10 Classes of Careless Usage

By Mark Nichol

If you find yourself making any of the following types of errors, general or specific, brush up on your writing with grammar guides and usage handbooks and/or any or all of the other strategies mentioned at the end of this post.

1. Appending an s to words in which, in most usage, the letter should not be included (for example, regards, as in “in regards to”) or that, in American English, have dropped it altogether (backward). (Using the -st ending in such words as amidst and amongst is a similar sign of poor usage.)

2. Using the incorrect form of pronouns — writing, for example, “My friend and myself” instead of “My friend and I” or “That happened to she and I at the same time” rather than “That happened to her and me at the same time.” (If you don’t like the way that sentence looks, either, write, “That happened to both of us at the same time.”)

3. Using unnecessarily complicated words or phrases in favor of simpler, well-established terms: utilize instead of use, “prior to” in place of before, subsequently instead of later.

4. Using nonwords: irregardless, supposably, theirselves.

5. Using plural forms of words instead of singular ones: “a criteria,” “a phenomena.”

6. Using less when fewer is appropriate: “There are less boxes than I thought” instead of “There are fewer boxes than I thought.”

7. Using euphemisms: “He passed away last year” instead of “He died last year.”

8. Using badly in place of bad in such sentences as “He feels badly about the decision.”

9. Adding extraneous prepositions: “That’s too small of a shirt for you.”

10. Employing erroneous wording of idiomatic phrases: “for all intensive purposes” instead of “for all intents and purposes.”

So, how do you know if you’re making such mistakes? Printing this representative list out and tacking it up next to your computer is all well and good for reminding you about these ten pitfalls, but what about the hundreds of others that plague writers?

A combination of strategies is called for:

Do Your Homework
Borrow or buy some of the books listed in the post I linked to in the first paragraph, or check out the resources reviewed on this site. You needn’t read these guides cover to cover; just browse each one to determine whether its content or presentation style is appropriate for you, then, a few pages at a time, work your way through the ones that work for you.

Read Role Models
Seek out high-quality prose: leading magazines and newspapers and great literature. You don’t have to give up reading your favorite blogs or pulp fiction (some of which is/are very well written), but divide your leisure reading between the exemplary and the acceptable so that you can distinguish between the two and recognize well-constructed prose.

Go Back to School
Take a writing or editing class, whether offered as part of a university’s regular curriculum or as a continuing-education course. Whether you earned an MA in literature is irrelevant. You probably didn’t focus on the mechanics of writing during your college years, but now it’s time to do so.

Ask for Backup
Get a friend or a colleague whose writing or editing skills you respect to look over shorter pieces for you and flag grammar and usage errors. (Emphasize that you’d like them to merely call out the problems; you’ll solve them.) This strategy doesn’t work if you’ve completed a novel or a thick report, unless you can pay or trade for services, but when applied to short stories or modest work projects, it will help you develop your skills.

Click here to get access to 800+ interactive grammar exercises!


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22 Responses to “10 Classes of Careless Usage”

  • Azahara

    Why is ‘amongst’ poor usage? It is very common in BrE (including formal speech).

  • Vincent

    This very website gives contradictory information regarding amongst:

    http://www.dailywritingtips.com/among-vs-amongst/

    However, with regard to “with regards to”, the tip appears to be correct—which surprised me quite a bit. Thank you.

  • Genevieve Graham

    I love the way you just summed up a TON of writing errors in one post. I’m constantly finding and fixing these in the work of my editing clients. Well done. Thanks!

  • Dawn Anderson

    You failed to mention one of my most exasperating: I should of gone to the store.

  • Maeve Maddox

    Mark,
    A very useful post. It seems to me that the errors most speakers and writers make are really very few. They just keep making the same ones, usually with pronouns and verbs. I cover the most common ones in 100 Writing Errors to Avoid. That’s the barebones style guide I wrote for DailyWritingTips. The revised edition is available at Amazon in Kindle and in print. http://www.amazon.com/100-Writing-Mistakes-Avoid-Revised/dp/1470137860/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1362490439&sr=8-1&keywords=Maeve+Maddox

  • Laurie Harper

    This post is fabulous. Thank you for the consistently excellent reminders and your “short course” on correct usage and grammar. I love your choice of topics as well — useful in everyday life. This is one of the best sites for all writers and I’m spreading the word. Thank you again.

  • Bill

    Good stuff! I especially like your preference for “died” over “passed away,” though I’m afraid the latter seems to be dominating these days, despite its religious, and therefor biased, connotations. (Not that that makes it correct, of course.) With #10 you could have easily added the erroneous “I could care less” vs. “I couldn’t care less,” but perhaps careful speakers and writers have harped on this often enough.
    I also like the avoidance strategies, especially Read Role Models.

  • Geri G. Taylor

    Intensive purposes vs. Intents and purposes
    I don’t believe I have ever used “intensive purposes” but I have heard it plenty of times. Now that I see this example, “intents and purposes” does make more sense.

  • Dale A. Wood

    Oh, how pertinent and well-stated this one is. Thank you:

    “Using unnecessarily complicated words or phrases in favor of simpler, well-established terms: utilize instead of use, “prior to” in place of before, subsequently instead of later.”

    Another endlessly-irritiating one is using “ahead of” instead of “before”.
    There are deep problems with this misusage:
    “ahead of” has two words and three syllables instead of the shorter “before”.
    “ahead of” is a spatial relationship. In contrast, “before” is a temporal relationship except in certain idiomatic phrases. (These phrases include “He was brought before the King in shackles.”) In case you do not know what “spatial” means, it refers to space: up, down, left, right, in, out.

    “Before” also has very strong Anglo-Saxon roots. The word that means the same in Modern German is “bevor”, and how old is this word really? Maybe 1500 years?

    Another case of wordy gyrations is using “in lieu of” instead of “replacing”, “representing”, or “rather than”.

    “Subsequently” is generally an abomination from British English. The same meaning is carried by “later on”, “after that”, (and in a cause-and-effect relationship) “causing”, “following this”, “resulting then”.
    Also, in many writings, such as in the Wikipedia, writers use “subsequently” when they are too lazy to do any research into exactly when. Yes, in the United States, many things were subsequent to the Declaration of Independence in 1776, but exactly when and why?

    “The United States declared its independence in 1776, and subsequently Franklin D. Roosevelt was elected as the President.” Yes, this is a true statement, but it is VERY unsatisfactory for many reasons, including saying nothing about 1932 or why he was elected as the President then. The word “subsequently” is frequently very weak and even meaningless.

    D.A.W.

  • Dale A. Wood

    Why is “amongst” poor usage? It is very common in BrE.

    “Amongst” is poor usage because it IS an unnecessary complication of British English.
    We Americans and Canadians have proven this over two centuries by using “among” in all cases. We have discarded the “st”, and then shown by the fire and brimstone of everyday usage that the “st” is unnecessary and serves no purpose. To argue otherwise is unscientific.

    Furthermore, we have discarded such useless words as “darest”, which means “dare not”. So, instead of saying “You darest do that,” we say “You dare not do that,” or “You don’t dare do that.”

    On the other hand, we have created some very useful words, such as “bunkum”, which comes from the name of Buncombe County, North Carolina. That county became noteworthy a long time ago (maybe even in Colonial times) because of its many outrageous, lying politicians. Maybe we are lucky that we have the word bunkum already because otherwise would have to create one based on Washington, D.C., and that would be an insult to George Washington – a great man who was known for and honored for his honesty and dependability.
    D.A.W.

  • Dale A. Wood

    My own father has the deeply entrenched habit of saying:
    “In ‘nother words”.
    Where on Earth he got this one, I do not have a clue except that he grew up in Alabama during the 1930s and 1940s. He graduated from high school in 1949, and then he went to college in West Tennessee.
    (In another words??)

    By the way, in the United States, the State of Tennessee is divided (conceptually) into three parts, and the names of all of these are all capitalized: West Tennessee, Middle Tennessee, and East Tennessee. The smallest of these three is East Tennessee, and it is the part that is between the Tennessee River and the Mississippi River. Middle Tennessee extends from the Tennessee River to the Cumberland Plateau, and East Tennessee covers the rest of the state from there to the border with North Carolina. The flag of Tennessee has three stars on it (in an equilateral triangle) to represent the parts. The three large cities in the three parts, from east to west, are Knoxville, Nashville, and Memphis.

    Kentucky is similar to this in having three parts, but not so promonently named. The main things that I know of is that there are Eastern Kentucky University in the east, Western Kentucky University in the west, and the University of Kentucky in the middle (in Lexington).

    There are some other states that have capitalized names for parts, North, South, East, and West, but not of these in each state, some of these states include California, Texas, Alaska, Michigan, Illinois, Mississippi, Georgia, and Maryland, plus Northern Arizona, West Florida, and South Florida. Then there is Lower Alabama – the southern part – which has the unfortunate reputation for a low economy, low salaries, a low level of industrial activitry, a low level of education, etc.
    D.A.W.

  • Dale A. Wood

    As Bill mentioned, the phrase “could care less” is endlessly irritating and wrong. It is also unscientific and antiscientific. It is also backwards, which shows you that the “s” on the end of “backwards” has NOT disappeared from American English.
    There are also the phrases “backwards and upside-down” and “ass backwards”. In a football game, a player can be “knocked backwards and head-over-heels.”

    “I couldn’t care less” means that one has reached absolute zero on the temperature scale, and it is impossible to go lower than that.

    I cannot understand why Mr. Nichols would dismiss the word “backwards”. Could it be that he is unfamiliar with the way that people talk and write in the Southern and Western states of the U.S.A.? We very commonly say and write “forwards”, “backwards”, “sideways”, “outwards”, “inwards”, “upwards”, and “downwards”.
    Remember, also, that this is the part of the country where we say “innards”. If someone has had a bad stomach ache recently, we ask, “How are your innards, today?” An unfornate answer would be “backwards and upside-down!” Ouch!
    D.A.W.

  • Nelida K.

    Nobody else has remarked on this, so maybe it’s just me and I stand to be corrected, but there seems to be something amiss in this statement:

    “Using unnecessarily complicated words or phrases IN FAVOR of simpler, well-established terms”.

    To my mind, the statement should be correctly phrased:

    “Using unnecessarily complicated words or phrases TO THE DETRIMENT (or: INSTEAD, or: IN LIEU) of simpler, well-established terms”.

    The poor style lies in using complicated terms when simpler terms would do the trick. So I don’t think that “in favor” is the correct expression in this case. IMHO.

  • Eileen

    Nelida, I’m glad you noticed that statement! I was going to mention it if no one else had already done so!

  • Mark Nichol

    Nelida:

    You’re right. “In favor” is not correct, and I should have written “instead” instead.

  • Wendy

    I like the word “subsequently” – it has a connotation that “later” does not. Subsequently means not *only* later, but also “as a consequence of”, if that makes sense.

  • venqax

    I knew the “amongst” problem would be raised by a Brit. I saw it coming so fast I almost put a lantern in the North Church tower. But still not quick enough. The very FIRST post, even.

    The site is obviously, for the thousandth time, written from the American POV. Amongst is NOT generally okay in Standard American English. Nor are whilst, orientate, speciality or aluminium. In British they are fine, I guess, though I don’t really see why. A site on British English will probably make you feel better about it. WHY is this so hard?

  • C

    venqax, on the internet, international boundaries are more permeable, and there is no obvious mention that this site is specifically geared to American English, e.g. on the About page. Yes, if you read around, it becomes clear, but to a casual observer, it is not.

  • Dee

    The arrogance of some who post comments here is astounding. WHY NOT include British English variations! This site has British readers. It used to have at least one British writer too.

    One drawback of being more inclusive, I suppose, is that the arrogant, self-righteous cultural snobs who comment here would have even more opportunity to speak down to us.

  • Oliver Lawrence

    The “-st” in “amongst” and “whilst” is not incorrect, but it is unnecessary and stylistically archaic.

    Dale A. Wood may also note that North Americans don’t have a monopoly on brevity and efficiency. We Brits, for example, have got on fine for a very long time with “got” and “often” instead of the longer “gotten” and “oftentimes” 🙂 favoured in some contexts on the other side of the Pond.

  • Azahara

    Actually, I’m not British, venqax. I’m Spanish and English is not my native language. I love English in all its forms, although I’m more familiar with AmE. I read this site daily and I’m aware that it is mainly written from an American perspective, but as C and Dee point out, that doesn’t mean that there aren’t any readers who speak other varieties of English or even other languages.

    I was just confused because I never thought that ‘amongst’ was incorrect, but just an old-fashioned or British way of saying ‘among’. I guess that most Americans who care about their language would be happy to learn that ‘among’ once had a different spelling (even if they are never going to use it). After all, I’d say that one of the goals of this site is educating people. Knowledge cannot always be put to use, but it never hurts.

  • venqax

    “I was just confused because I never thought that ‘amongst’ was incorrect, but just an old-fashioned or British way of saying ‘among’.

    Well the second implies the first. It is old-fashioned and British, thereby not strictly correct in SAE.

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