Headbloom Blog

When Native Speakers Make Mistakes in English
The title of this blog could also be “Your Christmas Present Has a Grammar Error on It.”

Everyone makes mistakes in English. Non-natives do. Native speakers do too. Even snobby native speakers with college degrees in languages and linguistics (like me) do.

It’s natural, of course, for non-natives to make mistakes. Speaking and writing one’s second or third language is tough. Many of their mistakes happen when they’re speaking on the fly. Words sail out. Communication happens while listeners are multitasking. Schedules need to be met. “Time,” as the American saying goes, “is money.” Go, go, go. Busy, busy, busy. Non-natives make fewer mistakes in writing because that medium slows communication down. Writers have a chance to think. And to correct.

Native speakers sometimes make mistakes because they are speaking in a hurry. More often, they make mistakes in writing. Linguists can usually tell who wrote something by the kind of words they use and the mistakes they make. Native speakers of any language (today I’m talking about English) speak their language’s dialect perfectly. By definition. They grow up listening to their families and neighbors and teachers, and they learn to copy what this community is saying around them.

Notice I said “saying.” This is because speech is the primary form of language. Writing is a recently evolved form of communication. Until the invention of the printing press 550 years ago, writing was not standardized and changed a lot. With books, and signs, and engravings, words become frozen in time and space. People had a chance to study the forms and learn them more consistently.

However, not every American child loved English class. Some of them—fine human beings otherwise—fell asleep during high school English lessons. This is where teachers are explaining the rules. Rules for spelling. Rules on punctuation. Rules about grammar.

So, what does proofreading have to do with the teeshirt my kids gave me for Christmas? Here’s a photo of the shirt.


The teeshirt was my daughter Katy’s idea. She reads a funny young blogger named Jenny Lawson. This summer, Lawson wrote about buying a 5-foot-tall metal chicken. While most readers loved the story and the chicken, one reader hated it. In his angry conclusion, he commented, “When your wrong, your wrong.” Here is that blog with a link to the very funny giant chicken story. (Note to my students: Lawson uses a lot of slang, sarcasm, and even some strong language.)

Most non-native readers will notice the grammar error right away. It should say “you’re” instead of “your.” When non-natives speak, they often say “you are” instead of “you’re.” This is because they learned this English expression analytically (in school) as “you” + “are.” Native children learned it by listening (to people around them). In fast speech, “you’re” and “your” are pronounced the same. So natives (especially those who hated English class) often confuse them in writing.

When they first see my teeshirt, more than half of my native-speaking friends think the shirt is humorous because it has an arrogant attitude: I am right and you are not. Only my fellow word nerds can catch the error and see the intended humor in the message: it is poking fun at bad spellers. This is why word nerds walk through life feeling smug. They think they’re smarter than the average person. And, with regard to the small area of language, I suppose they’re right.

This season, I have read a couple of funny articles on language correctness. In the U.K., Oliver Burkeman talks about the unofficial language police and the human urge to correct people. On the other side of the Atlantic, Erin McKean advocates that correcting-type people give the gift of slack this holiday season. Both authors (who read and write very well) suggested that we language nerds give everyone else a break and not correct them so often. And not walk around feeling so superior. This is a good idea. Maybe I will make this into my New Year’s resolution.

Happy New Year!

Alan Headbloom