Back in the noughties, I worked as a teacher of English as a second language. Being a foreign national made it trickier to find work, as many of the language schools in London had a policy of employing native teachers only.
But during the training, I’d realised that being a non-native had its advantages. Having grown up in a country in which grammar is taught as part of the primary school curriculum, I was very familiar with the basic notions of nouns, verbs, adjectives, etc – unlike the vast majority of the native trainees, who were coming across these concepts for the first time.
This didn’t come as a shock, as soon after moving to London, in ’94, I’d asked a friend’s 13-year-old daughter whether she studied grammar in school, and she’d looked totally bemused and asked: What’s grammar?
The teaching work was fun. London being such a multicultural city, the students came from all over the globe and their ages ranged from 16 to 64.
While teaching these lovely people English grammar and phonology, I learnt about their cultures: from Brazil to Japan, France, Poland, Azerbaijan, Nauru… I’d never even heard of Nauru!
Another advantage of being a non-native speaker is that it’s far easier to teach one’s second or third language than one’s first – for the simple reason that we would have had to learn the second or third language much more consciously than the first.
I once tried to teach Italian to a friend and I was surprised (and embarrassed) by the fact that I struggled to explain certain things regarding the syntactic structure of the language. I realised that no matter how linguistically aware, we all have a tendency to take our mother tongue for granted.
So we shouldn’t judge native English speakers too harshly for the errors they tend to make when writing and speaking in their language.
But we can kindly point out to them what they are:
1. Affect vs. Effect
‘Affect’ is a verb meaning ‘to have an impact’: The rightwing press affected the election results. Or ‘to upset’: His death affected her deeply.
‘Effect’ is a noun meaning ‘impact’, ‘outcome’: The food we eat has an effect on our health. – The weather has an effect on my mood (or: It affects my mood).
‘Effect’ is also a rarely used verb meaning ‘to bring about’, ‘to cause’.
Phonetic sameness is what effects the confusion.
2. Less vs. Fewer
‘Less’ and ‘fewer’ share the same meaning, but ‘less’ is used before uncountable nouns, such as ‘sugar’ or ‘money’: I consume less sugar than I used to. – He earns less money than you do. While ‘fewer’ is used before countable ones: Berlin has fewer inhabitants than London. – In order to pass the test, you will need to make fewer mistakes than that.
Fewer people than you’d expect are aware of or follow this rule.
3. Practice vs. Practise
In British English, ‘practice’ is the noun: – I haven’t had much practice lately. And ‘practise’ is the verb: She has been practising yoga for years.
In American English this differentiation does not exist: both the noun and the verb are spelt with a C.
4. It’s vs. Its
A very common mistake, often found even in reputable publications (though autocorrect can probably take a share of the blame there), is the confusion between ‘its’ and ‘it’s’.
‘Its’ (without the apostrophe) is a possessive pronoun: A country and its people. – The house and its contents. It is the equivalent of ‘his’ and ‘her’ for genderless nouns (things, places, ideas).
‘It’s’ (with the apostrophe) is the contracted form of ‘it is’: It’s a good idea. – It’s none of your business.
5. If I’d have vs. If I had
We hear this a lot: If I’d have known, I’d have come along. – i.e. If I would have known, I would have come along. This is a wrong construction of the so-called third conditional.
The correct version is: If I had known, I would have come along. Or in contracted form: If I’d known, I’d have come along.
6. You’re vs. Your
This is probably the most widespread grammatical mistake in the English language. The fact that the two are phonetically identical does not help.
‘Your’ is a possessive pronoun: Your sister is lovely. – I like your socks.
‘You’re’ is the contracted form of ‘you are’ – a personal pronoun followed by a verb: You’re so sweet. – You’re such a twat.
7. Should of vs. Should’ve
You should of told me! This is another common (and rather serious) grammatical error. ‘Of’ is a preposition, not a contracted verb.
Phonetics is to blame, as the words ‘have’ and ‘of’ share the same pronunciation when found between any two other words (the infamous schwa).
The correct version is: You should have told me. Or in contracted form: You should’ve told me.
The same, of course, applies to: ‘would of ‘ and ‘could of’.
8. Realise vs. Realize
Unless you’re choosing to write in American English, the correct spelling is ‘realise’. This applies to all verbs ending in ‘ise’: organise, generalise, memorise, etc, and their related nouns: organisation, realisation, and so on.
9. Went vs. Gone
This confusion seems to be rife among North Americans, who can often be heard saying things such as ‘We should have went’ rather than ‘We should have gone‘.
‘Went’ is the past tense of ‘go’: I went to the cinema last night. ‘Gone’ is the past participle and is used after the auxiliary verb ‘have’: I wish I had gone with you. Or as an adjective: He’s dead and gone.
10. They’re – Their – There
Yet another phonetic deception.
‘They’re’ is the contracted form of ‘they are’: They’re a lovely couple.
‘Their’ is a possessive pronoun: Their garden is bigger than ours.
And ‘there’ is the opposite of ‘here’.
11. Crises vs. Crisises
The plural of ‘crisis’ is not ‘crisises’ but ‘crises’ – the pronunciation changing from /’kraisis/ (crisis) to /’kraisi:z/ (crises).
The same applies to analysis/analyses, diagnosis/diagnoses, basis/bases, axis/axes, etc.
12. Program vs. Programme
Unless you’re referring to a computer programme, in which case the American English spelling ‘program’ is acceptable, the correct spelling in British English is ‘programme’.
With regard to American vs. British English spelling, the key is consistency: choose one or the other and stick to it!