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Some Common Language Mistakes

No one expects you to produce perfect English, but some common language mistakes can be very annoying to the reader. In addition to the usual problems with subject-verb (dis)agreement, articles and so on, there are a number of frequent mistakes that can be avoided easily.

Affect/effect

Normally "affect" is a verb and "effect" is a noun. If you change them round, they have different meanings: "affect" (as a noun) is a psychological term meaning, roughly, "emotion"; "effect" (as a verb) means to put into practice. Thus the two following sentences have totally different meanings.

The scientists affected an effect.
The scientists effected an affect.

Mention

"Mention" means to refer to something in passing, without giving it much importance. It is therefore different from "state", and very different from "discuss", which is how many students use it. For example, it is silly to say "In The Communist Manifesto, Marx and Engels mention Communism."

Because

Please remember that "because" is a subordinate conjunction, like "although", "since" or "while", not an adverbial like "therefore" or "however". This means that in formal writing, it cannot start a sentence, unless there are two parts to the sentence. The following examples are correct:

Exports rose because the government devalued the currency.
Because the government devalued the currency, exports rose.

The following, however, is definitely wrong:

* Exports rose. Because the government devalued the currency.

"By this way"

The phrase "by this way" does not exist in normal English. Use "in this way" if you are starting a sentence, or "thereby" if you are introducing a phrase with "-ing", e.g.

Henry VIII made himself the head of the new Anglican Church. In this way, he subordinated the Church to the State.
Henry VIII made himself the head of the new Anglican Church, thereby subordinating the Church to the State.

Especially

Many students use "especially" at the beginning of a sentence when they really mean "In particular".

Also

In formal writing, it is usually poor style to use "also" to start a sentence. Either use a different word (e.g. "additionally") or put it before the verb, e.g.

The People's Party also did badly in the elections.

If there are one or more auxiliary verbs, put it after the first one, e.g.

The government are also considering cutting health services.
This should also have been considered.

Note that "also" is often ambiguous. The first sentence probably means that the People's Party in addition to some other party did badly, but it could also (!) mean that they did badly in the elections as well as doing badly in something else (opinion polls, for example, or a football match with the Social Democrats).

Shortly

"Shortly" normally means "in a short time", not "briefly" or "in short".

(An)other

Students sometimes confuse "other" and "another". "Another" means "one other", and can only be used with singular nouns. The following, therefore, is incorrect:

* For another people, the reverse is the case.

Besides

Do not use "besides" to mean "in addition" or "furthermore" (this is acceptable in conversation, but clumsy in formal writing).

Too and so

The word "too" has two senses:

  1. to mean "as well" (e.g. "He came too")
  2. to mean "excessively" (e.g. "It was too hot").

However, "too" is often misused to mean "extremely". Strictly speaking, "too" should imply a clause with "to" or "for", e.g.

The climate was too cold to grow crops.
The climate was too cold for agriculture.

"So" is often misused in the same way. Using "so" to mean "very" is fine in informal conversation (e.g. "Brad Pitt is soooo sexy!"), but in formal writing it implies a clause with "that", e.g.

The climate was so cold that it was impossible to grow crops.

On the one/other hand

Students generally overuse "on the other hand", and in particular use it when they mean something more like "but" or even "in addition". It is most commonly (correctly) used to imply some kind of balance between contrasting points; for example,

Open Office is a powerful program; on the other hand, it runs rather slowly.
The government cut income tax on the one hand, while raising consumer taxes on the other.

On the contrary

"On the contrary" does not mean the same as "on the other hand" or "in contrast", both of which compare two different things. "On the contrary" is used for one thing, which is the subject of the previous sentence. In conversation, it is used to indicate that you believe the exact opposite of what the previous speaker has just said; in writing, it is used to say that the opposite of the quality which was negated in the previous sentence is true; for example,

Heidegger did not, as some thought, reject Nazism; on the contrary, he remained a member of the Nazi Party until the end of the war.

If this sounds confusing, don't use "on the contrary"!

Research, information, data and media

"Research" and "information" are uncountable nouns, so you cannot say "researches" or "informations". "Data" is the plural of "datum" (although it is slowly evolving into an uncountable noun, so writing "data was collected" is technically ungrammatical, but not a disaster). Similarly, "media" is the plural of "medium" (so television is a medium, not a media). The phrase "the media" is now commonly used to mean the mass media (or those working in this field); again it should be plural.

People

If you are talking about people, it's generally best to simply say "people", rather than "human beings". Only use "human beings" or "humans" if you want to contrast our species with other animals. For example, the following sentence is acceptable:

Human beings are not the only species to use tools.

However,

The Internet is of great importance to human beings.

is silly, since no one is suggesting that it is important for monkeys, for example.

The word "people" only takes an article if

  1. you are referring to a specific group of people, or
  2. you mean "the people" as opposed to the government or the aristocracy.

A common error is to write "most of the people" when you simply mean "most people".

Until recently, it was common to use "man" (singular, with no article) to mean "people" or "human beings", and "mankind" to mean "the human species". However, feminists have objected to this use of the male gender to mean the whole species, so it is best to avoid it.

Gods and Nature

In polytheistic systems, "god" follows the normal rules for singular/plural and articles, e.g.

The Romans had many gods.
The hero was visited by a god.
Mars was the god of war.
Natural disasters were seen as a punishment from the gods.

In monotheistic religions, "God" behaves like any other name; i.e., it takes a capital letter and has no article. It is normal to refer to God as "He" (with a capital letter), but if you object to the idea of presenting God as implicitly male, feel free to use some other pronoun.

"Nature", when used to mean "the natural world", also behaves like a name, hence phrases like "the balance of Nature". If it describes the nature of a particular thing, it behaves as a normal noun, e.g. "human nature".

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