Simple grammatical mistakes that make you look dumb

My attention to detail has been the subject of many office jokes in the past. OCD doesn’t come close. I insist on providing our clients with as-close-to-perfect communications as it’s possible for us to create, and my staff take great pleasure in pointing out any typos I might have inadvertently missed in any of the work we’re developing.


But it’s not all about spelling. The use of the correct words is something I feel is vital if one is to be taken seriously, and of course correct punctuation is critical in determining how something reads. I regularly pick friends and family up on the mistakes they make when talking or writing (I am a pedant who’s a thorn in many people’s sides), and I am frequently mortified by other people’s oversights, errors and downright lackadaisical (see below) attitude towards the English language.

To give my OCD an outlet, I thought it was about time I jotted down in a rant some of the main reasons for my frustrations with the world.

Just plain wrong

Many people not only make mistakes with their word choices, but are inclined to rebuke others for pulling them up on it, saying that it really doesn’t matter, and that English is a ‘living language’ and should be flexible. They are wrong. English may well be a living language, but if you are content to use the wrong word you are simply broadcasting the fact that you are dumb, that you care little for communicating clearly and care still less for the watering down of a language as rich as English.

Here are just a few of the words that people seem to find it hard to get right:

fewer vs. less – If you can count them, it should be ‘fewer’. As in ‘I have fewer coins in my pocket, so I have less money than you do’.

random vs. strange – The adjective ‘random’ has entered common parlance in recent year to mean strange, bizarre, amusing, surprising, shocking, hilarious, unusual, and a plethora of other meanings. Once in a while, it is used to mean random. The word in fact means ‘made, done, or happening without method or conscious decision’, as in ‘an apparently random act of generosity took place’. It is sheer laziness to use the word ‘random’ when one in fact means that something was really strange. Stop doing it.

dependant vs. dependent – If someone relies on you for financial support, they are a dependant, as in ‘a single man with no dependants‘. Dependent means contingent on, conditional on, based on, depending on. Independent is a word meaning ‘separate and free from outside control; not subject to another’s authority’ . Independant is not even a word. Spell it correctly.

principal vs. principle – One is a person, or sometimes a main element of a grouping. The other is a fundamental truth or proposition that serves as the foundation for a system of belief. As in ‘We have principles at our college, and insist on employing only the highest qualified principals‘.

stationery vs. stationary – This is close to my heart, as we often deal with designing and printing a client’s stationery for them. The adjective stationary means not moving. It is not the collective noun for paper and pens. That would be stationery. Use the right word.

discreet vs. discreteDiscrete means separated from everything else, whilst discreet means tactful and prudent in one’s speech or actions, perhaps to keep something confidential or to avoid embarrassment. I remember this by thinking of the Greek island of Crete, which is separated from all the other islands, hence discrete.

loose vs. lose – A strange one this, and somehow counter-intuitive. Loose is an adjective and means untied or free to move about, whilst lose is a verb, and is pronounced as though it should be the one with more ‘o’s in it. It means to misplace or cease to know the whereabouts of, or to fail to win, as in ‘I lose my rag when people use the wrong words’ and ‘I seem to lose every game of poker I play’.

compliment vs. complement – Both of these can be verbs or nouns. You can give someone praise by paying them a compliment, and you can be complimentary about someone in just the same way. However, a complement is something that adds extra features to something else, as in ‘Pepper is the perfect complement to fried eggs’ or ‘Pepper is very complementary to fried eggs’ (i.e. it adds something to the eating experience; it doesn’t praise them!).

complimentary vs. complementary – The word ‘complimentary’ can also mean FREE, as in ‘we were given complimentary tickets’. But complementary tickets would not necessarily be free (instead, they are adding some extra feature(s) to something, as in ‘The tickets were complementary to the pack of hospitality paperwork we received’. An unlikely example, but you get the point.

practice vs. practise – A simple rule can help you with this one: If it’s a verb, it’s the ‘s’ version: if it’s a noun, it’s the ‘c’ version. The way I remember this is that the letter v from ‘verb’ is later in the alphabet than the letter from ‘noun’, so it refers to the letter s from ‘practise‘, which is later in the alphabet than the letter c from ‘practice. As in ‘Practise makes perfect at this dental practice‘. (Incidentally, the same rule can be applied to licence and license, even though most US software manufacturers insist on referring to their licences incorrectly as ‘licenses’!)

affect vs. effect – Lots of confusion with this one. The chief guideline to bear in mind is that affect is a verb, whilst effect is a noun (usually). As in ‘The alcohol was affecting my ability to talk, which is the usual effect it has on me’. On occasion, effect can be a verb too, meaning to cause something to happen, as in ‘the prime minister effected many policy changes’.

lackadaisical vs. lacksadaisical – The adjective ‘lackadaisical‘ means lacking enthusiasm or without care, as in ‘He was lackadaisical with his revision, and so failed all his exams’. The word ‘lacksadaisical’ doesn’t exist. What people sometimes get confused by is where the adjective ‘lax’ might be relevant (meaning lacking in care, negligent or slipshod), and they appear to combine the two words and end up with the muddled ‘lacksadaisical‘… which is nonsense and an indication that you aren’t as bright as you think.

Incorrect punctuation can cause incorrect meanings

Beyond using the correct words, punctuation is also vital in giving a reader an idea of the pace and timing the writer had intended to add to the delivery of their message. Used correctly, punctuation signposts the way for a reader, and offers appropriate breathing stops and rests along the way. Used incorrectly, punctuation can trip a reader up, confusing them and obscuring the meaning of something written.

It can also change the meaning of something entirely.

You may already be familiar with the joke about the panda who goes into a restaurant and orders a sandwich, then draws a pistol and shoots the waiter before getting up and walking towards the exit. When the restaurant owner shouts to stop him and ask for an explanation, the panda simply shouts back that he is a panda, and tells the restauranteur to go and look it up. When the restaurant owner checks his dictionary, he finds that the entry for ‘panda’ reads: ‘A tree-dwelling marsupial of Asian origin, characterised by distinct black and white colouring. Eats shoots and leaves.’ Clearly, the panda has been interpreting the dictionary definition incorrectly, adding his own comma in his head and mistakenly believing he is innately bound to shoot his gun and exit having eaten something.

In a similar vein, the phrase ‘Charles the first walked and talked 10 minutes after his head was cut off’ is something I recall my mother telling me to emphasise the importance of punctuation. It is patently untrue, yet with the right punctuation, the same words create a phrase that is entirely plausible – ‘Charles the first walked and talked. 10 minutes after, his head was cut off’.

Punctuation. Never under estimate its usefulness.

That pesky apostrophe

Many of people’s common mistakes centre about the good old apostrophe, and the confusion felt over when to use one and when not to.

By and large, an apostrophe shows possession or a contraction. As in ‘This is David’s [possession] blog post and it’s [contraction of ‘it is’] being read by you now’. But there are one or two oddities that trip many of us up, generally because the reference to possession isn’t the one with the apostrophe…

whose vs. who’s – In this instance, whose refers to possession, and who’s is a contraction of ‘who is’. As in ‘The door swung back and once again hit Pete, whose scream was louder than when it happened before’.

your vs. you’re – Simple. You’re is a contraction of ‘you are’. Your isn’t, and instead refers to possession. As in ‘Get this distinction into your heads’.

it’s vs. its – This is the BIG one, seen the most often and where the ‘possession’ rule appears to lead people down the wrong path again. It’s is a contraction of ‘it is’, whilst its refers to possession. As in ‘It’s a clever dog that uses its paws to open doors’. The way to remember this is quite simply: can you replace what you are trying to say with the term ‘it is’ without it sounding stupid? If you can, feel free to use the contraction it’s. If you can’t, it is the possessive and you should use its.

their vs. they’re vs. there – Do I really need to explain these? Use them properly, people.

Rant over…

I know many people will not thank me for my pedantry and my holier-than-thou attitude to grammar and its finer points. But believe me, the examples on this page are just the tip of the iceberg and I could have gone on for longer. For those who actually recognise the value of communicating well, I hope this post has been of interest and use to you. Feel free to call me on 01934 820854 or email me at if you want me to go on longer!