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Common English Mistakes

20 Common English Mistakes Not to Pass on to Your Students

It’s easy to use regional dialects or commonly misused language mistakes when speaking every day English. However, when teaching a second language to new students, it’s important that you’re giving them the proper foundation from which to build their habits. This includes your own speaking habits in the classroom. The following are 20 common English mistakes you might not even know you’re making:

1) Anyways versus anyway

Used in a sentence: Anyways, I went in the other direction.

A correct use of anyway would be: We don’t need that anyway!

Anyways is not a word.


 

2) Present perfect tense

This is the “have, has and had” series that can trip people up. Present perfect is used to show something that has happened in the past and continues into the future, or to show how long something has happened. For instance, “I have worked as a teacher for 10 years” or “I have lived in New York since 1998.”

Used in a sentence: Have you been to France in the past year?
Used in a sentence: I have seen that movie three times in the past week.

 

3) Toward versus towards

Towards is typically not used in America. However, British English uses towards more often than toward. So, before you discredit either version, just think about its origin.


 

4) Whom versus who

This can get tricky, but remember – you use who when asking about the subject of the sentence and whom when asking about the object of the sentence.

Take, for instance, this sentence: He must stay with her!

When asking about the male in question, the question is, “Who must stay with her?” On the other hand, when asking about the female, you ask, “With whom must he stay?”


 

5) When to use “I” or “me”

You use “I” when the pronoun is the subject. You use “me” when the pronoun is the object. Another way to look at it is to take the “noun and” out of the sentence to see if it makes sense.

Used in a sentence: Riley said goodbye to Emmitt and me.

Does it make sense if you take “Emmitt and” out? “Riley said goodbye to me.” Yes, it does!

Used in a sentence: She and I fell asleep under the stars.

Does it make sense if  you take “She and” out? “I fell asleep under the stars.” Correct.

Used in a sentence: Eli and me baited our own hooks.

Does it make sense if you take “Eli and” out? “Me baited our hooks.” Me has been used incorrectly.


 

6) Affect versus effect

According to dictionary.com, “If you affect something, you do to it. If you effect something, you cause it to be.” In other words, a general rule is affect is used as a verb and effect is used as a noun.

Used in a sentence: Your decision affected me.

Used in a sentence: What effect will this have on me?

Note: Thanks to a reader’s input, it’s important to note that both words can be used as both a noun and a verb. A definition of the words might be helpful:

Affect, according to dictionary.com (who helpfully used the word “effect” in the definition), is (v1) to act on; produce an effect or change in, (v2) to impress the mind or move the feelings of, or (v3) (of pain, disease, etc.) to attack or lay hold of. As a noun, the definition is, a (n1) feeling or emotion, or (n2) an expressed or observed emotional response.

Effect, according to Merriam-Webster.com, means (n1) a change that results when something is done or happens; an event, condition, or state of affairs that is produced by a cause, (n2) a particular feeling or mood created by something, (n3) an image or a sound that is created in television, radio, or movies to imitate something real. As a verb, the definition is (v1) to cause to come into being, (v2a) to bring about often by surmounting obstacles;  accomplish, or (v2b) to put into operation.


 

7) Farther versus further

Farther refers to a distance, while further refers to a metaphorical time or space.

Used in a sentence: I can spit farther than you can.

Used in a sentence: Please don’t take this line of thinking any further.

Note: While there is a difference between the two, it’s not a hard and fast rule that everyone follows. They are sometimes used interchangeably without fault.


 

8) Accept versus except

Because these two sound so similar, it’s easy to use mispronounce one over the other. Accept as a verb means “to consent to receive,” whereas except, is used sometimes as a verb, conjunction, and a preposition, and means “to exclude.”

Used in a sentence: You need to accept my decision.

Used in a sentence (preposition): Everyone can go, except John.

Used in a sentence (verb): Who’s going with me, present company excepted?

Used in a sentence (conjunction): They look the same, except that he is younger than her.


 

9) Lay or lie?

This is an old conundrum that has confused people for years. Here’s the breakdown:

Lie is generally used to describe what a person is doing to themselves, whereas lay is generally used to describe how a person is placing another item.

Used in a sentence: I just want to lie beside you.

Used in a sentence: You can lay the book on the end table.

Now, here comes the confusing part:

The past tense of lie is lay. The past tense of lay is laid.

Used in a sentence (past): After I got home last night, I lay down for a couple of hours before
going out.

Used in a sentence (future): After I get home tonight, I will lie down for a couple of hours before going out.

Used in a sentence (past): I laid the book down on the table after I finished it.


 

10) That or who?

In a sentence, that generally refers back to an object while who refers back to a person.

Used in a sentence: It was the book that did it.

Used in a sentence: It was the chief of police who did it.

This, however, isn’t a hard and fast rule. It would also be acceptable to say, “The boy that got away is my cousin.” Who would work too, but it’s not incorrect to use that. Which is also often included in this issue but mostly, though not exclusively, refers to groups or things.

Used in a sentence: He bought a new car, which is red just like mine.


 

11) Moot

Moot is most often used in a sentence to describe something that is superfluous. Like, “It was a moot point.” Interestingly, this not the correct usage of the word.

According to dictionary.com, moot is defined as a subject to debate, dispute, or uncertainty, and typically not admitting of a final decision.

Used in a sentence: The subject of urbanization was a moot point with the aging council.


 

12) Than or then?

Than generally makes a comparison while then is used as a time construct.

Used in a sentence: I can run farther than you.

Used in a sentence: In the morning I first get out of bed, then I make breakfast.


 

13) Nauseous versus nauseated

According to Grammar Girl, this is one of those differences that only sticklers hold to, but it’s interesting that we’ve been using the words incorrectly. Nauseous means to make sick, whereas nauseated is how we feel.

Used in a sentence: That smell makes me nauseous.

Used in a sentence: I feel nauseated.


 

14) Backward versus backwards

In America, backwards is typically not used. In British English, backward is used as an adjective and backwards is used as an adverb. This trend is very similar to the above toward versus towards preference.


 

15) When to use the articles “a” or “an”

Most people were taught that you use a before a noun that begins with consonant and an before a noun that begins with a vowel. Interestingly, that is only partially true. The rule is actually based on the phonetic sound of the noun following the article. For instance, a herb is actually an herb because the “h” is a silent consonant, likewise an utopia is actually a utopia because the “u” does not have a long vowel sound.

Used in a sentence: I saw a one-legged man.

Used in a sentence: This is an unmitigated mess!

Used in a sentence: He made an honest mistake.


 

16) Irregardless

This is a nonstandard English word, which means it’s not the correct word. You can use regardless or irrespective, but irregardless is not a word.

Used in a sentence: Irregardless of what you do, I’m going to the game. Incorrect.

Used correctly in a sentence: Regardless of what you do, I’m going to the game.


 

17) Literally

This has become a popular word in America to give a sentence more gravity even when using the word incorrectly. Literally describes what actually happened. Consequently, when someone says they literally lost their mind, they are either a walking miracle or they are speaking figuratively.

Used incorrectly in a sentence: He literally blew up at me.

Used correctly in a sentence: The cat literally jumped two feet in the air.


 

18) Could of, should of & would of

The actual phrase is “could have,” but when people speak quickly, the natural tendency is to pronounce have in unstressed contexts, which in turn, sounds like “of.” The confusion comes when someone writes it down. The correct way to pronounce and write it out would either be to use the actual verb have or to simply use the following contractions: could’ve, would’ve, should’ve.

Used in a sentence: I could have been a contender. OR, I could’ve been a contender

Used in a sentence: I should have played tag. OR, I should’ve played tag.

Used in a sentence: I would have gone in a heartbeat. OR, I would’ve gone in a heartbeat.


 

19) Baloney and Bologna

Although they sound the same, they don’t come from the same word. Baloney means it is a lie. Bologna refers to the type of meat.

Used in a sentence: That is baloney!

Used in a sentence: Is that a Bologna sandwich?


 

20) When to use “saw” or “seen”

Even those with advanced degrees can confuse saw and seen in a sentence. This rule is similar to the lie versus lay standard. Saw is the past tense of see and is generally used after nouns and pronouns. Seen is the past participle of see and is generally used in conjunction with have, has or had.

Used in a sentence: I seen him yesterday. (Incorrect)

Used in a sentence: I saw him yesterday.

Used in a sentence: You seen where I live. (Incorrect)

Used in a sentence: You have seen where I live.

These are just a few of the common English mistakes we make. Fortunately, by getting a certificate with Oxford Seminars, you’ll have a much better understanding of these challenging words and phrases. Interestingly, as an ESL teacher, you will quickly become aware of little nuances of the language you thought you knew so well.

If you’d like to know more about teaching abroad, you can visit our How to Get Started page or you can attend one of our free information sessions.

13 Comments

    • christopher herr
    • July 29, 2015

    #6 is wrong. In both of your examples, the correct word would be “effect.” The problem is that both “affect” and “effect” can be used as both noun and verb.

    He has a strange, disconnected affect (noun–manner or way of being)
    This will affect me (verb)

    This had an effect on me (noun)
    We will effect a change if we do this (verb)

    • You are absolutely right, Christopher. I updated the post to reflect the changes. Thanks for catching that!

      • Lisa
      • October 28, 2015

      The examples you provide as the “exceptions” are extremely rare and for the purposes of TESOL education, it is best to emphasize the general rule, which is that “affect” is a verb and “effect” is a noun. No need to present the exceptions and confuse students. Most native speakers (especially in the U.S. don’t understand the general rule and rarely, if ever, use the exceptions.

      • Great Point, Lisa! It is still important for teachers to understand the correct usage, and then as part of the course, we cover when you should or should not correct students depending on the level they are at and the objective of your lesson.

    • jane critchlow
    • July 30, 2015

    One of your number 9 examples is wrong. You state that the past of “lie” is “lay”. But the interrogative form uses the infinitive verb form after the auxiliary “did” and not the past verb form. Therefore, your example question “Why did he lay down?” should have been written as “Why did he lie down?”.

    • Meghan
    • July 30, 2015

    Your past tense example in number 9 is wrong, I think. You say, “Why did he lay down yesterday?”
    But you would never say, “Why did he said that?”
    In this case, you would still use the present tense, lie.

    • Chris
    • July 30, 2015

    The cat lay there (last sentence) is correct. Like in other languages, the reference can be to animals as well as people. “….cat laid” does not have a direct object as stated in your rule.

    • Shannon Gibney
    • July 30, 2015

    #18 is not explained properly….usually “should have” and “could have” are shortened to “should’ve” and “could’ve”, although I’ve seen it written as “should of” and “could of”, which makes absolutely no sense.

  1. What a great conversation, everyone! Great job of keeping us on our toes! This post was intended to be a quick list of pointers regarding grammar, but we believe your feedback more than proves that the English language is very complex, and depending on which reputable source you use, the answer may differ. What’s more, as society has evolved due to influences such as social media, the vernacular has also changed, which throws yet another factor into this already overflowing pool.

    You will see that we’ve gone in and greatly modified our original post to provide corrections, clarifications and further explanations. If you notice anything else, please don’t hesitate to let us know. We thank you for your feedback and welcome more! Let the conversation continue! :)

  2. It seems like the majority of people I encounter think that it s never correct to say Jane and me , and will say please join Jane and I for dinner instead of the correct please join Jane and me for dinner . Knowing that it s such a common mistake, it peeves me that others must think I m wrong whenever I use the correct form.

    • Heggs
    • October 27, 2015

    The ‘h’ in ‘herb’ is not a silent consonant where I’m from (the SE of England)….

    • Liz Evans
    • August 15, 2016

    The nauseous and nauseated thing is something my mom taught us early on. If YOU are nauseous, it means you make other people nauseated. A smell can be nauseous, but not a person (well, they CAN if they smell bad, but that’s beside the point!). When you feel like you’re going to throw up, you’re nauseated. The smell of cabbage cooking is nauseous. It doesn’t make you nauseous, it makes you nauseated.

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