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English guide: When is an error not an error?
Jagruti Sharma
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September 10, 2007

For most of us, English is still a challenge. With all its irregularities, exceptions and rules, English is a very difficult language to master.

With that in mind, presents our English Bloopers series. Here, we publish written and spoken mistakes spotted and sent to us by observant Get Ahead readers. It's a great way to review the basics, clarify a few issues and share a laugh or two! 

Jagruti Sharma
, director of
Words Infocom Limited, sends more useful resources our way. Here, he provides a list of phrases and usages that violate grammar rules, but have become accepted as part of standard English. Let's have a look:

Split infinitives

For the hyper-critical, "to boldly go where no man has gone before" should be "to go boldly. . . ." It is good to be aware that inserting one or more words between "to" and a verb is not strictly speaking an error, and is often more expressive and graceful than moving the intervening words elsewhere; but so many people are offended by split infinitives that it is better to avoid them except when the alternatives sound strained and awkward.

Beginning a sentence with a conjunction

It offends those who wish to confine English usage in a logical straitjacket that writers often begin sentences with "and" or "but." True, one should be aware that many such sentences would be improved by becoming clauses in compound sentences; but there are many effective and traditional uses for beginning sentences thus. One example is the reply to a previous assertion in a dialogue: "But, my dear Watson, the criminal obviously wore expensive boots or he would not have taken such pains to scrape them clean." Make it a rule to consider whether your conjunction would repose more naturally within the previous sentence or would lose in useful emphasis by being demoted from its position at the head of a new sentence.

Using "between" for only two, "among" for more

The "-tween" in "between" is clearly linked to the number two; but, as the Oxford English Dictionary notes, "In all senses, between has, from its earliest appearance, been extended to more than two." We're talking about Anglo-Saxon here�early. Pedants have labored to enforce "among" when there are three or more objects under discussion, but largely in vain. Even the pickiest speaker does not naturally say, "A treaty has been negotiated among England [Images], France [Images], and Germany [Images]."

Over vs. more than.

Some people claim that "over" cannot be used to signify "more than," as in "Over a thousand baton-twirlers marched in the parade." "Over," they insist, always refers to something physically higher: say, the blimp hovering over the parade route. This absurd distinction ignores the role metaphor plays in language. If I write 1 on the blackboard and 10 beside it, 10 is still the "higher" number. "Over" has been used in the sense of "more than" for over a thousand years.

Gender vs. sex

Feminists eager to remove references to sexuality from discussions of females and males not involving mating or reproduction revived an older meaning of "gender," which had come to refer in modern times chiefly to language, as a synonym for "sex" in phrases such as "Our goal is to achieve gender equality." Americans, always nervous about sex, eagerly embraced this usage, which is now standard. In some scholarly fields, "sex" is now used to label biologically determined aspects of maleness and femaleness (reproduction, etc.) while "gender" refers to their socially determined aspects (behavior, attitudes, etc.); but in ordinary speech this distinction is not always maintained. It is disingenuous to pretend that people who use "gender" in the new senses are making an error, just as it is disingenuous to maintain that "Ms." means "manuscript" (that's "MS").

Using "who" for people, "that" for animals and inanimate objects

In fact there are many instances in which the most conservative usage is to refer to a person using "that": "All the politicians that were at the party later denied even knowing the host" is actually somewhat more traditional than the more popular "politicians who." An aversion to "that" referring to human beings as somehow diminishing their humanity may be praiseworthily sensitive, but it cannot claim the authority of tradition. In some sentences, "that" is clearly preferable to "who": "She is the only person I know of that prefers whipped cream on her granola." In the following example, to exchange "that" for "who" would be absurd: "Who was it that said, 'A woman without a man is like a fish without a bicycle'?"*

 "Since" cannot mean "because."

"Since" need not always refer to time. Since the 14th century, when it was often spelled "syn," it has also meant "seeing that" or "because."


This word has meant "it is to be hoped" for a very long time, and those who insist it can only mean "in a hopeful fashion" display more hopefulness than realism.


"The plane will be landing momentarily" says the flight attendant, and the grumpy grammarian in seat 36B thinks to himself, "So we're going to touch down for just a moment?" Everyone else thinks, "Just a moment now before we land." Back in the 1920s when this use of "momentarily" was first spreading on both sides of the Atlantic, one might have been accused of misusing the word; but by now it's listed without comment as one of the standard definitions in most dictionaries.

Lend vs. loan

"Loan me your hat" was just as correct everywhere as "lend me your ears" until the British made "lend" the preferred verb, relegating "loan" to the thing being lent. However, as in so many cases, Americans kept the older pattern, which in its turn has influenced modern British usage so that those insisting that "loan" can only be a noun are in the minority.

Regime vs. regimen

Some people insist that "regime" should be used only in reference to governments, and that people who say they are following a dietary regime should instead use "regimen"; but "regime" has been a synonym of "regimen" for over a century, and is widely accepted in that sense.

Near miss

It is futile to protest that "near miss" should be "near collision." This expression is a condensed version of something like "a miss that came very near to being a collision" and is similar to "narrow escape." Everyone knows what is meant by it and almost everyone uses it. It should be noted that the expression can also be used in the sense of almost succeeding in striking a desired target: "His Cointreau souffl� was a near miss."

"None" singular vs. plural

Some people insist that since "none" is derived from "no one" it should always be singular: "none of us is having dessert." However, in standard usage, the word is most often treated as a plural. "None of us are having dessert" will do just fine.

Scan vs. skim

Those who insist that "scan" can never be a synonym of "skim" have lost the battle. It is true that the word originally meant "to scrutinize," but it has now evolved into one of those unfortunate words with two opposite meanings: to examine closely (now rare) and to glance at quickly (much more common). It would be difficult to say which of these two meanings is more prominent in the computer-related usage, to "scan a document."  

Till vs. 'til.

Since it looks like an abbreviation for "until," some people argue that this word should always be spelled "'til" (though not all insist on the apostrophe). However, "till" has regularly occurred as a spelling of this word for over 800 years and it's actually older than "until." It is perfectly good English.

Friday: Part II

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