12 Grammar Mistakes That Are Making You Look Stupid

By Damian Davila on 30 September 2014 29 comments

Good grammar is sexy.

On the other hand, bad grammar is not only a turn off, but also increases the likelihood that people skip your message altogether. (See also: 15 Ways to Get People to Respond to Your Email)

"If you is not doing it good, the grammar," you may be appearing dumb to others. So, clean up your speech and your writing by avoiding these 12 common grammar mistakes.

Use the Right Word

As Inigo Montoya said in The Princess Bride: "You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means."

1. Specially vs Especially

These two adverbs often confuse people. While both of them indicate that something is particular, they are used in different circumstances.

  • Use specially to indicate a particular or specific purpose. For example, "I baked this pie specially for this occasion."
     
  • Include "especially" to denote a particular or exceptional quality. For example, "Steve did especially well on today's game."

2. Your vs You're

  • Your is a possessive pronoun.
  • You're is a contraction of "you are."

When in doubt about whether or not you're using you're correctly, expand the contraction. For example, "You're pants are wrinkly" is incorrect ("You are pants are wrinkly"), and it should be "Your pants are wrinkly."

3. Effect vs Affect

While both words can be used as either verbs or nouns, generally effect is a noun and affect is a verb. We can clarify it a little further.

  • When you are referring to a result or consequence, use effect. For example, "the effects of this workout are impressive."
     
  • On the other hand, use affect when indicating the action or influence. For example, "this workout affects the way I walk."

4. Elicit vs Illicit

  • Elicit is a verb meaning "to bring out."
  • Illicit is an adjective indicating that something is illegal or unlawful.

Check out the difference: "The interviewer couldn't elicit information from the executive about the illicit business transactions."

5. Their vs They're vs There

  • Their is a possessive pronoun. ("This is their house.")
     
  • They're is a contraction of "they are." Use the same test described for you're to check your sentence.
     
  • There is an adverb specifying place. ("The entrance to the party is over there.")

In general, words that sound alike (known as homonyms) are common sources of grammatical errors. While I have selected five of the most common ones, you can also review this list of 200 homonyms.

Pronouns

Let's use the following sentence "Mary and Kelly are sisters, and she like to eat cake" to explain two frequent issues when using pronouns.

6. Subject-Pronoun Agreement

The verb tense is singular so "like" must be referring to both Mary and Kelly. We need to switch "she" with "they" to indicate that both sisters like to eat cake: "Mary and Kelly are sisters, and they like to eat cake."

7. Pronoun Ambiguity

If you were to note that only one of the sisters likes to eat cake, you would write "Mary and Kelly are sisters, and she likes to eat cake."

The problem with this sentence is that we are not sure which sister is the one that likes to eat cake. To prevent pronoun ambiguity replace a pronoun with the correct noun that you're referring to: "Mary and Kelly are sisters, and Mary likes to eat cake."

Lists and Comparisons

When you build lists or compare items, you have to be consistent in order and form.

8. Parallel Lists

Items in a list need to be in parallel form, which means that all phrases and clauses are similar.

  • Incorrect: "He was proud of his book, car, and his pet."
  • Correct: "He was proud of his book, his car, and his pet."
  • Correct: "He was proud of his book, car, and pet."

Be consistent in your lists by using either only gerunds or only nouns, not both.

  • Incorrect: "Developing a plan, investment security, and working fast are essential for entrepreneurial success."
     
  • Correct: "Developing a plan, securing investments, and working fast are essential for entrepreneurial success."
     
  • Correct: "Plan development, investment security, and fast work are essential for entrepreneurial success."

Maintaining strong parallelism in speech and writing has a bonus effect — in addition to helping you sound smarter, it will encourage you to think more clearly.

9. Logical Comparisons

Compare items that are both grammatically and logically comparable. Since those items are also in a list, keep the list in parallel form.

  • Incorrect: "Unlike the economies of Italy and France, England has a terrible economy."
  • Correct: "Unlike the economies of Italy and France, the economy of England is terrible."
  • Correct: "Unlike Italy and France, England has a terrible economy."

Subjunctive Mood

The subjunctive mood is the verb form used to express a wish, a suggestion, a command, or a condition that is contrary to fact. Despite its fancy name, the subjunctive mood is used quite often.

10. Hypothetical Situations

When talking about hypothetical situations or contrary-to-fact scenarios, use "were" and "would." A quick way to remember this rule is that the lyrics from Gwen Stefani's Rich Girl ("If I was a rich girl…") are grammatically incorrect, and those from Beyonce's If I Were a Boy are grammatically correct.

11. Orders and Recommendations

Verbs, such as order, demand, wish, and insist, attract the subjunctive mood. When using these and similar verbs the correct sentence format looks like this:

  • The President demands that taxes be lowered.
  • My mother insists that the door be opened.

After the verb, use "that," a new subject, and the infinitive form of a verb without the "to." In these cases, a common mistake when using the subjunctive is to use an unnecessary "should."

12. Countable vs Uncountable Items

Last but not least, here is my personal grammar pet peeve: the incorrect use of less and few.

  • Less can only refer to uncountable things, such as water, confidence, and energy.
  • Few must refer to countable things, such as dollars, persons, and cats.

Notice that while money is not countable, euros are countable. The easiest way to prevent this mistake is by using units of measurement, such as watts for energy and degrees for temperature.

I hope that you have less uncertainty about grammar and make fewer mistakes!

What are your grammar pet peeves? Please share in comments!

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Guest's picture
Nancy

I would add one more to the pronoun category--using the nominative case pronoun incorrectly. The most common form of the error is substituting "I" when "me" is correct. Wrong: "The reporter interviewed my brother and I about the accident. Correct: "The reporter interviewed my brother and me about the accident."
Wrong: "This is a secret between you and I." Correct: "This is a secret between you and me."

Damian Davila's picture

That's a great suggestion, thanks for the tip.

Guest's picture
Guest

The test is to leave the other party out: If "the reporter interviewed I" is incorrect, then "the reporter interviewed Bob and I" is also wrong.

Guest's picture
Dave

I have to add "using basically the right word, but in the wrong way" as a general peeve. Example: Comprise.

Most people like to say, "...is comprised of..." - which is wrong. Because 'comprise' means basically 'to be made of,' you have to remember the whole comprises the parts. The parts, rather, *compose* the whole.

Following your lead from the article...
Incorrect: The wall is comprised of a thousand bricks.
Correct: The wall comprises a thousand bricks.
Correct: The wall is composed of a thousand bricks.

Cheers!

Damian Davila's picture

That would be a great addition. I think I would put "literally" at the top of that category.

Guest's picture
NJGill

You left out its vs. it's - "everybody knows" that apostrophe s forms the possessive,, except in this case, where 's means a contraction of "it us" and possessive is formed simply by adding a plain s.

Damian Davila's picture

That's one drives me nuts as well! Good grammar mistake to watch out for.

Guest's picture
IBikeNYC

Please learn the difference between "I" and "me" so that you're not highlighting your ignorance by saying, "Myself and John will do" thus and such.

It's like nails on a blackboard!

Guest's picture
kath

I agree. It also drives me crazy when people say "Me and John..." That one is pervasive and it irks me even more when I hear executives and so-called "educated" people saying it.

Damian Davila's picture

You're absolutely right! Nancy, another contributor in the comments, would definitely agree with you.

Guest's picture
Gina

I would like to add "lose" and "loose" to the list of misused words.

Damian Davila's picture

Those are great examples of homonyms and common sources of grammatical errors.

Guest's picture
Sara C

to, too, two

Damian Davila's picture

Thank you for the suggestion, Sara. I think I will need to do a part two for this article.

Guest's picture
Carol

More and more people are saying "these ones" and "those ones" - it's just SO wrong! The singular "this one" and "that one" is correct, but the plural is just not acceptable.

Damian Davila's picture

That's a good suggestion for a future list. Thanks, Carol!

Guest's picture
jack

The whole point of language is to make you, and your thoughts, understood by others. Not to impress others. If you misspell a word, or use the wrong grammar, but you are understood, so what. If you need to impress people, then you have a problem.

Damian Davila's picture

Jack, I agree with you in that the point of using proper grammar is not to impress others. The point of using proper grammar is to make sure that others can understand us.

Guest's picture
Guest

"Not to impress others" is not a sentence. You have unnecessary comma usage. Your third sentence should end with a question mark. I believe your *opinion* is very shortsighted. For instance, this article is very helpful for those that are writing professional reports for school or work. Your lack of grammar may turn off a potential significant other. I would also be hard-pressed to find someone that wasn't trying to impress their interviewer, either during the interview itself, or on the resume.

Finally you may avoid receiving unnecessary ridicule, since there are those that obviously disagree with you.

Guest's picture
maddie

I would add to the list the widespread misuse of the phrase "most importantly" rather than "most important." The phrase is actually a shortened form of "what is most important"; "what" is a subject noun, the modifier must therefore be an adjective, ergo "important" is the correct choice, not the adverb "importantly!"

Guest's picture
Guest

Further and farther

Guest's picture
Guest

then, than

Damian Davila's picture

That's a great example of homonyms that people often miss. Thank you for pointing them out.

Guest's picture
Guest

In the spoken language in today's world:

wrong: "where you at?" - never end a sentence with a preposition
correct: "where are you?"
also,
wrong: pronouncing the "t" in the word "often"
correct: no "t" sound - it's pronounced as "offen"

Both are SO prevalent, and I cringe every time I hear either one.

Guest's picture

Sorry to disappoint you, but there is no rule against ending sentences with prepositions in English. As Winston Churchill observed: "This is the sort of nonsense up with which I will not put."

Also, the pronunciation of "often" is a matter of regional dialect. You say "nee-ther," and I say "ny-ther": we may have to call the whole thing off, but neither of us is actually wrong.

Guest's picture
Guest

Whooping Cough! The 'W' is silent. It is pronounced as 'Hooping Cough'.

Guest's picture
Guest

Along with "less" and "fewer," I would add "number" and "amount." The word "number," as in "the number of people with AIDS," is disappearing from American English. Everyone today seems to use the word "amount" in this situation, but "amount" should only be used, like "less," for things that can't be counted. And "number" must be used for things that can be counted. So, "the amount of people with AIDS" is incorrect and jarring to the ears of those who know better. As Damian says, if you want to get your point across, you don't want the static of bad grammar to get in the way.

Guest's picture
Guest

What about except versus accept

Damian Davila's picture

Accept vs. except is a great example of common homophones. Thanks for pointing it out!

Guest's picture
Bear

It seems the verb "to be" gets a rough deal currently as well. I lose count of the number of times I hear use similar to this - "There's thousands of reasons". "Is" is the singular "are" is the plural therefore "There's a reason" is correct and in the plural case "There're thousands of reasons" (There are thousands of reasons). As you say Damian if you eliminate the contraction you can't go wrong.