At the British Council we feel that the word native speaker is a bit old-timey and problematic. It suggests that simply because someone was born in an English- speaking country they will automatically be much better at English than someone who has intensely studied the language over many years. The term ‘expert user of English’ is far more accurate. Someone is either an expert user or not and it doesn’t matter where they were born. However to underline the fact that English native speakers can mess up a great deal in their own language, we are going to show you a bunch of words that are constantly misused in English. We have already talked about the classics like they’re, their, there and two, too and to, but this time we would like to take this to a much higher level of sophistication.
The Past tense of Lay vs Lie
Lie and Lay are connected by the fact that they both reflect the idea of putting something down. Their main difference LIES in the fact that ‘lie’ is intransitive, meaning that it cannot take an object and ‘lay’ is transitive and does take an object.
Quick grammar review – An object is the part of a sentence that is being affected by the verb. John hit the ball. – ‘the ball’ is the object. John slept. – ‘sleep’ cannot have an object.
The pen is lying on the table. (no object)
He lay the papers on the table. (the papers in this sentence represent the ‘object’)
Part of the trickiness is connected to the past simple and participle forms.
Yesterday he lay on the sofa. He has lain on the sofa and thinks it’s very comfortable.
Yesterday he laid the books on the table. He has laid the books somewhere and can’t find them.
- When ‘lie’ means ‘to say something which in NOT true’ it becomes a regular verb. LIED / LIED
There is a common belief that irregardless is NOT even a word and can’t be a word because of its weird double negative status: IR- and –less. Its meaning is simply a synonym of ‘regardless’ meaning without care, concern or warning. It is recognised by the Oxford English Dictionary as a non-standard word but it is indeed a word, albeit a bit awkward.
Irregardless of how you may feel about him, Justin Timberlake sells a lot of concert tickets.
Less and Fewer
Here is an example of time taking its toll on a language and meaning being affected by misuse and the misuse becoming the accepted norm. A long time ago the word ‘incredible’ meant, quite literally – not to be believed, actually NOT credible. But over time this word has come to mean simply ‘amazing’ or ‘brilliant’. Poor usage has become the dictate of how this word actually came to be used in a new reality as it were.
The same thing is happening with ’less’ and ‘fewer’. For ages the rule had been simple:
- Less is used with uncountable nouns
- Fewer is used with countable nouns
Both words are the opposite of ‘more’.
I have fewer friends and less time than I have ever had in my life.
In the world of prescriptive grammar those are the rules and that is how these two words are correctly used. The problem is reality. Supermarkets display signs suggesting. “This line is for 10 items or less”. More and more people are using it incorrectly and linguists believe that in a relatively short time fewer may disappear completely from the English language.
Unused / Disused
These words are not synonyms! ‘Dis’ is very often used as a prefix to mean ‘not anymore’. Beware, although this is often the case it is not always the case. In this example it serves that very purpose. Something that was ‘unused’ has NEVER been used. Something that is ‘disused’ has fallen out of use or is not being used anymore.
The course book I received was unused.
They held their practice in a disused factory.
Everyday / Every day
Here is another pair of words that are constantly confused by people and the rule is relatively simple. ‘Everyday’ is an adjective meaning daily, ordinary or standard – I don’t use public transportation in everyday life.
‘Every day’ means Monday – Sunday, each and every day.
Every day I go to my grandmother’s for dinner and she gives me great advice for everyday problems like waking up early and how to prepare for exams.
So there you have a small taste of some of the slightly more sophisticated types of mistakes even the most proficient users of English will make. I guess every language has its sticky points that cause problems for people. What about your language? Is there something in particular that you find people doing poorly and that needs to be constantly corrected? Let us know in the comment section.