Daily Archives: November 26, 2005

Common errors in English

Its and It’s. Backward and backwards. Dessert and desert. Gamut and Gauntlet. The English language, in all its glory, is incredibly difficult to learn and use well (as someone whose mother tongue is French, I’m one to know), for all sorts of reasons.

One of the least obvious to the native English speaker is the use of prepositions or adverb to change the meaning of a verb. There are ten which are used with the most common verbs (61 in total): to, up, in, out, down, on, over, from, about, and with. So, if I use the verb “come” it goes like this:

  • come to
  • come up
  • come in
  • come out
  • come down
  • come on
  • come from
  • come about
  • come with

Each of these word combination has a different meaning. Then there’s come aboard, come about, come across, come after, come against, come ahead, come along, come apart, come around, come at, come away, come back, come before, come between, come by, come down, come forth, come from, come into, come off, come round, come through, come to.

That’s hard enough to learn, but then there are all these words that look alike or have subtly different meanings, like the ones I began this commentary with. I found this cool website, Common Errors in English, that can help with that. Some of them relate to English usage:

Able to: People are able to do things, but things are not able to be done: you should not say, “the budget shortfall was able to be solved by selling brownies.”

Some relate to the confusion in using one word over the other:

Its/It’s: The exception to the general rule that one should use an apostrophe to indicate possession is in possessive pronouns. Some of them are not a problem. “Mine” has no misleading “s” at the end to invite an apostrophe. And few people are tempted to write “hi’s,” though the equally erroneous “her’s” is fairly common, as are “our’s” and “their’s—all wrong, wrong, wrong. The problem with avoiding “it’s” as a possessive is that this spelling is perfectly correct as a contraction meaning “it is.” Just remember two points and you’ll never make this mistake again. (1) “it’s” always means “it is” or “it has” and nothing else. (2) Try changing the “its” in your sentence to “his” and if it doesn’t make sense, then go with “it’s.”

That site has earned a bookmark in my reference section. As a writer, it is a precious tool that will help me perfect my English, an endless task, since the language has unplumbed depths.

This is why I’m always so amazed at those writers who not only use the language as a tool, but also to create a work of art. I’ll never pretend to be able to do what they do, but I can appreciate the deftness of these artists.

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