The English Language: Things that people in Sweden often do wrong, and other common mistakes
I am not a native English speaker, and there is no way that could I ever write a grammar rule book. And I know I do not have a perfect pronunciation. Even so, here I have collected some errors I have spotted many times (in various presentations and theses) while working in Sweden. I hope this list will help someone speak or write a little better. Many thanks to everyone that suggested additions and corrections.
Some more advice can be had by Strunk & White’s “The Elements of Style,” the very first edition can be found online. However, take all of that with a grain of salt. There is some very strong criticism by prof. Pullum, who calls it “the book that ate America’s brain.”
There also exists a very extensive list of Common Errors in English Usage by Paul Brians (Washington State University). Many errors on there do not seem very common to me, but it can be very instructive to read a few entries now and again.
Cris (somewhere in 2011, edited many times since).
Swedes are, in general, very good at pronouncing English. However, there are a few common mispronunciations:
- cheap vs. sheep (also: cheat sheet, chit-chat)
- Yale vs. jail
- line but linear (/layn/ but /li-ne-ar/, not /layn-ar/)
- variable and variance have the stress on the first syllable.
- analysis has the stress on the second syllable.
- magazine and all other words with a z, which is generally not pronounced as an s.
This is a short list of words I regularly see/hear misused:
Which vs. that
- I have one car that is red. (I might have more cars too, but just one is red.)
- I have one car, which is red. (I have only one car, it happens to be red.)
Note that which introduces a subordinate clause, and therefore is preceded by a comma (see below).
Automatise vs. automate
- automatisation: A process of making an action of a higher animal reflexive.
- automation: The act or process of converting the controlling of a machine or device to a more automatic system.
You probably want to say automate, not automatise.
Good vs. well
- The algorithm is good.
- The algorithm performs good. → The algorithm performs well.
- John did well in school.
- We achieved our goal.
- The algorithm achieved some results. → The algorithm obtained some results.
Also consider using to yield.
Using phrases like is done often leads to awkward sentences:
- The collection of bees is done once a week. → The bees are collected once a week.
- The detection of the events is performed this way. → The events are detected this way.
For example vs. e.g.
E.g. stands for exempli gratia, for the sake of example. It should be followed by a non-exhaustive list of examples, and this list should not end with etc. E.g. can always be replaced by for example, but the converse is not true.
- I have seen many things, e.g. a tree and a mountain.
- E.g. I spoke to him only two days ago. → For example, I spoke to him only two days ago.
Fun vs. funny
- I had a funny time. → I had a fun time.
- That joke is funny.
In Swedish you say ett tips. This translates to a tip in English, not a tips.
Thesis and dissertation vs. defence
A thesis is a proposition to be defended. The word is most often used to refer to a technical writing that contains a thesis, and is written to fulfil the requirements of a university degree. A dissertation is a written (or oral) in-depth treatment of a subject, and most commonly used to refer to a such a treatment written to fulfil the requirements for a PhD degree. Thus, you could say that a dissertation is the same as a PhD thesis. During the defence, you defend your thesis. Thus, that period where your opponent and the committee members drill you with questions related to your thesis is the defence, not the dissertation.
Every language uses different prepositions in different situations. This makes prepositions one of the most difficult things to learn properly in a second language. These stand out among Swedish speakers:
- I will finish this until the end of the week. → I will finish this by the end of the week.
(Even though I have until the end of the week to do this,
and I will be working on this until the end of the week.)
- I did that for two years ago. → I did that two years ago.
Here I have collected the more common grammatical errors, as well as some guidelines for proper punctuation:
Match subject and verb
Because in Swedish the verbs are not conjugated, many Swedes have trouble using the right inflection of the verb. If the subject is singular, use the singular form of the verb; if the subject is plural, use the plural form:
- the car drives – the cars drive
- he walks – they walk
- it has – they have
- one is – many are
- the student was – the students were
Plural in words from Latin origin
With some words, singular ends in -us, plural in -i:
- one nucleus – two nuclei
- one fundus – two fundi
With some other words, singular ends in -um, plural in -a:
- one maximum – two maxima
- one minimum – two minima
- one spectrum – two spectra
- one datum – two data
- one museum – two musea
- but: one criterion – two criteria
Yes! you read that right, data is plural:
- This data shows I am right. → These data show I am right.
Finally, some words have a singular ending in -is, their plural ends in -es:
- one thesis – two theses
- one hypothesis – two hypotheses
- one analysis – two analyses
Some words do not have a plural (they are uncountable):
- Many researches show this is true. → Many studies show this is true.
- Future works will address this issue. → Future work will address this issue.
Note that work is countable when it refers to literary, artistic, or intellectual production: the collected works of Jules Verne, or when it refers to infrastructure: The city invested in public works; it is uncountable in all other cases.
Avoid assigning actions to inanimate objects:
- This thesis investigates algorithms. → In this thesis, I investigate algorithms.
(or if you really want to avoid taking credit: This thesis contains the results of a study on algorithms.)
- This equation calculates the mean. → We calculate the mean with this equation.
Prefixes are only hyphenated in special cases (though there are different schools of thought on this):
- subcellular (no hyphen)
- oversegmented (no hyphen)
- co-worker (because coworker starts with cow and is confusing)
- recreation vs. re-creation (they are different things!)
Multi-word adjectives (a.k.a. compound modifiers) are joined by hyphens:
- image-based segmentation (but the segmentation is image based)
- point-like signal (but the signal is point like)
- grey-value image (but the image has grey values)
Again, there are different thoughts about this, but in general it is clearer to use the hyphens. And it is especially important if the meaning changes without the hyphen:
- more-important reasons vs. more important reasons
(the reasons are more important, vs. there are more reasons that are important).
When one of the components of a compound modifier has more than one word, use an en dash instead of a hyphen:
- watershed transform–based segmentation
You can use em dashes or en dashes for parenthetical sentences:
- You should do this – like I did – here. (en dash, a space on each side, in LaTeX:
- You should do this—like I did—here. (em dash, no spaces, in LaTeX:
- You should do this (like I did) here.
The en dash is also used to indicate a range or a connection:
- The size of a cell is 10–30 μm. (note also the space between quantity and units)
- The size of a cell is between 10 and 30 μm.
- mother–daughter relationship
- Bose–Einstein condensate
Commas, semicolons and colons
In English it is common to use many more commas than in Swedish.
In between a subordinate clause (bisats) and the main clause (huvudsats) there should always be a comma:
- However, this is not true.
- Because I wanted to, I went there.
- As can be seen in Fig. 3, the results are terrible.
Often it is advantageous to add a comma before and or or if they introduce a new clause (i.e. it makes it easier on the reader):
- I have done so this morning, and saw no result.
(as opposed to: I have done so this morning and yesterday.)
When enumerating, there should be a comma between each element. Some people like a comma before the last and or or, some people do not; that is up to you:
- I ate a banana, an apple and an orange.
- I ate a banana, an apple, and an orange.
But when the things you are enumerating are clauses, do add that comma:
- I went to Rome, saw the Coliseum, had a coffee, and came back.
Also, if one of the elements in the list has an and or an or, you really need that comma for clarity (this is like adding parentheses in a logical statement where you mix & and |):
- I ate a banana, an apple or a pear, and an orange.
Finally, if the clauses you are enumerating contain commas (they are more complex clauses), use the semicolon to separate the elements:
- I went to Rome; saw the Coliseum, the Trevi Fountain and St. Peter’s Basilica; had a coffee, an ice-cream and a pizza; and came back.
In Swedish, people use the semicolon to introduce a list. In English you should use the colon for this:
- The things I saw: the Coliseum, the Trevi Fountain and St. Peter’s Basilica.
The colon is used in Swedish for abbreviations, don’t do this in English:
- Saint: S:t → St.
- First: 1:st → 1st.
There are different ways to partially enumerate something. Note that there is no etc. at the end of a list starting with e.g. or including, and that in both these cases there is an and before the last element given.
- I ate many things, including a banana, an apple, and an orange.
- I ate many things, e.g. a banana, an apple, and an orange.
- I ate many things: a banana, an apple, an orange, etc.
Apostrophes are used in two ways: contractions and the possessive.
Never use contractions in formal writing:
- I didn’t know that → I did not know that
- We’d be happy → We would be happy
- We’ll do it → We will do it
- He doesn’t see it → He does not see it
- It’s been a year → It has been a year
The possessive is formed by adding ‘s to a noun:
- John’s book
- the method’s performance
But when the word ends in -s, do not add another one (though there are different opinions about this as well):
- Cris’ grammar list
- his book
- its method (not: it’s = it is)
- Whose pen is this? (not: who’s = who is)
Both single and double quotes are rendered differently in almost every language. In Swedish, no difference is made
between opening and closing quotes. However, in most other languages a different glyph is used for the two. In English
the opening quotes are inverted. In LaTeX, type
``text'' (the opening quote character is on the top-left key of
a US keyboard; the closing quote is the standard apostrophe character). Use just one of each for the single quotes.