Common Mistakes in English

Scott's List of Common Mistakes in English

As noted elsewhere, my basic belief is that language belongs equally to all or to none. You get to choose how you use it. Making up new words, using old words in new ways, spelling words the way they sound, or don't sound, is up to the individual.

But there are times when you don't want to surprise your reader with novelty. For many years I wrote items, largely legal briefs, where the stakes are high and there is plenty of competition for attention. I did not want to distract my reader, typically an appellate-court judge, with a misspelling, grammatical or typographical error, or a split infinitive. My speech is quite informal in many of these ways, but once a solecism is in print there's no way to call it back, soften it or laugh it off. Very often mistakes go unnoticed or cause no conscious adverse reaction, but -- and here's the point -- there's no upside at all. Differences from the written language as it is taught are very unlikely to increase the reader's regard for the writer.

There are situations where it may just not matter, like hasty e-mail communication between peers who have established their relationship in other ways. There's no easy way to establish that informal relationship online, though, because the "Aw, shucks" tone of voice just doesn't come through.

I offer help to people who are serious about their written communications. First, there's a list of commonly made mistakes. A few of the ones that I see most often are displayed in the column to the right. Second, I'm prepared to do online copy editing and proofreading on an individual basis, as I have for a number of startup Web pages. E-mail me here and let me know what you'd like me to look at!

My advice: don't use the word or phrase in the first column until you're sure you know the difference from the one in the second column.
loathe loath
give credence lend credibility
fortuitous fortunate
lay down lie down
loose lose
it's its
criteria criterion
the Smith's the Smiths
who's whose
parameter perimeter
principle principal
beg the question ask the question
Mistakes without comparison:
aren't I? (It's "am I not?")
for John or I (It's "for John or me")
There's a much more comprehensive list at Paul Brians' Common Errors in English Page. [That's not the error it looks like; his name ends in "s."]

Other Services:

Whose language is it? -- my background
"Ksenos," my Language Page
The Uses of Writing