Editor’s notes: Some errors in this column are deliberate.
Dear Readers: Those of you who’ve been reading this column for a while know that I’m something of a language purist. That said, I understand that English is constantly changing and try to stay current on the latest vocabulary words — the folks at Merriam-Webster add about 1,000 every year — and the ways we use them (five years ago, who had ever heard of a Twitter handle, a hashtag, a humblebrag, clickbait, or Bitcoin? And who would have used “ghost” as a verb, talked about binge-watching, or accused you of throwing shade? But there’s a difference between evolving a language and murdering it — a point made very clear by an error-ridden note that a friend’s son brought home from his high-school English teacher. That’s why I’m bringing back my Top Five English Language Errors (go ahead, call it a “listicle”).
1. I vs. Me. I can understand why young kids who are still mastering the rules of grammar get this one wrong, but their parents really should know better. For example, “Me and Bobby stayed after school to work on a project” or “The teacher sent Frannie and I to the principal’s office.” Both are incredibly common and both are flat-out wrong. “I” is the subject — the person who’s doing something. “Me” is the object — the one who’s being done to. If you aren’t sure and want to double check, take out the other person (or thing) from the sentence and say it out loud. “Me stayed after school” and “The teacher sent I” — both sound off, don’t they? That’s because they are.
1a. I’s. Sometimes people double down on the I vs. Me error by turning I into a possessive. For example, “Come over to my wife and I’s house for dinner.” Taking out wife, most people will understand that “I’s” should really be “my.”
2. It’s vs. Its. “Its so funny when that monkey scratches it’s butt.” “It’s” (with the apostrophe) is always a contraction, meaning that two words — it and is — are joined into one. “Its” (without the apostrophe) is always a possessive, meaning it belongs to something. The test? If you replace “its” or “it’s” with “it is” and the sentence sounds right, you need the apostrophe. “It is so funny” passes; “scratching it is butt” doesn’t.
3. Apostrophes with Plurals. “Lots of student’s and teacher’s make these mistakes.” Again, an apostrophe usually indicates a contraction. “Lots of student is and teacher is make” flunks the test. In the vast majority of cases, all you need to make a plural is an “s” or an “es.” When talking about one student’s mistake, you need the apostrophe. But a group of students (or falcons or hashtags) never does. One exception is when using abbreviations, such as “Oakland A’s.” We need the apostrophe because it replaces the rest of the word “Athletics.”
4. There vs. Their vs. They’re. These three words sound the same but are very different. “There” is a place (it’s spelled similarly to “where”). “Their” is a possessive (their opinion). And “they’re” is a contraction of “they are” — again, the apostrophe indicates that there’s (another contraction) something missing.
5. Then vs. Than. “Then” is a time reference that indicates a sequence, such as, “We ate too much, then got sick.” “Than” indicates a comparison. “Now you know more grammar than many people.” Tip? The word “when” (as in “when did that happen?”) has an “e” in it; so does “then.”
These are just my top five. I’ve compiled a dozen or so other errors that make me cringe. But I’d really like to hear yours, so email your top picks and I’ll try to include them in a future column.