7 Deadly Sins of English. Are You Guilty?

Posted by Tim Johnson

Errors will form a negative impression in the mind of the reader.

Using correct grammar, spelling and punctuation is paramount in any situation where you are required to write. Whoever reads what you have put down on paper or written digitally is going to form an opinion of you, which will be based not only on the subject matter but also on the way you present your words. Errors are likely to form a negative impression in the mind of the reader.

The majority of us from English-speaking countries went to school and were taught how to write and speak English correctly. However, not everyone managed to pick up all the peculiarities and nuances of the language. This results in a lot of people being blissfully unaware that there are errors in their written English. You could be one of these people or you may know someone who is in the habit of repeating the same mistakes. So, how do we find out about the 7 most common mistakes and learn how to correct them?

First, let’s take a look at probable situations where you would use writing to communicate. Some of these will be permanent recordings of your words, which you will never have a chance to correct. Scary!

Personal correspondence
Whether using paper, email or phone text, the recipient will be reading every word and, in the case of paper letters, may store your message for years. Don't send any love letters until you have read this article!

Social Media
Publish a post and all your friends and followers will see exactly what you have written! OMG! How long have you been using the wrong words? Now is your chance to cover your tracks and sneak the correct ones into your new posts.

Essays and articles
At school, college or in further education, using incorrect grammar could lose you valuable points and adversely affect your grades, which in turn may affect your employment prospects.

Job applications
It is critical your résumé or C.V. is perfect: spelling, punctuation and grammatical flaws will result in immediate rejection. Your credibility will go into the waste basket. No interview. No Job.

Book manuscripts
Whether writing for profit or to reach a global readership with a free ebook on obooko.com, thousands of people may read your book so don't rush to publish. You must edit, edit and edit again.

Blogs and websites
Yes, you can correct mistakes in your posts and articles with the Edit tool, but how will you know you have made any of these 7 errors?

Report writing
You've got the job and now you have to prepare articles and reports, which may be read by your colleagues, your boss and clients too. Don’t mess up on these important documents or promotion may be a long time coming.

Manager points out mistakes in report written by junior office worker.

There are of course many more instances where good writing will create the right impression. What you don’t want is to come across as lazy, uncaring or uneducated.  

Don’t rely on automatic spell-checkers in your word-processing software. While they are useful and may pick up a few obvious mistakes, they won’t catch them all. A spell-checker won’t work for anything you write with a pen on paper anyway. Take a look at these seven common mistakes. Do you recognize any of these words and phrases that you may be getting wrong? This is your chance to fix them forever. Test yourself by writing a few sentences containing these words until you start seeing and understanding the difference. Perhaps also print out this article and keep it as a cheat sheet.

So, what are these 7 words or phrases?

This is not a comprehensive list of all uses and tenses of each word; it is basic and designed to help you get the gist without any of the technical terminology that probably confused you at school. Here we go:

1. There, Their or They're?

There is a place or position away from your standpoint.
Their means belonging to or relating to 'them'.
They're is short for 'they are' (the apostrophe replaces the a).


Jack said he will enjoy living over there in Europe. (Europe is a place)
My parents took their dog to the vet. (the dog belongs to the parents)
My two sisters said they're going to the theatre tonight. (they are going to the theatre)

2. Your or You're?

Your belongs to, is possessed by or is connected with someone.
You're is short for 'you are' (the apostrophe replaces the a).


Don’t forget to take your phone with you when you leave. (the phone belongs to the person)
I have heard you’re going to be promoted next month. (you are going to be promoted)

3. Its and It's

Its belongs to something (not people)
It’s is short for 'it is' (the apostrophe replaces the i).


The car was left in the rain with its windows open. (the windows belong to the car)
The weather report suggests it’s going to rain today. (it is going to rain)

4. Of or Have?

This is a common mistake and often used in speech as well as in writing. Incorrect usage is probably the result of mishearing the correct words when we are younger and not being corrected. Of and have can sound similar when spoken quickly: could have, should have, would have may sound like could’ve, should’ve, would’ve … which in turn sound like could of, should of, would of. So don’t be too hard on yourself if you commit this one regularly. But make sure you fix it!

Of is the relationship between a part and a whole.
Have is a word with many different uses but basically means to own, hold, possess or make use of.


A piece of pie. The time of day. The title of a book. (the pie is the whole, the piece is a part of the whole. Day is the whole, time is the part. Book is the whole, title is the part.)
John could have had it all. She should have bought the house. I would have said that. (John's chance to possess it all. She was expected to own the house. A past opportunity to own or hold the words.)

Could of, should of and would of are incorrect. Sin no more: don’t say them or write them.

5. Whose or Who’s?

Whose is used in questions about which person owns or is responsible for something.
Who’s is short for 'who is', but may also be used for 'who has' (the apostrophe replaces the i, or ha).*


Whose books are these on the counter? (about ownership of the books)
Does anyone know Who’s going to Susan’s party tonight. (who is going)
Who’s given you permission to leave school early? (who has given permission)

*Make sure you get the context right for whichever version of who’s you use: once you have written your sentence read it as if it were in full as who is or who has to ensure it reads correctly.

6. To and Too

To is used to describe a destination, action or recipient.
Too is most commonly used to express more than desirable, possible, or permissible. And can mean also too.


I am going to catch the 16:45 train to London. (London is the destination)
Perhaps we should donate the books to the local Scout group. (the Scout group is the recipient)
I had to take off my jacket because the office was too warm. (the temperature was more than desirable)
I’m going to buy a new coat and may buy a handbag too. (may also buy a handbag)

7. Less and Fewer

Have you ever noticed signs at supermarket checkouts that state ‘10 items or less’? The signs are incorrect: they should state ‘10 items or fewer’. Here’s why:

Less means 'not as much' and refers to a commodity or material that is supplied in bulk rather than in units that can be counted individually, e.g. water, gas, oil, electricity, sugar, corn.
Fewer means 'not as many' and refers to items that can be counted individually as units, e.g. apples, cars, computers, books.
Note: when commodities are broken down into smaller units like gallons of oil, or bags of sugar, we would use fewer.


I am using less oil in my cooking than I did last year. (in this context oil is referred to in its bulk form)
I am buying fewer bottles of oil than I did last year. (oil is now broken down into units that be counted)
There are fewer people shopping on the high street these days. (people are counted individually)

Well, that wraps up the 7 deadly sins of English. There are many more of course but perhaps not as deadly as these. You’ll probably know someone who is guilty of committing one or two of these blunders. Should you wish however to remain friends don’t point out their mistakes. Instead, whenever you send them a message or post on social media, be sure to include sentences that contain the correct versions of the the words they are getting wrong. They’ll soon pick them up.

Finally, a note about combing ones teeth

A fine-toothed (or fine-tooth) comb is a comb with finely spaced teeth. This phrase is most commonly used as a metaphor for searching or examining carefully, as in the sentence "The detectives went over the room with a fine-toothed comb." Unfortunately, many people miss the fact that the words fine and tooth are hyphenated (the small dash used to connect words) and apply the connection to tooth and comb. So, we get fine tooth-comb or fine toothcomb. Teeth cannot be combed. This is another instance where a phrase has been misheard and not corrected.

Fine-Toothed Comb is correct. You may use fine-tooth comb but there is no such thing as a toothcomb.

Correction: although not the origin of the phrase in question, there IS such a thing as a tooth comb: it's a set of finely-spaced teeth in the lower jaw of some small mammals, like lemurs, used for grooming fur: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Toothcomb

Please do not attempt to comb your teeth with a Lemur.

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