Say it ain’t so: the top errors native English speakers make (and how to avoid them)

We all make mistakes.  Just because a native speaker says something doesn’t make it right. 

In a recent conversation, a client said, “I didn’t see nobody.”  When I corrected him, he was confused because this was how they said it in American movies.  A few days later, I got a text from another client who had seen a statement from Boris Johnson who said, “I have today left hospital.”

“Why did he use the present perfect?” she asked.  “It started and finished in the past and we know when it happened.  Why didn’t he use the past simple?  And why did he put today in between the two verbs?  That doesn’t sound right!”

She is correct.  Boris Johnson used the wrong tense.  The British Council explains it quite clearly:  you do not use the present perfect with a time reference for a finished action.

So, we can either say:

I have seen that film
or
I saw that film yesterday.

But we cannot say: I have seen that film yesterday.

As for putting the word today in the middle of the sentence? I really have no idea!

Both clients were surprised when I told them that native speakers of all languages make mistakes.

With that in mind, I’d like to look at the top three errors native English speakers make so you can avoid them.

I didn’t see nothing.

This is what we call a double negative, which is allowed in some languages but not in English.  Instead, you would say “I didn’t see anything” or “I saw nothing.”

Ain’t

To quote my 6th grade teacher Mrs Sanders: ain’t isn’t a word.  However, you hear it all the time.  Ain’t means is not, but it is not grammatically correct.  But, if it’s so wrong, why do we hear it so much?

There are two reasons: the first is because there is a lot of bad grammar out there.  The second is because it’s often used when being sarcastic or ironic.  Some examples:

Well, ain’t that just peachy? (Isn’t that great?)
That ain’t gonna happen (That isn’t going to happen.)
It ain’t over til it’s over  (They haven’t beat us yet.)
If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.  (Don’t change things if they are going OK.)

It’s OK to use ain’t once in a while if you are trying to be sarcastic or ironic.  However, you should never use it in a serious sentence like I ain’t done it yet.  This doesn’t sound ironic or sarcastic.  It sounds uneducated.

Me, myself and I

While these three words refer to one person (me), they are not interchangeable. Unfortunately, among native speakers, we are hearing the incorrect use of these pronouns more and more.  In fact, the reflexive pronoun myself has been misused so much that the Huffington Post, the Financial Times, and the New York Times, have all written articles about it.  In English-speaking countries around the world you will hear sentences like these:

Let myself or my colleague know if you would like to attend the meeting
or
Harry and myself will attend the meeting.

So why is this wrong?  Because reflexive pronouns (myself, herself, yourself) are used in the object of the sentence.  If that object is you, use the reflexive pronoun.  Let’s compare these two sentences; the underlined word is the object.

Mary worked hard this week. So, I decided to take her to the movies as a treat.  
I worked hard this week.  So, I decided to take myself to the movies as a treat.

You could also use it to show that you did something on your own.

Do you like my dress?  I made it myself.

But what if you’re not sure which pronoun to use? Which one of these sentences is correct?

Harry and myself will attend the meeting.
Harry and me will attend the meeting.
Harry and I will attend the meeting

Here’s a hint – take out the other person.

Harry and myself will attend the meeting.
Harry and me will attend the meeting.
Harry and I will attend the meeting.

The only one that makes sense is the last one: I will attend the meeting.

That’s with the pronoun in the subject.  What about when it’s in the object?

That belongs to Harry and myself.
That belongs to Harry and I.
That belongs to Harry and me.

Again, let’s take out the other person.  Now say each sentence.

That belongs to Harry and myself.
That belongs to Harry and I.
That belongs to Harry and me.

Of course, the only one that works is: That belongs to me.

I should have went  

In my native Maryland, I hear this all the time.  So, how do you know if you have the correct verb form in the sentence when using the modal perfect (would have, should have, could have)?  Easy!  Just take out the modal and check the sentence.

I should have went.
I should have went.

That’s not right.  What’s the past participle of go?  Gone!  I have gone is correct, so the modal perfect would be I should have gone. 

So, back to my clients’ questions.  The client who texted me about Boris Johnson’s statement asked, “Well if English speakers can’t get it right, how are we ever supposed to learn this language?”

All I can say is practice, ask a lot of questions, and take some satisfaction when you notice that an English speaker has gone astray.  Learn from their mistakes.

That’s all for this week.  Thanks for stopping by and stay safe wherever you are!

What challenges are you facing at the moment? Are you having trouble with a skill?  Or it’s a grammar point you’re struggling with?  Send me a message or write a comment below.  I’m sure others have that question, too!  And don’t forget to go to Marshallsay English and download my free guide Top Tips for Conference Calls.  Never worry about another conference call in English ever again.