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Abusing Slow News Days: Common Mistakes in English
By Thom Holwerda on 2010-03-18 19:05:28
Since everybody in the technology world is apparently having a vacation, and nobody told me about it, we're kind of low on news. As such, this seems like the perfect opportunity to gripe about something I've always wanted to gripe about: a number of common mistakes in English writing in the comments section. I'll also throw in some tidbits about my native language, Dutch, so you can compare and contrast between the two.

Let me start off by saying that overall, I think the OSNews readership has an absolutely excellent grasp of the English language. This is all the more impressive when you take into account that for about half of our readers, English is not their native language. We have readers from all over the world, and like me, and Eugenia before that, they grew up with other languages.

This means that this little story is not meant as some sort of arrogant diatribe about how the English language is being destroyed or whatever (heck, even after getting a university degree in this language I'm still making mistakes every other sentence). What I want to do here is point out some oft-made mistakes by many non-native speakers of English (and a lot of native speakers!) that are easy to combat.

The reason I'm doing this is three-fold. First, as already mentioned, I have to put something up here. Second, these mistakes often detract from the excellent points you might be making in a comment, which is a total waste. Third, they're annoying. Okay, that third thing might actually come out of arrogance after all - but I just find them very annoying. I'll be honest.

The indefinite article: a or an?

As a native speaker of Dutch, I sometimes envy the English-speaking world. Where we Dutch have to work with two definite articles (de and het), English is lazy and just uses the for everything. I'll try to summarize the Dutch rules for the use of the definite article - let's see if you can keep up with the idiocy.

Technically, it's all quite simple. De is both masculine and feminine, whereas het is neuter. Which of the two you use is determined by the gender of the word it precedes. The knowledge of word genders is generally not something you know actively; it has been ingrained as part of the learning process when you learned to speak.

However, when you learn Dutch as a second language at a later age, this word gender thing, and therefore the definite article thing, can all get remarkably arbitrary. Take a word like vrouwtje, which means little woman (either literally or figuratively). You'd think a word like that is feminine, and therefore, becomes de vrouwtje.

It doesn't. It's het vrouwtje, and there's a reason for that: vrouwtje is a diminutive, and diminutives are always neuter. Interestingly, something similar happens in German with das Mädchen: Mädchen is neuter.

We have another one of those rules: plurals always carry the definite article de, and on top of that, plurals overrule diminutives. This leads to the curious scenario where the same word - vrouw - moves from feminine to neuter and back again depending on the form of the word (for Dutch readers who wonder why many foreigners tend to say die meisje instead of dat meisje - now you know).

This is just the beginning of the odd influence word gender can have on a language. What makes it more difficult and annoying in Dutch than in other languages like French or German is that in those languages, the system is still fully erect and used. Dutch lies somewhere in the middle between English (gender irrelevant) and German (gender very much relevant), leading to unclear rules and a half-baked feel to it all.

Right, I drifted off a little there. Getting back to the article - Dutch has only one indefinite article, een. The fun part here is that een also happens to mean "one" (the number), and you'll have to derive from the context whether the writer means the indefinite article or the number (in truly ambiguous cases, you may emphasize it's the number by writing één).

In English, the indefinite article is a or an, and this is often a source of confusion among non-native speakers (and again, among many native speakers as well): when do you use a, and when do you use an? Is there some magical grammatical rule behind it all, derived from hundreds of years of linguistic evolution?

No. It's all quite straightforward, actually. A is used when the initial sound of the word that follows it is a consonant sound: a car, a broken guitar, a Fiona Apple album. An is used when the initial sound of the word that follows it is a vowel sound: an album, an error, an open book. Remember that it's not the actual written letter that matters - it's the sound. For instance, while university begins with a vowel, its pronunciation starts with a y-sound (like in yes). As such, it's a university.

Acronyms are interesting when it comes to the English indefinite article, because the choice between a and an depends on how you pronounce them. This can get especially confusing for me personally, since I have this uncanny habit to read/pronounce English acronyms as if they were Dutch.

They're crazy with their costumes there

This one is probably my biggest gripe, but at the same time, it's such an understandable error to make. They're, their, and there are three completely different things, yet, they tend to sound exactly the same, and as such, people mix them up in writing all the time.

The odd one out here is definitely there though, since when properly pronounced, it most certainly sounds different from the other two. They're and their, however, sound exactly the same to me too in general speech. With some effort, however, you can make them sound different from one another without you yourself sounding like an idiot.

  • They're is the contraction of they and are.
  • Their is the third person plural possessive determiner [breathe]. This load of gibberish means that it's used to indicate the possession of the thing that follows ("The Adama family? That is their house/That is the house that they own.").
  • There is kind of, well, complicated. It's one of those function words that can be used in about a million different ways, but usually, it is used as an adverb to point to a certain location that excludes the person using the word (as opposed to here, which includes the speaker). For instance, "The ball is over there!" or "There he lay, with his Fiona Apple albums still by his side." It can, however, also be used as a pronoun, in constructions like "There are three Fiona Apple albums in that display case." To further complicate things, it may also be used as a noun, but this isn't quite as common.

You'll just have to look at your sentence to see which of the three is correct, but please, let's try to avoid things like "There crazy with they're costumes their." This one annoys me the most, simply because the three meanings are so utterly different from one another. It'd be like randomly switching around all the nouns in your national anthem.

Oh say can you see by the star's early dawn
What so proudly we hailed at the ramparts' last stripes?
Whose broad twilight and bright fights through the perilous gleaming,
O'er the light we watched were so gallantly streaming?

Yeah, that's the feeling I get every time someone mixes up they're, their, and there.

It's its bowl

This is probably the most common mistake made on the internet in the English language. The amount of times I've seen people mix up its and it's is mind-blowing - and it happens everywhere. Whether you're dealing with college-educated nerds or seven year old children, everybody gets this wrong at least once or twice. In all fairness, though, a lot of its/it's mistakes are probably caused by simple typing errors.

It's is a contraction of either it is (common) or it has (less common). Its, however, is either the possessive adjective or the possessive pronoun form of the personal pronoun it. The confusion arises from the fact that in the English language, 's almost exclusively indicates possession, and as such, people logically assume that it's must indicate possession as well.

There's a very simple test you can perform to find out which of the two you're supposed to use. If you can replace it's/its with it is or it has, then you use it's. In every other case, you use its.

For the sake of readability, please think about this one. The feeling I get when hitting a mistake like this in a text is like the feeling I'd get from using a picture of The Black-eyed Peas for my Music folder - there's just no logical connection between one and the other.

What the frak...?


All this stuff probably sounded way more arrogant and condescending than I intended, but for some reason, it's impossible to write about these matters without sounding like a school teacher. My English most certainly isn't perfect either (quite the contrary - prepositions will always be my weakness), and while I try to aspire to write and sound as English as possible, I also know that I tend to introduce quite a few 'Dutchisms' - a misplaced sense of national pride or whatever, I don't know.

So, what do you all have to add to this? Are there any common mistakes in English that work on your nerves that I didn't mention? Feel free to dump them in the comments section. Let's get pedantic.

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