From VOA Learning English, this is Everyday Grammar.
This week, we will learn a few English words and phrases that are commonly misused in English.
Even well-educated native English speakers make the mistakes you will read and hear about today, including reporters and English teachers!
After today’s program, you can have fun finding these mistakes when other people use them.
Let’s start with a very common written mistake that native English speakers make.
"could of" or could’ve
If you spend time on social media, such as Facebook, you may see that native English speakers often use the word of after the words could, would or should. For example, in the sentence:
I could of gone to New York last weekend.
However, the word of is a preposition. The sentence needs a verb instead. The confusion is caused by the shortened, or abbreviated, version of “could have.” It takes an apostrophe followed by the letters ve. The spelling then is could've.
The preposition of sounds just like the shortened version of the verb have, which is pronounced ’ve.
In speaking, this is not a problem, since both phrases sound the same.
In writing, an easy way to remember the correct form is that could, would and should are helping verbs. So another verb must always follow them.
In the example, “I could’ve gone to New York last weekend,” have and gone are forms of verbs. Of is a preposition and would never appear after a helping verb.
Every day or Everyday
Another writing error happens every day in America. Native English speakers often misspell “every day” They will write it as one word instead of two.
When every and day are put together as one word, they become an adjective that means “common” or “used or seen each day.” When you use this adjective, you must usually put it before a noun. For example, you can say:
He didn’t let the problems of everyday life worry him.
But, if you wanted to tell someone that something happens each day, you must separate the words every and day in writing. For example, you could write:
I practice my grammar every day.
When every and day are separate words, they are an adverb phrase that describes when, or how often, something happens.
So, how can you easily remember which one to use? Think of the title Everyday Grammar. Remember, if you are writing the single word everyday, it is an adjective that most often comes before a noun. But the two words every and day express how often something happens. And they are an adverb phrase, and must modify a verb.
The other mistakes we are looking at today can happen in either speech or writing.
Different than or different from
Many native English speakers use the phrase different than to show contrast between things or people. For example:
Children are different than adults.
Technically, that is incorrect. Standard English usage requires from instead of than, in this case. The correct sentence would be:
Children are different from adults.
But grammar experts do not always agree. Some of them say the phrase different than is acceptable. It has existed for centuries, they argue, and famous writers have used it in their works. For instance, 19th century writer F. Scott Fitzgerald used different than in his short story “The Rich Boy.” Listen:
Let me tell you about the very rich. They are different than you and me.
Some grammar experts say that both than and from are acceptable. However, no one objects to from, so it would be your safest choice, especially in academic writing.
“15 items or less”
The less grammar you understand, the more mistakes you probably will make. And the fewer grammar mistakes you make, the better.
Which brings us to another common grammar mistake: the use and misuse of fewer and less. Fewer is used with countable nouns; Less, with non-countable.
This mistake is found at food stores throughout the U.S. where signs at checkout lines sometimes read “15 items or less.” These lines are for people who are not buying very much.
But the phrase uses the adjective less to describe items, a countable noun. So less is wrong; the correct adjective is fewer.
The word fewer must be used with count nouns, like items, animals, cars, or dresses. Less is used with non-count nouns, such as money, sand, love, or water. (See our Everyday Grammar episode on Understanding Non-count Nouns)
So how can you remember whether to use less or fewer? One easy way to remember is to ask yourself, "Can I count this thing on a few fingers?" If the answer is "yes," use the word fewer.
We will be back next week with another Everyday Grammar. And remember: if you understand how to use the words discussed today, you are different from many English speakers!
I’m John Russell. And I’m Jill Robbins.
Editor's note: F. Scott Fitzgerald is a 20th century writer (not 19th century). We regret the mistake.
Alice Bryant wrote this story for Everyday Grammar. Caty Weaver was the editor.
Have you struggled with the commonly misused words we discussed today? We want to hear from you. Write to us in the comments section.
Words in This Story
native English speaker - a person whose first language is English
contrast - n. something that is different from another thing
standard - adj. accepted and used by most of the educated speakers and writers of a language
checkout line - n. the place or area where goods are paid for in a store
item - n. an individual thing