Common Errors in English Usage

What is an error in English?

The concept of language errors is a fuzzy one. I’ll leave to linguists the technical definitions. Here we’re concerned only with deviations from the standard use of English as judged by sophisticated users such as professional writers, editors, teachers, and literate executives and personnel officers. The aim of this site is to help you avoid low grades, lost employment opportunities, lost business, and titters of amusement 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 consider you stupid or ignorant, you may want to consider changing it. You have the right to express yourself in any manner you please, but if you wish to communicate effectively, you should use nonstandard English only when you intend to, rather than fall into it because you don’t know any better.

What gives you the right to say what an error in English is?

I could take the easy way out and say I was a professor of English and did this sort of thing for a living. True, but my Ph.D. is in comparative literature, not composition or linguistics, and I taught courses in the history of ideas rather than language as such. But I admire good writing and tried 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 in dictionaries. Note carefully labels like dial. (dialectical), nonstandard, and obsolete before assuming that the dictionary is endorsing them. The primary job of a dictionary is to track how people actually use language. Dictionaries differ among themselves on how much guidance to usage they provide; but the goal of a usage guide like this is substantially different: to protect you against patterns which are regarded by substantial numbers of well-educated people as nonstandard.

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