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Part II: Most common blunders in English usage

Last updated on: April 28, 2011 15:43 IST

Image: Avoid these blunders while writing in and speaking English.

In the second and concluding part of the series on common English blunders, language expert Preeti Shirodkar shares with us the most common blunders Indians commit while speaking and writing in English.

Part I: 11 Blunders to avoid in spoken and written English

An awareness of the common errors made while using English is the first step towards change; since it helps one realise that there is need and scope for improvement.

However, this needs to be coupled with a desire to change and an active effort to bring it about, till it becomes a natural part of one's mental makeup.

Else, like all good intentions, it will remain merely on paper.

These are some of the common errors one comes across in written and spoken English:

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

Common errors in written English

These are some of the most common errors in written English:

Modifying spellings according to parts of speech:

It is important to be aware of spellings, especially in four contexts, in order to make the right impact. Improper spellings can create an impression of carelessness or may serve to distract the reader from the communication.

1. For one, one must remember that many a time, the word changes its spelling from 's' to 'c', when the word use changes from it being a verb to being a noun.

For example:

'Practise' and 'practice': His practice increased as he practised medicine in a highly professional manner.

'Advise' and 'advice': He advised her not to oppose her colleagues, since she was a woman; an advice she chose to ignore, being a feminist at heart.

However all the words which reflect a shift need not be the verb and noun form of the same word, for example 'devise' -- to come up with a plan and 'device' -- an instrument etc.

2. Spellings also at times change, when the tense changes 

For example: 

 'Choose' becomes 'chose' in the past tense

3. A simple spelling rule that can help is 'i' before 'e', except after 'c'  

For example,

'i' before 'e': piece, relief, niece, priest, thief

after 'c':  conceive, conceit, receive, receipt
4. To maintain professionalism, it is important to uniformly stick to either British or American spellings.

Often, although computer generated documents/PowerPoint presentations largely reflect British writing convention, some words like 'programme', 'traveller', 'neighbour', 'colour' etc (British) appear with an American spelling ('program', 'traveler', 'neighbor', 'color' etc).

For this, a simple action that could help would be to default the language of the computer to 'UK English'

Lack of punctuation

Punctuation marks facilitate both reading and writing, by lending clarity to meaning. At times, the lack of punctuation or improper punctuation can completely change the meaning of a sentence.

For example,

The sentence 'A woman without her man is nothing' can be punctuated in two ways:

'A woman, without her, man is nothing'


'A woman, without her man, is nothing'

While the former lays emphasis on the man deriving strength/identity from a woman, the latter shifts the power to the man, making the sentences polar opposites of one another.

Common mistakes in word use

Some words are regularly misused, though for a variety of reasons and can create a poor impression at the least and miscommunication at worst.

For example:

Comprise of: 'Comprise' is 'made up of' so 'comprise of' is incorrect; one needs to simply use 'comprise':
'The meal comprised soup, vegetables, noodles and dessert.'

Beside/besides: While beside refers to next to , besides refers to other than/in addition to:
'Besides going to a bookstore, I would also like to go with you to a pub, as I love having you beside me.'

There/their: While 'there' indicates 'a place', 'their' refers to 'belonging to':
'Paris was her favourite holiday spot. She went there to relive their moments together.'

Then/than: 'Then' indicates 'time', 'than' comparison:
'It was then that Rama realised that she was taller than him.'

Quite/quiet: 'Quite' indicates quantity, while 'quiet' involves silence:
'Being addicted to city life, she was quite tired of the quiet surrounding her'

Principle/principal: 'Principle' refers to 'value', 'principal' indicates 'a position':
'The principal imposed principles upon the students, in order to make them better human beings.'

Common mistakes in word use

Stationary/stationery:  'Stationary' refers to 'something at a standstill', while 'stationery' refers to 'aids used for writing, like pens, papers, etc':
'Meeta couldn't locate the stationery shop as the stationary van blocked the board from view.'

Desert/dessert: While 'desert' refers to 'barren piece of land or even to abandon',' dessert' refers to 'the sweet dish had with/after meals':
'She deserted him because he could not get her a dessert after the wonderful meal they had together, in the desert.'

Lose/loose: While 'lose' refers to 'misplacing something', 'loose' indicates 'fitting':
'After worrying about her diet, which helped her lose weight, her focus shifted to her clothes which were now loose.'

Of/off: While 'of' indicates 'possession', 'off' refers to 'away from':
'The state of her health improved as she stayed off wrong food.'

Later/latter: 'Later' refers to 'a delayed point in time', while 'latter' refers to 'the second of two options/ things etc'.:
'She chose the former over the latter, as it would help her later in life.'

Use of the apostrophe

The apostrophe is a form of punctuation that is mainly used to indicate possession. It can be used in many ways; however people often place it awkwardly/incorrectly, resulting in miscommunication.

1. Possessive nouns are usually formed by adding an apostrophe 's to the singular noun as in 'the boy's sister'. In words ending with 's', the additional 's' is usually added in the following manner: 'James' house'.

2. The apostrophe is also used to indicate omitted letters, in contracted forms of words, as in 'can't' and 'you've'.

3. It is sometimes used to indicate missing century numbers in dates, as in the '60s or the '70s (instead of the 1960s or the 1970s).

4. 'It's' is used as a contracted form of 'it is' and does not indicate possession.
For example: 'It's very sunny today'

Possession in this case is reflected through 'its' (without the apostrophe).
For example: The dog attempted to bite off its tail'.

Improper Plurals

Certain words do not change in the plural: 'hair', 'sheep'

Others are in the plural and so no further plural can be made from/of them: 'feet', 'children', 'people' etc

Some are not to be made plural: 'no way' not 'no ways' and 'anyway' not 'anyways' (though 'anyways' is used in American slang)

And in others, where the 's' indicating the plural is added is of crucial importance: 'mothers in law' not 'mother in laws', 'brothers in law' not 'brother in laws'.

Blunders in spoken English

These are some of the most common errors in spoken English:

Confusion in the use of modal auxiliaries, while making requests

Modal auxiliaries are helping verbs.

This list includes 'can', 'could', 'shall', 'should', 'will', 'would', 'may', 'might', 'must' and 'ought to'.

They usually help depict the mood of the verb. However, they are randomly replaced, one for the other, resulting in a complete change of/in meaning, of which the user is often completely unaware.
For example:

While seeking permission one must say 'May I come in?' and not 'Can I come in?' as 'can' shows a possibility whereas 'may' reflects a permission being sought.

As an anecdote goes -- a teacher of English, a stickler for perfection in usage, told a student, who asked her 'Mam, can I come in?' 'Yes you can, but you may not.'

Similarly the reply to 'Could I come in?' can be 'You could but you should not.'

So, while 'could' underlines a desire/possibility, 'should' is used to seek permission.

Being gender insensitive

It is now considered impolite/politically incorrect to use 'man'/'he'/'sir' to refer to people of both the masculine and feminine genders.

Thus, while addressing a person care needs to be taken to ensure gender sensitivity.

More so, in cases, where one is unsure whether the person being addressed, as in a letter/an email, is a man or a woman, it is better to use both: ie Sir/Madam or s/he.

Literal translation from the native tongue

The following phrases are incorrect as they are a literal translation from varied vernacular languages and therefore not a part of English phraseology and thus should be scrupulously avoided:

  • Like this/that only
  • Just now only I will do it
  • Entry from the backside only
  • Catching the train
  • Time pass
  • 'Myself so and so'

Today though, they are at times, used by writers as reflections of Indian English in order to add the local flavour/humour to heir writing.

Ignoring silent letters

The English language has various words in which varied letters in the word are silent, i.e. though they appear in the spelling, they do not appear in pronunciation; for example, 'honest', 'hour', 'yacht', 'blue' etc. 

Over and above exercising caution while pronouncing these words, it is also important to remember that if the silent letter appears at the beginning of the word, the choice of article is as per the first letter being pronounced.

So it is 'an hour', 'an honest individual' etc. even though the word following the article technically begins with the consonant 'h'.

The reverse is true of 'university', which though spelt with a vowel is pronounced with a consonant and is thus referred to as 'a university' and not 'an university'.

Improper use of the short and long vowels

Often, people get confused between a short and long vowel and tend to mispronounce the word by using the long i.e. stretched vowel sound for the short one, resulting not merely in mispronunciation but also in a great deal of embarrassing humour.

One should thus be aware that while the first of these pair of words, among many others has a short vowel sound, the second one uses the long vowel sound of the same vowel:

  • met/mate
  • ship/sheep
  • hit/heat
  • pen/pain
  • bit/beat
  • fit/feet

I remember a time when no one around could control their laughter, when a girl proclaimed about a stranger she had just met 'I mate him' replacing the pronunciation of 'met' with 'mate'.

Statements as questions

Often people get frustrated when others do not respond to them, despite the fact that they present their queries as statements.

People feel that it not the order of the words but the tone (a slight rise at the end), which marks the difference between a statement and a question. However, this is not the case.

Thus, 'Mr. Shekhar is there(?)' is taken by the listener to be a piece of information, a statement and as a result does not evoke a reaction, while the person speaking gets exasperated as s/he has meant is it as a question 'Is Mr. Shekhar there?'


'Ms. Iyer called(?)' for 'Did Ms. Iyer call?'

Improper stress for emphasis

While the article 'the' can be pronounced both as 'the' and 'thee', this pronunciation is determined by the word that follows it.

If 'the' is followed by a word that is pronounced with a consonant, the pronunciation is 'the'; while if it is a word that is pronounced with a vowel the pronunciation is 'thee'.

Thus it is 'The boy, who is the(e) apple of everybody's eye'.

Repeating a word for emphasis

It is not uncommon for individuals to repeat a word in order to highlight the value of what they are saying. However this is inappropriate.

For example, one often hears

'I told him again and again, but he didn't listen to me'.

This is inappropriate. One should rather say

'I told him repeatedly, but he didn't listen to me'

Remember, a little care can help prevent a great deal of miscommunication or more importantly embarrassment.