Pet Peeves in Grammar and Usage


Here is a potpourri of pet peeves that readers sent me when I was writing a grammar column.

  1. Using hopefully to mean “it is hoped” or “I hope” as in “Hopefully, the burglars will get caught.” Some grammarians and others argue that this usage is incorrect because hopefully means “full of hope” and doesn’t make sense when used this way. Will the burglars be full of hope when they are caught? Other grammarians—probably a majority—argue that hopefully is a sentence adverb and is perfectly acceptable. Some other sentence adverbs are fortunately, happily, and sadly. Few would object to “Fortunately, the burglars were caught.” If you use hopefully in the sense of “it is hoped,” be aware that some will think you’re making an error. On the other hand, some actual errors are so widespread that if you don’t make them, many will think you are making an error.
  2. Confusing lie and lay. Here are examples of their correct use: lie—Today I lie on the sofa. Yesterday I lay on the sofa. I have lain on the sofa for hours. Lay—Today I lay the cat on the sofa. Yesterday I laid the cat on the sofa. I have repeatedly laid the cat on the sofa. The confusion is so common that one wonders whether the distinction should be preserved.
  3. Mispronouncing etc. (et cetera) as ex cetera. This is a very common mispronunciation, which is not surprising considering that these days even scholars don’t necessarily know much Latin. Determine whether you have a tendency to make this mispronunciation, and if you do, say “and so forth” instead.
  4. Confusing the abbreviations e.g. and i.e. More Latin! The abbreviation e.g. stands for the Latin exempli gratia, which means “for example.” Here’s an example of how it is used: “John always bought his wife expensive gifts, e.g., a diamond necklace and a purebred Irish wolfhound.” The abbreviation i.e. stands for the Latin id est, which means “that is” (literally, “it is”) and is used to clarify or expand on a previous word or statement. “John’s wife disposed of one gift, i.e., she poisoned the Irish wolfhound.” If you can’t keep these abbreviations straight, you can always use the English translations.
  5. Using literally to mean “figuratively” as in “The dog literally ate us out of house and home.” Literally, which means “exactly as described; in a literal way” (or literally, “by the letter”) has long been used as a simple intensifier of statements that are already exaggerations. I suspect literally is being overused, and it’s the overuse that is causing consternation.
  6. Using the wordy expression at this point in time for “now.” This drives me crazy, too. The same people who have turned this phrase into a grating cliché have recently been replacing finally with “at the end of the day.” All we can do is roll our eyes.
  7. Using orientate for orient as in “He stood for a minute to orientate himself in the new surroundings.” Orientate is a verb formed from the noun orientation by removing the suffix –tion. This is called a back-formation. Some other back-formations are adulate from adulation, babysit from babysitter, and greed from greedy (originally the noun was greediness). The formation of new words in this way is a normal process, although it takes time for a back-formation to become accepted. By now orientate is an acceptable variant of orient, but it’s more common in the British English.
  8. Confusing farther and further. Some authorities consider these adverbs interchangeable except that only further can mean “moreover” or “in addition to”: “Harold stated further that he was too busy to attend the meeting.” Others reserve farther for actual physical distance—How much farther do we have to travel—and “further” for metaphorical distance—How much further can we belabour this issue?
  9. Using the redundant why as in “The reason why Colbart became a fitness instructor is increasingly unclear.” This usage has been denounced by some authorities and defended by others. One usage manual points out that reputable writers have used this construction since the Renaissance. I prefer to avoid it, although I don’t always succeed.
  10. Saying the exact same, as in “You keep making the exact same error.” This is acceptable colloquial usage, but it sounds wrong to anybody with a passing knowledge of adverbs. It should be exactly the same.
  11. Saying bored of, as in “I’m bored of having my grammar corrected.” I first noticed this usage many years ago when my kids started saying it. By now it’s very common usage and an understandable one considering tired of and sick of.
  12. Saying one of the only, as in “She’s one of the only women I know who eats slugs.” As an adjective, only always refers to just one thing or person—an only child, the only one—and can’t logically modify the plural women. The sentence should read, “She’s one of the few women I know who eats slugs.” In fact, of course, she’s probably the only woman who eats slugs.
  13. Confusing its and it’s, as in “Its a shame that the cat broke it’s tail.” Remember that its is the possessive pronoun, and it’s is a contraction of “it is.” The sentence should be “It’s a shame that the cat broke its tail.”

Also using an apostrophe in simple plurals (this is known as the greengrocer’s apostrophe): Apple’s for sale; Open Tuesday’s, Wednesday’s, and Friday’s. The apostrophe is the curse of the English-speaking world, and one reader has reasonably suggested that in time it’s bound to disappear. For now, never use the apostrophe in plural nouns unless the noun is possessive: one dog, two dogs; one dog’s bone, two dogs’ bones. There is actually a Society for the Protection of the Apostrophe. It’s in England, of course.

  1. Saying the reason being, as in “I don’t like slugs, the reason being that they make me choke.” Much better is “I don’t like slugs because they make me choke.” Sometimes you hear a redundant is: “…the reason being is that they make me choke.” But there is a problem with “because” clauses after negative main clauses. The meaning is ambiguous: “I don’t like slugs because they make me choke” may be stating the actual reason for my not eating slugs or some reason other than their making me choke.
  2. Saying I seen instead of I saw. Using “seen” as the past tense of “see” is an example of non-standard English. Correct usage reflects social norms, of course, and if those who use “seen” as the past tense of “see” had political and economic power, it would be considered correct.
  3. Saying in regards to as in “In regards to your grammar rules, I couldn’t care less.” It should be “In regard to…” with no s. One may say “As regards your grammar rules…” or “give my regards to Broadway,” but one shouldn’t say “in regards” to anything.
  4. mispronouncing nuclear as noocyular. This mispronunciation may be grating, but it is apparently not an impediment to achieving high elected office in the U.S.
  5. Leaving out from in graduated as in “She graduated high school with honours.” Standard English requires from: “She graduated from high school.” In fact, this usage is relatively recent. Before the early 19th century, only the passive was considered correct: “She was graduated from high school.” The active voice emphasizes the accomplishment of the graduate. The use of graduate in this sense without from is common in some American dialects, but it should be avoided.
  6. Leaving out of in couple as in “I bought a couple packs of cigarettes.” I am not sure where this originated, but it’s probably most common among those who are too young to buy cigarettes.
  7. Using presently to mean “at this time” as in “We are presently out of cash.” Those who object strongly to this usage will be surprised to learn that it was common before the 17th century. At one time presently also meant “immediately.” If you’re inclined to be conservative regarding matters since the 17th century, use presently to mean only “in a short time.”
  8. Using dilemma as a synonym of “problem” or “difficult choice.” Technically, a dilemma is a choice between two options that are equally bad. Whether to drink the poison and die or refuse and be stoned to death is a dilemma. Whether to stick to my New Year’s resolution or have another donut is a difficult choice.
  9. Saying “there is” when it should be “there are”: “There’s four elephants coming down the street.” Plural subjects require plural verbs, and in sentences that begin with there is or there are, the subject follows. There are four elephants coming down the street = Four elephants are coming down the street.
  10. Using loan as a verb: “Can you loan me five dollars?” Actually, loan as a verb is a well-established Americanism and is considered an error only in British usage and among English speakers who defer to the British. But even in non-British usage, loan doesn’t sound right in figurative expressions: “Friends, Romans, countrymen, loan me you ears.”
  11. Using since to mean “because”: “Since you can’t come to the party, we’re cancelling it.” Using since with this meaning is not an error, but you have to be careful. Because since also has a temporal meaning—I’ve been here since yesterday—using it instead of because can cause ambiguity: “Since I’ve been in jail, I haven’t read the book” can mean either that I haven’t read the book while I’ve been in jail or that I haven’t read it because I’ve been in jail.
  12. Using none with a plural verb: “None of the voters are registered.” It is an abiding myth that the indefinite pronoun none must take a singular verb. The myth’s adherents insist that since etymologically none means “no one,” it must be singular. But despite its origin, the sense of none is often “not any.” In fact, depending on your intended meaning, none can be either singular or plural. “None (not one) of the voters is registered” or “None (not any) of the voters are registered” are equally acceptable. But add almost, and the plural is required: “Almost none of the voters are registered.”
  13. Using “went” instead of “gone” in the perfect tenses: “I should have went to the seminar.” All verbs have three principle parts: present, past, and past participle (used with the auxiliary verbs have and had) For example, walk (Today I walk) walked (Yesterday I walked), walked (I have often walked). For regular verbs such as walk, the past and past participle are the same; for irregular verbs, they’re different: go, went, gone; swim, swam, swum; run, ran, run. I went to the seminar. You should have gone to the seminar.
  14. Using (cringe!) double negatives: I could not hardly see what the teacher was writing on the blackboard. Words such as hardly, scarcely, barely are negatives and can’t be used with not.
  15. Using a redundant is: The reason is is that no one knows what redundant means. I have never actually heard this, but I’m told that people are doing it. You know who you are. Stop it!
  16. Using tons to mean “many”: There were tons of people at the party. I’m not actually so disturbed by this sort of colloquialism. True, it’s hard to imagine the Queen saying it. If you’re interested in projecting a certain gravitas, avoid using tons in this sense.
  17. Using dangling and misplaced modifiers: “Lying in the gutter, I found my wallet.” Unless you were actually lying in the gutter, the sentence should be :I found my wallet lying in the gutter.
  18. Using plural pronouns to refer to singular antecedents: Sears stands behind their merchandise. Sears might end in s, but it’s still just one company, so it should be “Sears stands behind its merchandise.”
  19. Saying between you and I. It should be between you and me because between is a preposition (like about, for, to, with, etc.) and requires the object case pronoun. The “error” is so common that it may soon be acceptable usage.
  20. Using irregardless for regardless. It’s not quite true to say that there is no such word as “irregardless.” It appears in dictionaries, but it’s labelled non-standard. According to the American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, irregardless is probably a blend of irrespective and regardless.
  21. Using verbs (sometimes making them up) that end in –ize such as finalize, optimize, strategize. This is a tough one. However aesthetically unpleasing many of us find the sound of these verbs (and there’s no accounting for taste), English produces them naturally. Few would object to realize or moralize. What we dislike is the overuse of such verbs in a context of jargon-laden prose: “A good CEO strategizes ways to incentivize staff to maximize their impactfulness customer relations-wise.” Anyone who writes or speaks this way deserves to be vaporized.
  22. Confusing immigrate and emigrate. One immigrates to a country and emigrates from one. From our point of view, an Italian immigrates to Canada and emigrates (God knows why) from Italy.
  23. Using momentarily to mean “in a moment” as in “The plane will be landing momentarily.” Although the word is frequently used with this meaning, most authorities insist that it should be used only to mean “for a moment.”
  24. Mixing up pronoun cases: “Don invited Dan and I over to play chess.” Many who know that “Dan and I” is wrong in this sentence will say “Don invited Dan and myself over to play chess,” which is just as bad. When the personal pronoun I is the object of a verb—in this case invited—it becomes me. This is so common that by now probably only a few of us hear it as an error.
  25. Saying or writing “Like I said…” I suspect this is more common in American English than in Canadian English among teenagers. It should be “As I said…” Like can’t introduce a clause. In Standard English, one can’t say, “You look like you’ve been waiting for a long time.” Correct is “You look as if (or as though) you’ve been waiting for a long time.”
  26. Saying “I’m good” instead of “No thank you” or “I’ve had enough” when offered more of something. English has various levels of formality that are appropriate to various social relationships. To say “I’m good” when offered more wine at a formal dinner is certainly inappropriate. But using very formal language with a friend you’re watching a movie with is also inappropriate. In some contexts, “I’m good” for “No thank you” is an acceptable colloquialism.
  27. Using lady as a synonym for woman inappropriately: “The lady who spit on the sidewalk is disgusting.” Reserve lady for occasions that require formality and courtesy “Ladies and Gentlemen, welcome to the Annual Grammar Police Convention.” In informal situations, use woman. Never use lady as an adjective: a lady doctor. Using lady this way is considered offensive. Instead, say either “a woman doctor” or “a female doctor.”
  28. Writing (especially in a newspaper) “the accused killer.” The Associated Press Stylebook condemns this usage. Because a person is innocent until proven guilty, the correct phrase is “the person accused of the killing.”
  29. Writing “lead” instead of “led” as the past tense of “lead.” The rancher led (not lead) the horse to water. This is a common error, probably because “lead” (the metal) and “led” (past tense of lead) have the same pronunciation.
  30. The redundant expression enter in as in “Enter in your email address.” “Enter in” is not a phrasal verb. “Enter into” is a phrasal verb: “We entered into an agreement.” One may say “Enter your email address in the box provided.”
  31. Using the past tense instead of an irregular past participle as in “I have never drank more than six beers at a party.” It should be drunk, of course. Anybody who drinks six beers at a party can be forgiven for getting irregular participles wrong.
  32. Using who where whom is required: “Who did you go to the party with?” Actually, this use of who is perfectly acceptable in informal English. “Whom did you go to the party with” is correct but sounds very stuffy. Immediately after the preposition, most native speakers will use whom: “With whom did you go to the party,” but that also sounds stuffy. On the other hand, the title of Hemmingway’s novel For Whom the Bell Tolls sounds fine, at least to me.
  33. The use of outside of to denote a physical location: “He lives just outside of Ottawa.” The inclusion of “of” is wrong here. Similarly, the book fell off (not off of) the table.
  34. Tacking the suffix –wise onto words: “Grammarwise, the president has some serious problems.” The suffix –wise meaning “in the direction of” or “in the manner of” occurs in certain words such as clockwise. The use of the suffix to mean “in regard to” is fairly recent and occurs mostly in jargon-filled business writing: “Profitwise, it has been a good year.” Alternatives require more words: “When it comes to profit, it has been a good year.” This is one case where more words are better. Unless you are one who “managementwise, incentivizes associates to interface impactfully,” avoid using –wise this way.
  35. Using “nauseous” to mean “nauseated”: “Marion feels nauseous whenever she sees her credit card bill.” Nauseous means “nauseating.” It’s the credit card that is nauseous (or nauseating) because it makes Marion feel nauseated. If you feel nauseous, it means that you think you make others feel nauseated, which probably isn’t the case.
  36. Using criteria as a singular noun as in “We have just one criteria for a bartender: honesty.” The singular is “criterion.” Several words of Greek or Latin origin have their plurals in a: phenomenon—phenomena, medium—media, agendum—agenda. “Media” is slowly becoming accepted as a singular, and “agenda” is now completely accepted as a singular, but “criteria” is not.
  37. Confusing “flaunt” and “flout” as in “The greedy CEO flaunted ethical considerations.” A greedy CEO might flaunt (show off) the fancy clothes he has bought with his ill-gotten gains, but he flouted (contemptuously ignored) ethics to get them.
  38. The expression somewhat of a as in “Colbart is somewhat of a clown.” Colbart can be somewhat clownish or something of a clown, but not somewhat of an anything.
  39. Speaking like a teenager. This is like okay if you like are a teenager.
  40. Using “gotten” for “got” as in “Mort has gotten in trouble again.” In American English “gotten” is preferred. British English prefers “got.” Canadian English wavers between the two.
  41. Using “good” as an adverb as in “I did good on the test.” This usage immediately marks one as semi-literate. You do anything well, not good.
  42. Mispronouncing “mischievous” as though it had four syllables: mis-chie-vi-ous. It has only three syllables, and the accent is on the first syllable.
  43. Mispronouncing “espresso” as “expresso.” As the owner of a high-end espresso machine and lover of all things Italian, I also find this mispronunciation extremely annoying.
  44. Using apostrophes to make names plural: The Smith’s live here. One Smith—two Smiths.
  45. Saying “You know” all the time. I agree that all such verbal tics are annoying. I have run into people who are incapable of using an adjective without the tacking on the adverb “literally.” Actually, I have a tendency to overuse “actually.”
  46. Saying “I could care less.” Supposedly, this is an illogical scrambling of “I couldn’t care less,” meaning that I care so little that it would be impossible for me to care less. Having given it some thought, I’m no longer so sure. Said with the right intonation and visual cues (rolling the eyes, for example), “I could care less” may up the ante of sarcasm of the original. I can easily imagine a troublesome adolescent who has been told that he will flunk English saying, “Yeah, like I could care less.” The meaning would be clear.
  47. Forming a superlative adjective with both “most” and the suffix –est. On emerging from a tour of Westminster Abbey, my eight-year-old grandson exclaimed, “Westminster Abbey is the most boringest place on the planet.” I admit that the error sounds stronger than “most boring” but only in the mouth of an eight-year-old.
  48. The non-existent word “hisself” as in “He bought hisself a new car.” Any word people say exists, of course, but some words are non-standard (sub-standard is too judgmental). Even an educated speaker of standard English can get tripped up. The following appeared recently in a highbrow magazine: “…any artist in any media, who is trying to manifest a work of any import, must transform his or herself into, a la Henry James, ‘one upon whom nothing is wasted.’” It should be “him or herself.”
  49. The phrase “You may be rest assured” drives one reader crazy. Where does the “be” come from? I have no idea, but if I encountered this phrase very often, it would drive me crazy too.
  50. Using “normalcy” for “normality.” Actually, “normalcy” is perfectly acceptable. Especially in American English.
  51. Using the words “I mean” and “And stuff like that.” We know that you mean what you say. We don’t know what “stuff” you mean.
  52. “I feel badly.” This is a perennial pet peeve that I have mentioned many times. It may be such a widespread error that it’s approaching acceptability. But I doubt that those who say “I feel badly” would ever think of saying “I feel wonderfully.”
  53. Confusing “everyday” and “every day” as in “She wears her every day clothes to church.” Only the one-word version can be used as an adjective, so she wears everyday clothes. Every day means “each day.” If you can’t substitute “each day” and still make sense, use “everyday.”
  54. Using comprised of” to mean “composed of.” By now “comprised of” is so widely used that railing against it is like lamenting newfangled horseless carriages.
  55. The insulting epithet “grammar Nazi” as in “Only a grammar Nazi could care about dangling modifiers.” Okay, this is my pet peeve. “Nazi” is a much overused term of abuse. I prefer the term “grammar fussbudget.”

3 thoughts on “Pet Peeves in Grammar and Usage

  1. Alan,

    9: Where did you get the name “Colbart” that you use so often in this blog? Is it a sly reference to Stephen Colbert?

    11″ “bored of” …. It’s funny, Susan always says “I’m fed up of X”. Years of correcting her toward “fed up with” has met with only marginal success! (Tell me: is “fed up with” correct?)

    13: I have a t-shirt that says “Grampa’s rule”, and then lists 10 reasons why!

    16: “in regard to” … I always say “with regard to… ” Is that not OK? “As regards to” sounds horrible to me, but you say it is correct!?

    20: My former father-in-law (English) used “presently” in the way you decry, and he was an inspector of schools, so probably knew better than you!

    24: A reviewer of one of my manuscripts long ago changed my “since” to “because”, and I’ve never looked back since! (Hey, that last word was not planned, it just rolled out naturally!)

    26: I named my dog “5 miles”, so now I can say, “I walk 5 miles every day!”

    36: Thank you, Alan, I just learned something new today, and it’s not even mid-morning!

    I like your blog, Alan, but in future can you try to not have such brief posts? Gosh, only 68 items in this one!


  2. Quite the extensive list! I was happy to see some of my pet peeves addressed especially “orientate” which makes me crazy. How about the misuse of Greek plurals, such as in: This phenomena is widespread. Or: The criteria is very demanding.


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