Top three mistakes made by native English speakers

In this post I’ll look at some common mistakes made by native English speakers.

Instead of making a long list, I’ve chosen three errors that are prevalent among my compatriots. (I’m British, so this is aimed at the Brits.) Before anyone starts ranting “Grammar police!”, let me just tell you that I’m an English teacher and am doing this to make my own students feel better about themselves. I’m sure they’ll be delighted to read this.

So, here goes. My top three mistakes made by native speakers are:

Number of, amount of

Native speakers don’t generally have problems differentiating between countable and uncountable nouns. They can quite easily use how much, how many, a few and a little, for instance. However, when it comes to the amount of, all grammar seems to go out of the window.

The common mistake is:

The amount of people he knows is unbelievable.

People, of course, can be counted. We should therefore say:

The number of people he knows is unbelievable.

The same would apply to the amount of cars or the amount of times. Make it the number of cars and the number of times.

Sitting, sat

When I was about twelve I had an English teacher at Ainthorpe Junior High called Mr Thomas. He was a lovely guy and a fantastic teacher. I always remember him pointing out the sitting-sat grammar howler to us. He told us that it was one of his pet hates. Taffy, as we called him, put us right on quite a few other things as well, as I’m sure my classmates Chris Bailey and co. would testify.

The mistake:

I was sat in the chair.

Now, unless someone picked you up and physically dropped you into your seat, you were not sat there, you were sitting. Only little kids are sat in chairs (by their parents). The correct thing to say is therefore:

I was sitting in the chair.

Lay, lie

This is a simple case of using the wrong verb. The problem seems to be in both the present and past tense.

When someone says “I was laying on the sofa” we could be forgiven for thinking that he was trying to produce his own eggs, because that’s what he has just implied. What the speaker should have said was, “I was lying on the sofa.”

Admittedly the verbs lie and lay are difficult to use, probably because of the similarity of their past simple and past participle forms:

Infinitive Past simple Past participle
lie lay lain
lay laid laid

 

My conclusion

Aside from English people laying eggs on their sofas, the strangest thing is that very few, if any, of my intermediate students would ever make these mistakes. But many native speakers do. (That should make my students feel good.)

I’ll look at some other common errors in future posts. Please leave a comment below if you have any ‘favourites’ you’d like to share.

 

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Stuart is an English teacher and runs the Speakspeak website. He currently lives in Prague and has been teaching for over 20 years. See all posts by Stuart

23 Comments

  1. Ky Nguyen - November 20, 2011, 3:57 am Reply

    Thanks Cook for your very informative and interesting point. It really helps non-native speaker like me. Keep it up 🙂

    • Stuart Cook - November 20, 2011, 7:40 pm Reply

      Thanks, Ky. Glad you liked the article.

  2. Jon Sumner - November 21, 2011, 3:34 pm Reply

    Hi Stuart,

    Interesting post. I’m also a British English teacher who loves good grammar, so let me suggest some more for you:

    Mistake: could of/should of/would of
    Correction could have/should have/would have

    Mistake: a whole nother!
    Correction: a whole other

    Mistake: there/their/they’re
    Correction: You know what I’m referring to!

    Mistake: its/it’s/its’
    Correction: apostrophes

    I enjoyed this post, thanks.

    Regards,
    Jon Sumner

    • Stuart Cook - November 22, 2011, 9:04 pm Reply

      Thanks for the suggestions, Jon. Yes, ‘would of’ is particularly common in Britain.

      • JAYSON - April 3, 2012, 3:23 pm Reply

        ‘I was sitting in the chair’

        should be ” i was sitting ON a chair.”

        • Stuart Cook - April 3, 2012, 3:35 pm Reply

          That depends on what type of chair it is, Jayson. I agree that ‘on a chair’ is correct for hard, small chairs. However, ‘in’ is correct when speaking about armchairs and bigger, softer chairs. The problem is that in English we are not always specific when speaking about objects, chairs being a good example: we would often just say ‘chair’, even when referring to an armchair.

  3. john sugden - December 1, 2011, 8:43 pm Reply

    Stuart, It is splendid seeing some old boys going on to appreciate good English. And to find you had my old teacher too! Mr. Thomas was a huge inspiration to me; encouraging me to be a writer. Best wishes, John

    • Stuart Cook - December 2, 2011, 8:54 pm Reply

      Always nice to hear from old Ainthorpe pupils, John. I’ll dare say there are many more out there with fond memories of Mr Thomas.

  4. Rajesh Anaclate - December 2, 2011, 6:39 pm Reply

    Thank you Stuart for pointing out the mistakes made by native speakers.This give us,non native speakers, confidence to use English with confidence

    • Stuart Cook - December 2, 2011, 8:50 pm Reply

      As Jon pointed out in his message above, there are plenty more mistakes you might hear native speakers make. Thanks for the feedback, Rajesh.

  5. satheesh nair - December 30, 2011, 9:18 am Reply

    Thanks stuart, this is really interesting. we as non native speakers do think that native speakers are perfect in grammer. look forward to hear the helpful corrections from your end.

  6. Adriano Gilbert Jeanneton - January 3, 2012, 9:18 am Reply

    Thanks Stuart for your interesting course. I am beginner in studying English Grammar. Actually, I checked your site on a daily basis. Hope, I did not make any mistake for in writing these few sentences.

    • Stuart Cook - January 3, 2012, 10:58 am Reply

      Thanks, Adriano. I’m glad the site helps you with your English studies.

  7. jj - November 19, 2014, 12:59 am Reply

    ‘I’m British, so this is aimed at the Brits’

    Is it ‘ at the Brits’ or ‘at Brits’ ? Is it specific or particular there? What is the difference between ‘ 30 Things British People Say’ and ’30 Things the British People Say’? I know it is specific when we say ‘ the British’ .

    Thanks and I really appreciate…

    • Stuart Cook - November 24, 2014, 12:37 pm Reply

      Hi, JJ

      There’s no difference in the context that I used it – ‘the Brits’ and ‘Brits’ have the same meaning. However, there is a difference sometimes, for example when speaking about a national team in sport:

      The British did very well in the Olympics. ‘British did very well’ would be wrong here.

  8. mateusz - December 5, 2014, 5:18 am Reply

    Hallo, I’d like to point out how common so called ‘text English’ has become especially among young Brits. The use of text language make Brits forget how to spell simple English words, examples are: nite in place of night, apaz in place of apparently. I’m a foreigner living in England and have better English than many native speakers.

  9. Sanja - December 6, 2014, 4:46 am Reply

    I have to admit that I am shocked by the lack of basic language skills among many native English speakers. I noticed this phenomenon as soon as I started using Internet, 15 years ago, and I keep noticing it on a daily basis. I’m not talking about colloquial speech, shorthands and abbreviations, or slang; I’m talking about obvious spelling and grammar mistakes. Just open any random Facebook account of any native English speaker from any country. Since I’m very curious about this phenomenon, I performed an extensive test; I used Facebook because it lets you see people’s names, ages, where they were born and where they live now, and often the education as well. I checked hundreds of accounts of random people from USA, Canada, UK, Ireland, Australia and New Zealand. Whenever I look, I see atrocious writing skills. When I see someone use correct “you’re”, it’s a miracle. Some of the mistakes I see are unbelievable. The sad part is that some of those people have a university diploma. Many of them travel a lot, have good jobs, and I can tell they’re not stupid by their comments. Yet, they keep writing “could OF”, misspell common words, misplace apostrophes and don’t know the difference between “there”, “their” and “they’re”, “to” and “too”, or “you’re” and “your”. How did so many people go through school and didn’t learn those things? How can illiteracy be so rampant in such highly developed countries?

    • Stuart Cook - December 7, 2014, 10:29 pm Reply

      I feel the same way, Sanja; it’s quite shocking.

      I wonder if these people would choose the correct answers in a multiple-choice grammar quiz.
      I’m pretty sure that they know the difference between there and their. And in that case, it means that they simply don’t care about maintaining standards.

    • Dominic - October 26, 2016, 11:24 pm Reply

      How did so many people go through school and didn’t learn those things?

      WRONG

      How did so many people go through school and not learn those things?

      I agree with you about the things you have mentioned about the apostrophes.

      I think the first mistake about the amount of people is a bit overly pedantic. If people choose to express themselves with one word instead of another why not just let them instead of being so fussy about grammar rules? Perhaps the say the word amount instead of number because it sounds better.

  10. Artur - December 21, 2014, 7:28 pm Reply

    It is hmmm reassuring, reading about the most common mistakes made by native speakers. I would say, ‘I was sitting in the chair’ as in my native language we ALWAYS say ‘to sit on a chair’ (I am a Pole). every time I use an English phrase that sounds similar to Polish I am afraid I am making a mistake. when the phrase I use is in same way different from Polish I feel I have managed to avoid making a mistake. But this approach is probably sometimes misleading. Anyway, it would never occur to me to say ‘I was sat in the chair’ except of course for some unusual situations.
    But I would like to ask a question. Once, in a conversation with some native speakers of English I used the phrase ‘peals of laughter’. They were clearly surprised to hear me use the phrase which, in their opinion, does not exist in English. They insisted there is no such an expression in English. I, they suggested, probably wanted to say ‘fits of laughter’. But I refused to give in! I am convinced, I answered, that I must have encountered this prhase in one of the original English books that I had read. So, who was right? does the expression ‘peals of laughter’ exist in English?

    • Stuart Cook - December 28, 2014, 9:26 am Reply

      Hello, Artur
      Thanks for your comment. Yes, peals of laughter definitely exists in English. It’s not used so often, particularly informally – so that maybe explains the reaction you got. I’m surprised the native speakers hadn’t heard of it, though.

    • Sanja - October 31, 2016, 4:36 pm Reply

      Thank you for that correction, Dominic. I’m not a native English speaker and my process of learning never stops. In fact, while reading this comment I wrote two years ago, I found a few mistakes and things I would say differently now. But let me correct you too: it should be “number of people”, not “amount of people”, because “people” is a countable noun 🙂

      My point was that native speakers should be perfect, and we non-native speakers keep learning and improving. But it’s quite disheartening to start communicating with native speakers after you learn English as a foreign language and then see that they don’t know or don’t apply even the most basic grammar rules.

  11. Anonymous - December 3, 2015, 2:59 pm Reply

    Thank you Mr. Stuart. I am an Indian teacher of English. I have had 27 years’ teaching experience of which seven years were abroad–Oman and the U.A.E. I love “pure grammar.” It’s my passion. Really, I have enjoyed your comments on some weird English used by a few native speakers of English. I hope they remain “the only few.” Thanks

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