CAREER DEVELOPMENT / MAR. 05, 2014
version 3, draft 3

The 7 Grammar Mistakes You Don't Know You're Making

In the 1957 classic “12 Angry Men,” one of the jurors made his decision not on the evidence, but on the defendant’s grammar: “He’s a common, ignorant slob. He don’t even speak good English.” The irony is priceless. The juror judged the defendant based on grammar, and the audience judged the juror for the same reason.

It may be unfair, but it’s true. Bad grammar makes you sound unprofessional. No matter how brilliant you are, grammar mistakes plant a tiny bit of doubt in your colleagues’ minds, even if your job has nothing to do with writing. Polish your image by steering clear of these seven grammar mistakes.

Irony vs. coincidence

The only thing ironic about the Alanis Morissette song “Ironic” is that there’s not a single example of irony in it. The situations she sings about are coincidental, bad luck, or just plan frustrating. But they’re not ironic.

Irony requires a twist, like in “The Gift of the Magi,” by O. Henry, when Della sells her hair to buy a chain for Jim’s watch and Jim sells his watch to buy combs for Della’s hair. Picking up the phone to hear the voice of the friend you were going to call? Coincidence, not irony. Going to the store for a gallon of milk, only to buy ice cream and forget the milk? Frustrating, but not ironic. The juror from Twelve Angry Men saying “He don’t even speak good English”? Now that’s irony.

Nauseous vs. nauseated

Nauseous means causing nausea. If you feel like you’re going to throw up, you’re nauseated. If you say, “I’m nauseous,” you risk having a smarter coworker respond, “Yes…yes, you are.” And you wouldn’t even get the joke.

Bad vs. badly

I can’t tell you how many well-educated people I know who smugly say, “I feel so badly for her,” all proud of themselves for getting it right. But they’re wrong. When used like this, feel is a verb of being, which means it takes an adjective. So bad is the word you need. You don’t feel badly unless there’s something wrong with your sense of touch.

Irregardless

It’s not a word. The word you want is regardless. Simple.

Me vs. I

People have got it in their heads that I just sounds better, so they use it to be safe…even when it’s wrong. Mistakes usually happen when you add another person to the mix. Few people would say, “He gave it to I,” but an amazing number of people say, “He gave it to Bob and I.” Bob’s presence doesn’t change the word you need; stick with me.

 

Fewer vs. less

This one even trips up people who have otherwise impeccable grammar. Here’s the secret to getting it right: If you’re talking about something you can count individually, use fewer: “I have fewer apples than he does.” If you’re talking about something that’s measured as an overall quantity, use less: “My town got less snow than my friend’s town did.” You may have less money, but you have fewer dollars.

Amount vs. number

This one is similar to fewer and less. If you’re talking about something that you count individually, use number: "The number of people present shocked even the event coordinator." If you’re talking about something that’s measured collectively, use amount: “The amount of snow that fell broke a record that had been in place for 70 years.”

Don’t make the mistake of sounding dumb when you’re trying to sound smart. Memorize these grammar rules so that you’ll know what’s right instead of having to rely on what sounds right. Because what sounds right often isn’t.

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