It’s happened to all of us at one time or another.
You’re engaged in a conversation with someone – perhaps at a social function, or at a business networking event – and they misuse a common word in the English language. Or maybe you’re reading the latest office memo and discover your manager doesn’t know the difference between the proper use of you’re and your.
If you’re like me, your inner grammar teacher is dying to correct them. But that would hardly be the polite or professional thing to do. So you grin and bear it and silently think to yourself that the person needs to brush up on their grammar skills.
English is a messy language and arguably one of the hardest languages to master. Many of the words used in the English language are derived from Latin and Ancient Greek words, which is true of most European languages. English is difficult in comparison with these other languages because of its rampant contradictions. There are so many exceptions to the rules when it comes to English that it can be difficult for even those who have grown up speaking it to always use it correctly. Add into the mix regional dialect, and English can be one confusing language to master.
Fewer or Less
Two of the most commonly misused words in the English language are fewer and less. Fewer is the correct word choice when talking about an actual number of things. For example, “Fewer schools are teaching cursive writing now than they did 15 years ago.”
Less should be used when referring to an undefined amount and should only be used with singular nouns. One of the most common misuses of this word can be found in grocery and department stores across the country. Ever checked out in the “10 items or less” line? Well, technically, that should be the “10 items or fewer” line. I know – it just doesn’t have the same ring to it, and I certainly won’t be pointing out to the cashier at Walmart anytime soon that their sign is grammatically incorrect.
Another word that is misused quite frequently is irregardless. While many of you may know this by now, apparently, a vast number of English speakers do not: irregardless isn’t actually a real word. Somewhere in history, someone decided that word sounded pretty neat and decided to start using it. The phenomenon caught on. Some grammar enthusiasts have suggested the made-up word is a mixing of regardless and irrespective. Regardless of its origins, irregardless is not a real word and should be avoided unless your goal is to sound uneducated.
Your and You’re
One is possessive, the other means you are. Yet surprisingly, a great number of people incorrectly use these two words. An example of the correct usage of your is “Your socks don’t match today.” You’re is the contracted version of the two words you are. An example of how to use it properly in a sentence is “You’re my best friend.” Despite what some believe, these two words are not interchangeable.
This is another trio of similar-sounding words that, when spoken, can be misused without anyone noticing since they sound exactly the same. However, when writing them out, it’s important to know which one to use.
There is an adverb and should be used when indicating a place or position. An example: “There is a book on the shelf.” They’re is a contracted version of the two words they and are. An example of its use in a sentence is “They’re coming with us to the movies.” Lastly, there is a plural possessive adjective that indicates ownership by more than one person. An example of how to use it in a sentence is “Their car is a BMW.” As with you and you’re, these three words are not interchangeable.
Its or It’s
These two words are almost as misused as your and you’re. Its is a possessive adjective and should be used when indicating ownership or association to some thing, such as a corporation or public entity. An example of the proper use of its: “The School Board voted at its regularly-scheduled monthly meeting to build a new school.” It’s is the contracted version of it and is. An example of the proper use of it’s is: “It’s cold outside today.”
Farther or Further
Here are two words that often are misused, and regardless of whether they are spoken or written, it is obvious when they are misused. The easiest way to remember the difference between these two words is to think distance versus advancement. The word farther always indicates physical distance. An example: “My sister lives farther from the grocery store than I do.” Further should be used when referencing advancement. An example: “I am further along in reading The Tale of Two Cities than my friend.”
Than or Then
Then is an adverb, and than is a conjunction and preposition that is most commonly used for comparison purposes. An example of then in a sentence: “If you do your homework, then you can go play with your friends.” An example of a sentence using than: “I had more to eat than Bob did, and now my stomach is upset.”
For all intensive purposes……
If that phrase has ever left your lips, you have made a grave error. I have heard this particular phrase many times, including from some people I had previously considered to be well educated. The phrase that actually should be used is “for all intents and purposes.”
Insure or Ensure?
As with many of the other words on this list, insure and ensure cannot be used interchangeably. Ensure is defined as a means to make sure or guarantee something, while insure refers strictly to the financial safeguard against loss or damage that is provided by insurance. Yet these two words often are misused. In fact, I was just reading a job description today that improperly used the word insure when it really should have used ensure.
There are many more words and phrases that are misused on a daily basis, so much so that we could probably write about a new one every day. Are you guilty of misusing any of the words or phrases listed above?
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Shari L. Berg is the owner/operator of The Write Reflection, and a writing professional for 25 years.