Common Grammatical Errors in English Page 2


“In every well formed mind this second desire seems to be the strongest of the two.”—Smith’s Theory of Moral Sentiments.

In these examples the superlative is wrongly used for the comparative. When only two objects are compared the comparative form must be used.

Of impossibility there are no degrees of comparison, yet we find the following:

“As it was impossible they should know the words, thoughts and secret actions of all men, so it was more impossible they should pass judgment on them according to these things.”—Whitby’s Necessity of the Christian Religion.

A great number of authors employ adjectives for adverbs. Thus we find:

“I shall endeavor to live hereafter suitable to a man in my station.”—Addison.

“I can never think so very mean of him.”—Bentley’s Dissertation on Phalaris.

“His expectations run high and the fund to supply them is extreme scanty,—Lancaster’s Essay on Delicacy.

The commonest error in the use of the verb is the disregard of the concord between the verb and its subject. This occurs most frequently when the subject and the verb are widely separated, especially if some other noun of a different number immediately precedes the verb. False concords occur very often after either, or, neither, nor, and much, more, many, everyone, each.

Here are a few authors’ slips:—

“The terms in which the sale of a patent were communicated to the public.”—Junius’s Letters.

“The richness of her arms and apparel were conspicuous.”—Gibbon’s Decline and Fall.

“Everyone of this grotesque family were the creatures of national genius.”—D’Israeli.

“He knows not what spleen, languor or listlessness are.”—Blair’s Sermons.

“Each of these words imply, some pursuit or object relinquished.”—Ibid.

“Magnus, with four thousand of his supposed accomplices were put to death.”—Gibbon.

“No nation gives greater encouragements to learning than we do; yet at the same time none are so injudicious in the application.”—Goldsmith.

“There’s two or three of us have seen strange sights.”—Shakespeare.

The past participle should not be used for the past tense, yet the learned Byron overlooked this fact. He thus writes in the Lament of Tasso:—

“And with my years my soul begun to pant With feelings of strange tumult and soft pain.”

Here is another example from Savage’s Wanderer in which there is double sinning:

“From liberty each nobler science sprung, A Bacon brighten’d and a Spenser sung.”

Other breaches in regard to the participles occur in the following:—

“Every book ought to be read with the same spirit and in the same manner as it is writ”—Fielding’s Tom Jones.

“The Court of Augustus had not wore off the manners of the republic “—Hume’s Essays.

“Moses tells us that the fountains of the earth were broke open or clove asunder.”—Burnet.

“A free constitution when it has been shook by the iniquity of former administrations.”—Bolingbroke.

“In this respect the seeds of future divisions were sowed abundantly.”—Ibid.

In the following example the present participle is used for the infinitive mood:

“It is easy distinguishing the rude fragment of a rock from the splinter of a statue.”—Gilfillan’s Literary Portraits.

Distinguishing here should be replaced by to distinguish.

The rules regarding shall and will are violated in the following:

“If we look within the rough and awkward outside, we will be richly rewarded by its perusal.”—Gilfillan’s Literary Portraits.

“If I should declare them and speak of them, they should be more than I am able to express.”—Prayer Book Revision of Psalms XI.

“If I would declare them and speak of them, they are more than can be numbered.”—Ibid.

“Without having attended to this, we will be at a loss, in understanding several passages in the classics.”—Blair’s Lectures.

“We know to what cause our past reverses have been owing and we will have ourselves to blame, if they are again incurred.”—Alison’s History of Europe.

Adverbial mistakes often occur in the best writers. The adverb rather is a word very frequently misplaced. Archbishop Trench in his “English Past and Present” writes, “It rather modified the structure of our sentences than the elements of our vocabulary.” This should have been written,—”It modified the structure of our sentences rather than the elements of our vocabulary.”

“So far as his mode of teaching goes he is rather a disciple of Socrates than of St. Paul or Wesley.” Thus writes Leslie Stephens of Dr. Johnson. He should have written,—” So far as his mode of teaching goes he is a disciple of Socrates rather than of St. Paul or Wesley.”

The preposition is a part of speech which is often wrongly used by some of the best writers. Certain nouns, adjectives and verbs require particular prepositions after them, for instance, the word different always takes the preposition from after it; prevail takes upon; averse takes to; accord takes with, and so on.

In the following examples the prepositions in parentheses are the ones that should have been used:

“He found the greatest difficulty of (in) writing.”—Hume’s History of England.

“If policy can prevail upon (over) force.”—Addison.

“He made the discovery and communicated to (with) his friends.”—Swift’s Tale of a Tub.

“Every office of command should be intrusted to persons on (in) whom the parliament shall confide.”—Macaulay.

Several of the most celebrated writers infringe the canons of style by placing prepositions at the end of sentences. For instance Carlyle, in referring to the Study of Burns, writes:—”Our own contributions to it, we are aware, can be but scanty and feeble; but we offer them with good will, and trust they may meet with acceptance from those they are intended for.”

—”for whom they are intended,” he should have written.

“Most writers have some one vein which they peculiarly and obviously excel in.”—William Minto.

This sentence should read,—Most writers have some one vein in which they peculiarly and obviously excel.

Many authors use redundant words which repeat the same thought and idea. This is called tautology.

“Notwithstanding which (however) poor Polly embraced them all around.”—Dickens.

“I judged that they would (mutually) find each other.”—Crockett.

“….as having created a (joint) partnership between the two Powers in the Morocco question.”—The Times.

“The only sensible position (there seems to be) is to frankly acknowledge our ignorance of what lies beyond.”—Daily Telegraph.

“Lord Rosebery has not budged from his position—splendid, no doubt,—of (lonely) isolation.”—The Times.

“Miss Fox was (often) in the habit of assuring Mrs. Chick.”—Dickens.

“The deck (it) was their field of fame.”—Campbell.

“He had come up one morning, as was now (frequently) his wont,”—Trollope.

The counsellors of the Sultan (continue to) remain sceptical—The Times.

Seriously, (and apart from jesting), this is no light matter.—Bagehot.

To go back to your own country with (the consciousness that you go back with) the sense of duty well done.—Lord Halsbury.

The Peresviet lost both her fighting-tops and (in appearance) looked the most damaged of all the ships—The Times.

Counsel admitted that, that was a fair suggestion to make, but he submitted that it was borne out by the (surrounding) circumstances.—Ibid.

Another unnecessary use of words and phrases is that which is termed circumlocution, a going around the bush when there is no occasion for it,—save to fill space.

It may be likened to a person walking the distance of two sides of a triangle to reach the objective point. For instance in the quotation: “Pope professed to have learned his poetry from Dryden, whom, whenever an opportunity was presented, he praised through the whole period of his existence with unvaried liberality; and perhaps his character may receive some illustration, of a comparison he instituted between him and the man whose pupil he was” much of the verbiage may be eliminated and the sentence thus condensed:

“Pope professed himself the pupil of Dryden, whom he lost no opportunity of praising; and his character may be illustrated by a comparison with his master.”

“His life was brought to a close in 1910 at an age not far from the one fixed by the sacred writer as the term of human existence.”

This in brevity can be put, “His life was brought to a close at the age of seventy;” or, better yet, “He died at the age of seventy.”

“The day was intensely cold, so cold in fact that the thermometer crept down to the zero mark,” can be expressed: “The day was so cold the thermometer registered zero.”

Many authors resort to circumlocution for the purpose of “padding,” that is, filling space, or when they strike a snag in writing upon subjects of which they know little or nothing. The young writer should steer clear of it and learn to express his thoughts and ideas as briefly as possible commensurate with lucidity of expression.

Volumes of errors in fact, in grammar, diction and general style, could be selected from the works of the great writers, a fact which eloquently testifies that no one is infallible and that the very best is liable to err at times. However, most of the erring in the case of these writers arises from carelessness or hurry, not from a lack of knowledge.

As a general rule it is in writing that the scholar is liable to slip; in oral speech he seldom makes a blunder. In fact, there are many people who are perfect masters of speech,—who never make a blunder in conversation, yet who are ignorant of the very principles of grammar and would not know how to write a sentence correctly on paper. Such persons have been accustomed from infancy to hear the language spoken correctly and so the use of the proper words and forms becomes a second nature to them. A child can learn what is right as easy as what is wrong and whatever impressions are made on the mind when it is plastic will remain there. Even a parrot can be taught the proper use of language. Repeat to a parrot.—”Two and two make four” and it never will say “two and two makes four.”

In writing, however, it is different. Without a knowledge of the fundamentals of grammar we may be able to speak correctly from association with good speakers, but without such a knowledge we cannot hope to write the language correctly. To write even a common letter we must know the principles of construction, the relationship of one word to another. Therefore, it is necessary for everybody to understand at least the essentials of the grammar of his own language.

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