Michael Eriksson
A Swede in Germany
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Language errors through lack of thinking


There is a particularly interesting family of language errors, namely those that seem to go back to a “blindness” caused by a lack of thought, by ignorance of the most basic rules and the most basic logic of the language, or similar.

This can, in a twist, be more common with native speakers: Firstly, they seem to usually receive a more shallow and/or much later grammatical instruction that second-language learners; secondly, their language learning is imitative to a higher degree, making it is easy for faulty patterns to become ingrained through unthinking imitation, often going back to childhood. (Also see an excursion on imitation.)

This page deals with a few cases of such errors.


I make no claim of being perfect. On the contrary, I make plenty of errors and am open about it. (Reasons include occasional ignorance as a non-native speaker, weird blind spots when proofreading, the sheer boringness of proofreading, and having written many texts after a long day in the office.) Even “errors through lack of thinking” occur, if more rarely with me than with many others. Still, a central point is that this type of error is more fundamental than e.g. not knowing what preposition goes where and far less arbitrary than the many conventions used by various writers/style-guides/whatnot.

Looking at my own texts, I also note that my understanding, the conventions that I use, etc., have changed over time and that my texts are not always consistent with each other or with themselves in newer and older versions. For instance, the current text has been revised to not use “people” to indicate humans, to not use “ironically” in the has-nothing-to-do-with-irony sense so common in the U.S, and to not use “may” to indicate a possibility (reserving the word for permissions). Of these, my original use of “ironically” was an example of my own “unthinking imitation” (cf. above), while the change in “may” reflects a change in personal conventions, aiming at a reduction of ambiguity. (I will discuss “people”, a somewhat larger topic, at a later date and in a separate text.)

Who vs. whom

Few modern users seem to have a grasp of when to use “who” and “whom”. Apart from those who consider “whom” superfluous and use “who” throughout (a valid opinion, but one I strongly disagree with), there seems to be at least the following problems:

  1. The belief that “whom” is a fancy “who”, leading to use of either through-out a text. (Note that this is different from the “superfluous” category.)

  2. Not realizing that a certain use requires “whom” (e.g. “Whom did I see you with?”).


    Is not “With whom did I see you?” better, through not ending with a preposition?

    Probably, but here I am not a stickler and, if nothing else, this would involve an error of a very different type from the those otherwise discussed here. As is, the example was chosen because (a) phrasings like “Who[m] did I see you with?” are common and (b) the risk of missing the “m” is larger than for “With who[m] did I see you?”, through the greater distance to the preposition.

  3. Over-correction, replacing many instance of a correct “who” with “whom”.


    A similar, but more common, example is the use of “you and I” where “you and me” is called for: Many seem to fall into the trap of imitation and use “you and me” in a blanket manner, e.g. in “you and me should go to the cinema”, while others are aware of the error involved and “correct” it to “you and I” even when not called for, e.g. in “I have tickets for you and I”. (An easy informal check is to try the same formulations with “we” resp. “us” instead: “we” implies “you and I”; “us” implies “you and me”. Clearly, “we should go to the cinema” and “I have tickets for us”.)

Below is a list of examples with an explanation of why “who” or “whom” is used. As can be seen, it is usually comparatively simple (barring errors out of carelessness—I make many myself, as I notice during every proof-reading):

Who knows you?Subjective case.
You know whom?Objective case.
I know whom you saw.Objective case. As with a few of the following examples, it can pay to mentally insert an extra comma: “I know, whom you saw.”
I know who saw you.Subjective case: “who” is not an object of “I know”, but the subject of “who saw you” (which as a whole is the object of “I know”).
Whom did I see you with?Preposition: This is just a re-ordering of “With whom did I see you?”.
I know who won.Subjective. Cf. above.
I know who was beaten.Subjective. Cf. above. Note that “who” is the logical object in “who was beaten”, but the grammatical subject.
I know whom you beat.Objective: Unlike above, “whom” is the grammatical object, with “you” being the subject.
You are happy because of whom?Preposition.
You are happy because of whose winning?A special case: The “of” has a wider range than in the preceding example, encompassing the sub-clause “whose winning” (which therefore uses “whose” rather than either “who” or “whom”).

Try and help

Some formulations that require a “to” often see an “and” instead. “I will try and help you.” is a typical example. This is probably rooted in the existence of many cases where “and” is correct (e.g. “I came, saw, and conquered.”); and many more where it is acceptable (e.g. “I will come and watch TV.”), although the meaning might vary slightly depending on whether “and” or “to” is used.

A good test whether “and” is acceptable is to simply write the sentence out in full: If it still makes sense and means the same, then “and” is OK; if not, then not. Consider e.g. “I will try and I will help you.” (change in meaning, dubious language) and “I will come and I will watch TV.” (could mean the same, language is OK).

More specifically, “to” should be used where an intention, causation, or another modification is intended:

  1. “I will come [in order] to watch TV.” and “I will come and watch TV.” have slightly different meanings.

  2. “I will try to help.” is the only acceptable version.

  3. “... run to hide” means something different from “... run and hide”: In the first case someone will hide, and temporarily run in order to make this possible; in the second, some combination of running and hiding will be used. Consider e.g. a rabbit hunted by a fox: “I will run to hide [in my den].” vs “I will run [when he sees me] and hide [when he does not].”.

An excellent illustration is the following old joke:

A man reads a newspaper add: Send in $50 and learn how to play the piano!

Thrilled at the low price, he sends the money. Two weeks later he receives a letter: Thank you for the money! Remember to learn how to play the piano!


To my surprise, I stumbled across a case of “try and” being correct:

For instance, to arrest, try and sentence certain counterrevolutionaries,[...]

(Mao’s red booke)

This “try” has a different meaning and role than the one discussed above—which gives us yet another reason why “try and” should not be used where “try to” is intended: It is a potential source of ambiguity.

(Arguably, the example is still incorrect: A comma after the “try” would have made the text logically better and reduced the risk of misunderstandings, and this is one of many examples pointing to the benefit of the “Oxford comma”.)

I could care less

For some reason, the (logically correct) idiomatic expression “I could not care less.” is being pushed out of use by the perversion “I could care less.”, which typically means the opposite of what the speaker wants to say.

A similar phenomenon is present in the German idiom (correct example) “Du bekommst kein Taschengeld, bevor du den Rasen gemäht hast.” respectively (incorrect alteration) “... bevor du nicht ...”—“You will not get your pocket money until you have (not) mowed the lawn.”. The idiocy of the incorrect version should be clear to anyone who actually thinks. I note, from personal experience, that this kind of phrasing can be very confusing to foreigners, until they catch on to the fact that this is just a very common language error.

Just because ...

A more subtle example is “Just because X, does not mean Y.”. Here two reasonable halves are combined in an unreasonable manner. In contrast, “Just because X, Y.” and “X does not mean Y.” could be considered reasonable (but different in meaning). What the original speaker actually meant was “X alone does not imply Y.” (or similar).

Mixing up “and” and “or”

Since the original writing, I have become increasingly annoyed at poor use of “and” and “or” in phrasings like “examples of beverages include tea or [sic!] coffee”. I have a separate text in long-term planning; here I note that the above example should use “and”, as tea and coffee are both examples of beverages, and that contrasting examples of correct use include “you can have [either] tea or coffee” and “you have the choice between tea and coffee”.

A good heuristic is to try a mental reply of “Well, which is it?” to a sentence using “or”. If the question makes sense, chances are that “and” is better.


A potential inconsistency in my own writings is the use of “e.g.” (and, maybe, “for instance”) with “or”. Here, it could be argued that “and” is more logical; however, “and” often seems too strong and might mislead the reader to see a unity instead of two or more examples, especially when lengthier. Something like “e.g. cats and dogs” should not be problematic, but “e.g. the British colonization of India and the U.S. spread into the Pacific” might be. (In both cases, intending two separate examples.)

Excursion on imitation

Imitation is particularly problematic for language use, often through making the user insert words/phrases/whatnot that fit in terms of “shape”, but mean something different than intended. Note e.g. “... because of whom ...” vs. “... because of whose ...” above, or consider how often a word is misused or drifts in meaning due to such problems. For instance, the word “petrified” means “turned to stone”. It has often, legitimately, been used as a metaphor in discussions of fear, to indicate that someone was so afraid that he was unable to move. Others have seen the common use, mistaken “petrified” to imply a particularly strong fear (or an equivalent of “chilled to the bone”, or some such), and misused it in this sense, leading to self-contradictory claims like “petrified, he ran away”.

I have, myself, on rare occasions, had my brain supply a word that I did not even know. (Not even on the level of having misunderstood the meaning.) Looking the word up, it has usually had the right meaning, but it has always had the right “shape”. Likely, I have heard others use the word in the same or similar context, unconsciously learned a pattern of use, and then completed a phrase that matched the beginning of that pattern accordingly.

This is a point where school really could bring a benefit through correcting misuse at an early stage; however, sadly, modern schools seem to take an “everything goes” attitude to language—possibly, because the teachers (!) do not know the language well enough. (A more nefarious potential explanation is that a Leftist influence prohibits corrections, e.g. because there would be no right or wrong, that corrections would be bad for someone’s self-esteem, or, more recently, because correcting the language of the wrong student would be “White Supremacism”.)

A complication is that grounds can be found to criticize almost anything. For instance, is “metaphor” the right choice above or would e.g. some formulation involving “hyperbole” be better? Something else? For instance, re-visiting this page many years after the original writing, I find myself uncertain about the title, e.g. in that “thought” might have been better than “thinking”. Too much attention to detail might leave a writer petrified—even without the slightest sign of fear. (Some cases, however, are more obvious than others and those that cause a drastic change in meaning are particularly problematic. Note, e.g. “petrified”, “literally”, “decimated”.)