When it comes to language, it is often the little aspects that can be confusing—and sometimes even embarrassing. Conversational American English, for example, tends to include items like slang, regional terms, and various culturally specific references that can make mastery difficult for non-native speakers. Yet for those individuals learning English as a second language, it might come as a surprise that there are certain aspects of English grammar that even native speakers break, intentionally and unintentionally.
It goes without saying that language changes along with the culture to which it belongs, so many of these broken rules of traditional grammar go unnoticed. In fact, there are times when using perfect, proper grammar might sound strange or even wrong to the ear simply because many people are not accustomed to hearing or seeing the proper usage of a word, phrase, or type of punctuation. These include:
1. Verb tenses
The proper use of verb tenses is an aspect of speaking and writing that most academics, professional writers, and grammar enthusiasts will notice if it is violated. In grammar, a tense refers to the time in which an action occurs. For instance, if you stated that you went to the store, the use of “went” tells us that this action already happened—past tense.
As you progress in learning a language, you will begin to master the use of tenses. However, where many people err is in using proper tenses throughout an entire narrative. For instance, “The instructor explained the concept, which made me think…” may sound correct, but it can be improved. “Explained” is in past tense, while “think” is in present. In this case, “which made me think” should become “and I thought,” because “thought” is in past tense. Switching tenses throughout a narrative can be confusing, but people do it frequently.
2. Your and you’re
Another common mistake for native and non-native speakers alike is the use of your and you’re; this happens more with writing than with speaking. These two words sound exactly the same, but a slight difference in spelling changes their meaning. “Your” is a possessive—something belongs to you (i.e. your computer or your iPhone). “You’re,” on the other hand, is a contracted form meaning “you are” (i.e. “You’re going to the store”).
3. There, their, and they’re
Like your and you’re, there, their, and they’re are words that sound the same but have different meanings. You are not likely to have trouble with these when speaking, but this is one grammar rule that even native speakers struggle with from time to time when writing.
“There” is used when referring to a place (“I am going over there”). It can also be used as a verb (“Will there be people?”). “Their” is a possessive, meaning that something belongs to someone else (i.e. their car or their house). Finally, “they’re” is a contracted form meaning “they are.”
4. Beginning with a conjunction
Conjunctions are words like “and,” “but,” “so,” “yet,” and so on. Most native speakers over a certain age were most likely taught that it is grammatically incorrect to start a sentence with a conjunction. According to some grammar guides, there is no reason for this. That makes this “rule” rather unclear. Depending on the circumstances, it may be absolutely acceptable or absolutely unacceptable to begin your sentence with words like “but” and “yet.”
5. Singular “they”
Technically, “they” is a plural pronoun that is used to refer to more than one person. For example, if you said, “They went to the store,” one would reasonably assume that you were referring to a group of people. However, in more recent years, “they” has been commonly used—in writing and in speaking—to refer to a single person.
According to the rules of proper English grammar, using “they” as a singular pronoun is incorrect. But in our modern parlance, the usage is becoming more widely accepted, particularly when referring to a person of indeterminate or unspecified gender. So, this is a case of an error that is sometimes intentional and increasingly acceptable—and thus not an error at all in many instances.
David White is a contributing writer for UniversityTutor.com, the world's largest global marketplace for finding independent tutors.