Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Avoid three common mistakes in English

I never wanted to be an English teacher. My interest in the English language is as a reader, writer, editor and translator. But I am becoming increasingly irritated by a few common mistakes made by native speakers of English, so I thought I would use this blog to help clarify them.

1. When to use "... and I" and "... and me".

This is very easy and obvious once you know the principles behind the correct usage. People don't usually make mistakes when the sentence involves only "I" or only "me", but when it is combined with another personal pronoun (like "he and I") or a name ("Mark and I"), they no longer feel certain which to use. The easy tip is to try the sentence without the other person.

"I" marks the subject of the sentence, the person doing the action. "Me" is used when the action is done by someone else. The "I" or "me" should always go after the other person.

Here are some examples:
* My friends and I did our homework.
* The teacher gave my friends and me homework.
* Sarah and I went to the beach.
* Sarah's boyfriend came with her and me to the beach.

Sometimes I hear people trying to avoid this problem by using "myself" instead. This word should only be used in reflexive sentences like "I saw myself in the mirror", or "I bought myself a birthday present".

2. How to pronounce "processes".

I often hear people, particularly Americans, say "processes" as if its last syllable was "ease". The correct way to pronounce this word rhymes with "dresses". This mistake seems to have arisen from a false parallel to words of Greek origin ending with "...is", whose plural is "...es". The plural words "analyses", "theses", "hypotheses" and "synopses" are indeed correctly pronounced with the last syllable sounding like "ease". But as anyone can see, "process" does not end in "...is".

3. Data is a plural word!

I often see or hear phrases such as "the data shows...", using the word "data" as if it were singular. In fact, "data" is a Latin word, the plural of "datum" meaning given or fact. Some Latin and Greek words ending in "...um" have been given the English plural form (e.g., "museums" instead of the original "musea"), but datum seems to have avoided this fate, probably because the plural form was more commonly used. One way of remembering this is that "data" means facts, not information. Imagine a spreadsheet full of facts and figures. These are the "data".

I believe English speakers (and learners of English as a second language) who find that they make mistakes would do well to educate themselves. One resource for this is the podcast by Grammar Girl (also available on iTunes). Ignorance is not cool!

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