Usage Mistakes (Part 1)

Common mistakes in English Usage: averse / adverse, a / an, anyway / any way, bring / take, before / ago, can / may, double negative, disinterested / uninterested.

1. averse / adverse

Averse is an adjective meaning "having an active feeling of repugnance or dislike." Adverse is an adjective meaning "being in opposition to one's interests." For example: Is he averse to eating meat? Do you think the judge will deliver an adverse opinion?

INCORRECT: I'm not adverse to a glass of wine at dinner.

CORRECT: I'm not averse to a glass of wine at dinner.

2. abstract nouns ending with -ness

The suffix -ness is correctly added to many adjectives to form an abstract noun. For example, good/goodness, red/redness. However, many English adjectives have abstract noun forms that are not formed with a suffix. With a few exceptions, it is a weakness of style to create a "ness" form when a distinctive form already exists.

Examples: silent/silence, curious/curiosity, brave/bravery, courageous/courage, valiant/valor, cowardly/cowardice, greedy/greed, mature/maturity.

INCORRECT: Anwar Sadat was admired for his courageousness.

CORRECT: Anwar Sadat was admired for his courage.

3. a / an

The rule is to use the article a before words beginning with a consonant sound, and an before words beginning with a vowel sound: a dog, an eel, an hour. Only a few English words begin with an unvoiced h: an heir to the throne, an honest man, an honorable man. The same principles of pronunciation apply to abbreviations, acronyms and the like: a URL, an SUV.

INCORRECT: Meet me here in a hour.

CORRECT: Meet me here in an hour.

4. anyway / anyways / any way

INCORRECT: Who reads my paper anyways?

CORRECT: Who reads my paper anyway?

Anyway is an adverb, and it means "regardless" or "in any event": Penelope never completes her homework assignments, but she expects to go to college anyway. Any way is a phrase meaning "any particular course, direction, or manner": Our dog tries to get out of his pen any way he can. "Anyways" is a non-standard form to be avoided by careful speakers and writers.

5. bring / take

Both bring and take indicate the conveyance of something from one place to another. Which to use depends upon context. A mother organizing her family for a trip to the zoo, for example, might say "Everybody bring a jacket." She's going too. If, however, she's staying home, she would say "Everybody take a jacket." Something going away from the speaker is taken. Something going to or with the speaker is brought.

6. between you and me / I

Between is a preposition. Me is the object form of the pronoun I. When a pronoun follows a preposition, the object form is required.

INCORRECT: Keep this information just between you and I.

CORRECT: Keep this information just between you and me.

7. before / ago

Ago means “at a certain time before now.” It refers to a time before the present. Before means “at any time before now.”

When the event referred to occurred at a specific time in the past, the simple past form of the verb is used: Alexander the Great lived many years ago. Five years ago, my brother worked in Detroit.

If the event referred to occurred before another past event, then the choice of adverb should be before, earlier, or previously: We learned that our favorite tree had been cut down many years before.

INCORRECT: He left his money to a woman he had met many years ago.

CORRECT: He left his money to a woman he had met many years before.

8. beg the question / raise the question

To beg the question is a rhetorical term to describe the logical fallacy of assuming the truth of an unsupported assertion. For example, Dr. Locke grades unfairly because he never gives me any grade higher than a C on my papers. The unproved assumption is that the papers are of a quality to merit a higher grade. The student is “begging the question.” If you find yourself following "beg the question" with a question, you are using the expression incorrectly. The expression you are looking for is "raise the question."

INCORRECT: His position on tax reform begs the question, does wealth redistribution really help the poor?

CORRECT: His position on tax reform raises the question, does wealth redistribution really help the poor?

9. can / may

The difference between can and may is one of ability versus permission. Not everyone observes the distinction, but it is a graceful usage.

INCORRECT: He wants to know if he can borrow the car tonight.

CORRECT: He wants to know if he may borrow the car tonight.

10. double negative

Although common in regional dialects and in earlier forms of English, the use of a double negative is considered to be incorrect in modern standard English. Double negative: a construction that contains two negative elements such as no and not.

INCORRECT: I don't get no respect.

CORRECT: I don't get any respect.

11. disinterested / uninterested

Disinterested implies impartiality. Uninterested implies lack of interest. For example: The financial dispute was settled by a disinterested third party. Many students are uninterested in their assignments.

INCORRECT: Charlie is totally disinterested in algebra.

CORRECT: Charlie is totally uninterested in algebra.