Ryan J. Suto's Blog

04 September 2013

Seven Mistakes of English that make me instantly stop listening or reading

Insensitive? Possibly. Arbitrary? Maybe. Steeped in privilege and arcane notions of propriety? Sure. But regardless, for some elitist reason I cannot get past these commonly made mistakes in English. Whether others have the same rules and pet peeves as I, everyone will judge you in some way for how you speak. And believe it or not, you judge them, too.

1.       Pronouns are for back-up. Only use ‘it’, ‘they’, ‘them’, etc. when that which is being referred to is explicitly clear.

2.       Proper verb conjugation. There’s two? No, there are two. This one is so simple, I really don't understand the issue here.

3.       Adjectives v. adverbs. He didn’t run slow. Don’t grab your coat quick. He ran slowly. Grab your coat quickly. File ‘well v. good’ under this, too.

4.       Their and They. These words always refer to more than one person. They are NOT gender neutral singular pronouns.

5.       Correct plurals. Criteria are many, criterion is one. Media are plural. Data are too. Alumni are as well. (Bonus: ‘alum’, unless you’re discussing chemistry, is not a word. Never use it. Ever.)

6.       Sentence subjects. ‘Checked the door’. ‘Wasn’t there’. Uh, what checked the door? What wasn’t there? Even if you think the subjects of these incomplete sentences are made clear by previous reference, they are not. You need a subject here.

7.       I and Me, Who and Whom. I and Who are subjects, Me and Whom are objects. Use them as such.

Now of course I have made all of these mistakes at some point in my adult life, but once I notice I feel dirty and embarrassed. How can one notice mistakes and thereby improve one’s English? There are two ways to notice mistakes: having an ‘ear’ for correct English, and knowing the formal rules of English. The former simply means having your Colbert-gut attuned to recognize mistakes, while the latter is the nerd version which will note that a coordinating conjunction should only be used to join two independent clauses. If you didn’t grow up with parents who used near-perfect English (I love my parents but they know nothing of grammar), the best way to develop and ‘ear’ for it is to read it and listen to it. If you didn’t have grammar education in high school (I must admit I did), buy this. 

Regardless of what technological advances come (except perhaps direct thought propagation) language will continue to be important. And until human nature changes, people will continue to judge others on how they speak. The criteria, though, will change, of course. Like education in general, language is a lifetime process that requires constant attention, but for me it has been well worth the effort.


  1. May I add to your list? Qualifying modifiers on the word "unique" make me cringe. A person, place, or thing cannot be VERY unique.

    Unique - being the only one of its kind; unlike anything else.

    It is not possible to be VERY one of a kind. The subject is either one of a kind, or it is not one of a kind.

  2. I agree completely, Jeff! Thanks for the addition. This one, too, vexes me.