa).

The correct version is:You should have told me. Or: You should’ve told me. The same, of course, applies to: ‘would of ‘ and ‘could of’.

There, their or they’re?

Yet another phonetic deception.

‘They’re’ is the contracted form of ‘they are’: They’re a lovely couple.

‘Their’ is a possessive pronoun: Their garden is bigger than ours.

And ‘there’ is the opposite of ‘here’.

Went vs. gone

This confusion seems to be rife among North Americans, who can often be heard saying things such as ‘We should have went’ rather than ‘We should have gone’.

‘Went’ is the past tense of ‘go’: I went to the cinema last night.

‘Gone’ is the past participle and is used after the auxiliary verb ‘have’: I wish I had gone with you. Or as an adjective: He’s dead and gone.

Crises vs. ‘crisises’

The plural of ‘crisis’ is not ‘crisises’ but ‘crises’ – the pronunciation changing from /’kraisis/ to /’kraisi:z/.

The same applies to analysis/analyses, diagnosis/diagnoses, basis/bases, etc.

Realise vs. realize

Unless you’re choosing to write in American English, the correct spelling is ‘realise’. This applies to all verbs ending in ‘ise/ize’: organise, memorise, generalise… and their related nouns: organisation, realisation, and so on.

With regard to American vs. British English spelling, the key is consistency: choose one or the other and stick to it!

The indefinite article and the letter H

Everybody knows the basic rule: ‘a’ is used before words where the H is pronounced, as in a hat or a house, and ‘an’ before words where the H is silent, as in an hour or an honour.

But most people seem to ignore that ‘an’ can be used before words beginning with the letter H whether or not the H is silent, if the first syllable of the word is unstressed: an hysterical pregnancy; or an hallucinogenic drug.

Many follow this extended rule in speech. Not in writing.

The cause of this confusion is that, over the centuries, there’s been a shift in the pronunciation of words starting with the letter H. In the past, many more were pronounced with the H silent: the word ‘hotel’ (from French: hôtel), for example.

In Ancient Greek the letter H had the same phonetic value as in modern English, but it became totally silent in Latin and the languages that emerged from it. So it was omitted in Old French and Italian, but restored pedantically in French and Middle English spelling, and later in English pronunciation.

Nico De Napoli is a life coach with a background in music performance and applied linguistics. Originally from Italy, he has lived and worked in London for over two decades. You can connect with him via his website: 

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