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This article was first published 13 years ago

11 Blunders to avoid in spoken and written English

Last updated on: April 25, 2011 11:58 IST

In a two-part series, language expert Preeti Shirodkar shares with us the most common blunders Indians make while speaking and writing in English.

English essentially serves as a second language for most users in India and is therefore often alien to the natural make up of its citizens.

This is simply because it is acquired after the mother tongue, which is most often a regional language.

As a result, in its usage, whether written or spoken, in India, English has gained strong regional flavours and therefore one finds many variants of English, without realising them to be so.

Moreover, it is important to remember that although no more acknowledged as such, at a basic level, English has and will continue to remain a 'foreign lauage'.

Ironically, though it has ceased to be seen as such, as a result of which the care that one may exercise in approaching/learning a foreign language is cast away, in the acquisition of English.

Consider the real life case of an employee from a famous IT company, who wrote to his boss, asking for leave, because 'I am marrying my daughter'.

The obsession with purity apart, even if one were to ensure effective communication (by avoiding miscommunication), it would help identifying the pitfalls, at least so that one can steer clear of them.

The errors in usage that have been highlighted in this article occur both in spoken and written communication.

Preeti Shirodkar is an Associate Professor in Language Studies at Mumbai Education Trust

Use of the present continuous

The present continuous is essentially used in the English language to denote an action that is currently being undertaken.

Any action that is likely to be undertaken in the future cannot be denoted by the present continuous.

The reason for this being, though the action is planned, circumstances in the future may result in the action not actually taking place.

As a result the possibility of its non-occurrence is as much as its occurrence.

For example, most people say 'I am coming to your house in the evening'.

This is incorrect because even though you may have planned to visit your friend, many reasons can prevent you from doing so, including bad weather for one.

Therefore you would use 'I am coming to your house', ONLY if you are already on your way there.

If not, while referring to the future it is more appropriate to use a modal auxiliary (the modal auxiliaries include can, could, shall, should, will, would, may, might, must, ought to, used to and dare to), which shows a possibility rather than a certainty along with the action you wish to undertake.

So the correct usage in this case would be: 'I will come to your house in the evening' (the unsaid being, 'circumstances permitting')

It is also important to realise that the present continuous, as we often use it is a literal translation from native tongues, where we use the phrases 'aane wali hoon' or 'aane wala hoon' to denote the future.

Random shifts in tense

Unless one is indicating a definite time change, one should stick to a single tense in a piece of writing/conversation.

A mistake that is regularly committed is that especially in narrations or long pieces of writing, people shift between the past and the present.

One should rather write in the perfect tense, especially while reporting.

The perfect tense, comprising the verb 'have' accompanied by the main verb in the 'en' form (e.g. have eaten, had shown, would have gone), denotes an action that is complete but without a delimiting time frame.

Thus rather than saying

'On the outside, everything was fine. But we could see rubble and heavy smog around the building'


'On the outside, everything was fine. But we saw rubble and heavy smog around the building'

Use of dual time markers

Drawing upon native phrases like 'Aaj shaam ko', people often use phrases like 'today evening'.

English does not however permit the use of dual time markers; rather one of them needs to be replaced by a determiner (determiners that can be used in such situations include this, that, these, those, some etc).

Thus, one has to rather use the determiner 'this' and say 'this evening'.

Else, one can change the form of the phrase 'tomorrow evening' can either become 'in the evening, tomorrow' or 'tomorrow, in the evening', the latter being preferred.

Use of 'have'

When it is used as a main verb, the verb 'have' most often means 'to possess' or 'to eat'; on the other hand, when it used as a primary auxiliary (helping verb), it goes with the 'en' from of the verb to create the perfect tense (a tense which reflects an action that is complete but without a definite time attached to it).

While it is thus correct to say 'I have the book', if one is carrying it and 'I have eaten', if one is offered food, but one wishes not to eat it, it is more proper to say 'Take a seat' rather than 'Have a seat', as even position of authority are posts occupied and therefore not permanent.

Examples of 'Have' as a main verb

  • 'I have eggs for breakfast everyday',
  • 'This dish has a smoky flavour'
  • 'I have a blue car with red stripes'
  • 'I have a feeling that this will work out'

Examples of 'Have' as a primary auxiliary

  • 'Have you felt this way before?'
  • 'I have explained this quite clearly'
  • 'I have run all the way here'
  • 'I have taught you all I know'

Absence/unnecessary use of articles/determiners

Since most native languages do not contain articles/determiners, people often miss using them. It is necessary to note that all noun phrases except those, which begin usually with a proper noun, take an article/determiner.

For example, rather than saying

'Flowers in my garden are in bloom'
'The flowers in my garden are in bloom'.

'This evening I will go to watch cricket match' is incorrect.
'This evening I will go to watch a cricket match' is correct.

'Colour of sweater is shade of blue' is incorrect
'The colour of this sweater is a shade of blue' is correct.

'President of the India is first citizen of country' is incorrect.
'The President of India is the first citizen of the country' is correct.

'I go to the school every day' is incorrect.
'I go to school every day' is correct.

Absence of subject-verb concord

The subject and verb in a sentence need to be in agreement. In case the noun phrase contains pre-modifiers or post modifiers (words/phrases that appear before/after the main word in a phrase, the verb needs to be in concord/agreement with the head word.

For example,
'The grapes in the basket is rotten' is incorrect.
'The grapes in the basket are rotten' is correct.

'Neither of the students are capable' is incorrect.
'Neither of the students is capable' is correct.

Moreover, in case of collective nouns, the noun is considered to be singular.

For example,
'My hair is black' is correct
'My hair are black' is incorrect

Replacing all nouns with pronouns

Sometimes when multiple nouns occur in a sentence, people tend to replace all of them in the succeeding sentences. This should be avoided.

For example,
Ram asked Hanuman to bring Sita along.
He told him to bring her along.

Raj said that Priya would accompany him and a colleague, Ravindra, home this evening.
He said she would accompany him and his colleague home this evening.

The subordinates had been asking their manager questions about the status of their leave all along. They had been asking him this question all along.

Use of the double comparative/superlative

While comparing two or more objects, one should avoid using the double comparative/superlative.

Very often we tend to do this believing that it lends additional emphasis to what is being said.

The very word comparative means that two objects are being weighed against one another, while the superlative is used to refer to what is the best among the things being compared.

For example,
Use of the comparative

'He is much better than me' is correct.
'He is much more better than me' is incorrect.

'He ran faster than his friend' is correct.
'He ran very much faster than his friend' is incorrect.

'She is much taller than her boyfriend' is correct.
'She is much more taller than her boyfriend' is incorrect.

Use of the superlative
'He is the best teacher from my school' is correct.
'He is the most best teacher from my school' is incorrect.

'That is the slowest car' is correct.
'That is the most slowest car' is incorrect.

'That is the biggest apple ever grown in this farm' is correct.
'That is the most biggest apple ever grown in this farm' is incorrect.

Use of double negation

It is improper to use double negation, unless one consciously uses it to create effect.

For example,

'He didn't tell him not to do it' makes it ambiguous, resulting in issues in decoding the meaning; one can more easily say 'He didn't stop/prevent him from doing it'.

'I would never not listen to you' could simply be replaced with 'I would always listen to you'.

'I am not speaking to nobody today' should be replaced with 'I am not speaking to anybody today'.

'There is never nothing on the table' should be replaced with 'There is always something on the table'.

Use of phrasal verbs

The English language has an exhaustive list of phrasal verbs, i.e. verbs that are necessarily accompanied by a preposition, without which they cease to be complete.

Most often there is a tendency to either drop out the preposition or use an inappropriate one. In fact the meaning can completely change if a phrasal verb is used out of context or incorrectly.

A popular anecdote goes that a teacher was pulled up when he asked the students to be quiet, since the Principal was passing away (meaning dying), when he was actually passing by.

So too every verb followed by a preposition is not a phrasal verb. For example, 'She accidentally came across the quote, she had been seeking, for a long time.'

Note the use of 'come across' as a phrasal verb, while in case of 'seek' despite it being followed by the preposition 'for', the two words do not constitute a phrasal verb. So too, the meaning would completely change, if one were to use 'come by' rather than 'come across'.

For example, 'I came across a good piece of writing, which is hard to come by these days'.

Other typically used phrasal verbs include 'run into', 'stand for', 'stand by', 'look into', 'look for', 'feel for', 'look down upon', 'look through', 'go in for', 'win over', 'look forward to', 'feel for', 'get through', 'get at', 'get even with'.

For example,

When the boss failed to look into the matter, he was looked down upon by his subordinates, who began to look through him, as they had nothing to look forward to when it came to his role as a leader of the organisation; and so, the more talented from among them began to look for other opportunities.

She stood by him, when all that he stood for was questioned by those who failed to feel for the cause.

Redundant usage

Phrases like 'return back', 'fully empty', 'repeat again', 'revert back' 'sad demise' 'completely full' too, though commonly in use, often to afford emphasis, should scrupulously be avoided.

If one observes carefully most of the main words in these phrases are complete in themselves, i.e. 'return' means 'to give back', 'empty' means 'devoid of content', 'repeat' means 'to say something again', 'revert' means 'to get back', a 'demise' should most often than not result in sadness and something that is 'full' means it is 'filled to its capacity'

Commonly witnessed both in the use of spoken and written English, awareness of these mistakes can aid in exercising caution in these areas, which can in turn gradually reduce the frequency of their occurrence, till they are completely ironed out.