Common Errors in English UsageErrors in diction and idiom frequently made by English speakers
About This List
This is a list of errors often made by English speakers that I put together over a period of several years while teaching grammar, writing, and test preparation. The list covers a broad spectrum of usage issues, including errors in diction (word choice—often confusion of similar words) and idiom (conventional fixed expressions). There are more comprehensive lists elsewhere on the Internet, and a search for even the most obscure usage questions will inevitably yield a good answer somewhere, but this list includes the most important and most common errors that I’ve encountered in the course of my teaching. Many of these errors are tested on standardized tests such as the SAT, ACT, and TOEFL. Therefore, I think it’s a useful list for students to use as the basis for a course of study. In other words, if you gain familiarity with all of these errors, you’ll be in pretty good shape in terms of your understanding of English usage.
To learn about the much broader spectrum of English grammar errors, see my Common Grammar Errors page, which covers topics like subject-verb agreement and parallelism.
Some of the rules covered here are essentially obsolete in contemporary English usage in a number of senses:
- Students rarely learn them in school, and they are rarely enforced by teachers in giving students feedback on their writing.
- They are rarely observed by the vast majority of English speakers in most contexts.
- Even educated, professional writers choose to ignore them in their writing.
- They are completely arbitrary in the first place and thus cannot be defended on the basis of logic or consistency.
Although I strongly believe in the importance of learning the principles of good grammar, in cases to which the above conditions apply, I don’t think it makes sense to fight to preserve dying rules. However, it can still be useful in some situations to know even such archaic rules—primarily when writing something relatively formal for an audience that takes such knowledge as a sign of good education. Depending on your profession and the other circumstances of your life, you might encounter such situations quite often. In any case, in each entry I have tried to identify the rules that are either almost obsolete or about which there is debate among authority figures in the exciting world of grammar.
To put it briefly: This list is worth taking the time to study if you want to become a better writer.
How the List Is Organized
The errors on this list are, obviously, organized alphabetically. Errors that involve confusion of two or more words or expressions are generally alphabetized according to whichever word comes first alphabetically; “emigrate vs. immigrate,” for example, is listed by emigrate. (Others are listed by the word or expression that is commonly misused, such as “like vs. as/as if,” which is listed by like.) Articles (a, an, the) and the word to in infinitives are usually disregarded for purposes of alphabetization. Some words or expressions fall under a larger category; “to lie vs. to lay,” for example, is listed under “intransitive verbs vs. transitive verbs.”
Items marked with an asterisk are errors that students whose English is influenced by Chinese or other East Asian languages should pay special attention to. 以中文为母语的人应该特别注意带星号的错误。
List of Common Errors in English Usage (PDF): A printer-friendly version of this list
Common Grammar Errors: A list of common errors in grammar as distinct from usage
Practical English Usage by Michael Swan: My go-to reference tome for many years regarding usage issues
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