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Common errors people make

BY: Junior Graphic

Last week, we began looking at some aspects of the English language many people take for granted and the errors some describe as not being 'fatal' and which, therefore, can be allowed to pass without correction or attention being drawn to them.

I still insist that in English, every error, no matter how others may think about them, is fatal enough.

Last week, we saw the damage that a simple comma can do to the meaning or interpretation of a sentence if it is put at different places in the sentence or omitted completely.

We also saw how the use of pronouns can lead to ambiguity, and for which reason we must sometimes repeat nouns to avoid coming up with ambiguous sentences.

Certainly, if we write:
Kofi met Sam and he gave the book to him
we leave people thinking about who gave the book to whom.

Today, we are looking at another aspect of the English language where errors occur but which are not taken seriously by many people.

Idiomatic expressions are expressions whose meanings are fixed and are not determined by the words that make up or form those expressions.

The expression to have long hands has the fixed meaning of he/she is a thief, and if one doesn't know that this is the meaning of that expression, the words to, have, long and hands cannot help one to get the meaning.

Many people don't know that idiomatic expressions are also fixed in their construction, and that if we decide to use those expressions, we must use them the way they are constructed, not the way we think they must be constructed.

If you look at the expression to have long hands, you see that the word hands is plural, not the singular hand.

Anybody who writes the expression as .... long hand.... has made a fatal error because to have long hands is different from to have long hand --- we can comfortably say to have long hand is not idiomatic  because the idiomatic expression we know is to have long hands.

Other expressions which are incorrectly written are
1. To have something up one's sleeve, most of the time written incorrectly as:
to have something up one's sleeves (maybe because shirts, blouses, etc have two sleeves).
2. To put your best foot forward, sometimes rendered as:
to put your better foot forward (maybe because we  have two feet).

Note that this idiomatic expression may look incorrect with the superlative adjective best,  since a person has only two feet, for which reason, grammatically speaking, he or she can have a better foot, not best.

But the expression is idiomatic and so we don't consider that grammatical error but use it as it is:
As you meet your future in-laws for the first time, put your best foot forward.

The expression put your better foot forward is not idiomatic and it can be used as we use other English sentences, as in:

The doctor advised the injured footballer to always put his better foot forward when he wants to take a few steps.
Note that put your better foot forward is not the same as the idiomatic put your best foot forward.