The English language is almost superfluous in its own complications, which is the beauty of it. Whether it’s misusing a word (looking at you, plethora) or common grammatical errors, the English language sometimes suffers due to the majority using these incorrectly.

Although language is defined by its volume of use – the words lol and selfie are now in the Oxford English Dictionary – there still must be care over mistakes that will alter the context of what you are trying to say. At Wolfestone, we actively avoid grammatical and language-related misconceptions.

Here are 11 of the most common English language mistakes that we advise avoiding.

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1. Its or It’s

Let’s start with a simple one. It’s is short for it is or it has. If you are ever in doubt if it’s the correct usage, replace with it is/has and see if the sentence makes sense.

That is because, contrary to the literary rule, ‘its’ denotes possession whereas typically possession is represented by an apostrophe. Simple way to remember: its falls into similar rules of his/her when it comes to possession. Again, if you are not clear replace its with his or hers and see if it fits. That is always the best way to tell. Online translators often make this mistake, which is why it is integral to translate accurately.

Warning: its’ is never correct. Ever.

2. Apostrophes and Plurals

This continues on from the first point as apostrophes can be slightly elusive or confusing. Apostrophes, as a rule, either are possessive or indicate that there is a missing letter. For example, you’re is short for you are and of course the ‘it’s’ example from above.

One of the main problems seen lately is when referring to decades. Whether you are shortening it or are talking about it in general, possessive apostrophes are never relevant. For example, it’s the ‘90s or 1990s as it is a plural and does not belong to the decade itself. This is true even when you are referencing something as ‘80s in design. Although you may refer to it in a possessive form, it is again a contradicting rule which means it is incorrect to do so.

Another typical problem is when people pluralise numbers, letters, acronyms etc. They will put 200’s instead of 200s.

With letters, it does look ugly and cause complications for letters like I, but the rule is still the same: As, Bs, Cs, Ds and so on.

11 Common English Mistakes to Avoid

3. Less or Fewer

This rule is quite pedantic, but asking for less is in reference to something which cannot be counted with a numerical value. When it refers to a number, it is fewer. A common glaring error occurs in most supermarkets or shops with a “10 items or less” till when it should be fewer.

4. Literally

The current trend of exaggerating what you are saying by including literally is one that is on such a large-scale that it is now listed as an extra definition in the English dictionary. Literally (which is the correct usage). Literally is fairly self-explanatory: it means exact, to be taken in a literal manner. Now it is used as emphasis in an exaggerative manner, like this is literally killing me.

5. Decimate

When you hear it, you think of something awful and utter devastation. Oddly, decimate comes from a Roman punishment of “one in ten men” so decimation is not as bad as we thought!

The mix-up is likely to come from the word’s similarity to devastation and destruction. The rule of three is always good, especially when alliterative.

6. Irony or Happenstance

Alanis Morrisette is one of the main perpetrators to this language related atrocity. Sadly, everything she sang in that song is not ironic but happenstance. It could be ironic that the song Ironic itself is not actually ironic.

Irony is usually the opposite result of an intended result – usually in an amusing or funny manner. Happenstance is similar to a degree and is either coincidental or 10,000 spoons when all you need is a knife, a la Alanis.

(This may be a specific reference that is lost, one that is interesting regarding localisation services.)

11 Common English Mistakes to Avoid

7. Affect or Effect

This one is more forgiving because of its more complicated nature. Affect is a verb, effect is a noun. Weirdly, you refer to how an ‘effect’ affected you. The Oxford Dictionaries website did a handy little illustration of the differences.

Handy trick: replace affect with another verb like eat, run or so on. If it fits, great! If it doesn’t, then it stands out enough for you to notice.

8. S’s or S’

Correct usage of s’s and s’ is at a critical low to the point where it could technically be correct the other way around; language revolves around its own natural evolution rather than strict adherence of rules. What has caused this is the rare tuition on this specific rule.

When given possession to a word ending in S, s’s or s’ are correct, but they are only correct in one circumstance each.

If you are referring to a singular person, a John Davies, then it would be John Davies’s car or house. If you are referring to a plural, e.g. a family, then it would be the Davies’ car or house. This rule extends outside of proper nouns too. If it is a singular item ending in S, it is s’s and if it is a plural then it is s’.

Oddly, band names are usually classed as a singular proper noun rather than a collective or plural. That means it would be Mumford & Sons’s music to be confused even further.

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9. Nonplussed

People have derived that nonplussed mean something similar to indifference because it sounds like not fussed. Not the case.

Nonplussed’s actual definition is the feeling of being perplexed, bewildered or confused. People are nonplussed about the word itself. Points to whoever tells us if that’s irony or happenstance.

10. Who’s or Whose

A rather simple entry here, the difference of who’s and whose is similar to where we started. Who’s means who is and whose is the possessive form of who.

Therefore, if you want to know who is going to the party, you ask “Who’s going…”, but if you want to know whose party it is, then it’s – as used – whose.

To extend it further, who refers to the subject of a sentence whereas whom refers to the object.

Handy trick: if you can answer with he/she did, then it is who. If it is him or her, then it is whom.

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11. Plethora

We have come full-circle. At the beginning, I said “looking at you, plethora” for those not paying attention.

Plethora is often misused as a positive. It is common in companies’ advertising copy. The company claims to offer a “plethora of products/services” as if they offer a varied amount of products/services in a progressive manner.

That is wrong, because plethora is actually a pejorative (a negative word) meaning that the quantity is excessive, an over-abundance, and is consequently too much to be helpful.

Of course these are not all the common English language mistakes, but the aim here was to point out the complexity of the English language and – by extension – every language. All adapt to times, from territory to territory, city to city. You cannot speak Ancient Mongolian in Ulan Bator all that successfully, but Mongolian has moved on from the villages which are disconnected from the populated networks and has therefore evolved either not at all due to its small population or in a separate way.

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