133. Confusions of Similar Structures


Beware of combining two similar grammatical structures into a single incorrect one



This post is about a particular type of grammar mistake that English language learners sometimes make. It results from a confusion of two structures that are similar in their form (spelling and pronunciation) or meaning or both. The mistake will have features of the two structures, but will be an “impossible combination” (see 100. What is a Grammar Error?). As an example, in spite of and despite are spelt similarly and mean the same, but are confusing in that one needs of and the other does not. The error that many learners of English make is putting of in the wrong place, producing the incorrect combination*despite of.

The confusions in question here are of grammar, not meaning. Confusions of meaning are considered elsewhere within this blog in numerous posts, most notably those with the title Tricky Word Contrasts. Grammar confusions with other causes than the one considered here are analysed in the posts 10/140. Words that Aren’t Used as Expected and 144. Words that are Often Heard Wrongly. Some of the grammar confusions presented here are also mentioned in other posts, but I hope that bringing them together here along with some new ones will make their general features more obvious.



1.  “many” versus “many of the”

These two expressions are alternatives before a plural noun, the first showing it has general meaning (corresponding to a use with the “zero” article – see 110. Nouns without “the” or “a”), the second indicating it is specific (corresponding to a use with the). Thus, many words means a substantial number of all words, whereas many of the words means a substantial number of some specific words. Both meanings are useful for “hedging” (see 95. Hedging 1) and for interpreting numbers (see 115. Describing Numerical Data).

The impossible combination that often arises here is *many of (e.g. *many of words). A rule warning against this might be that of after many must be followed by theIt is not just many that this confusion can affect, but also various other quantity adjectives, including all, any, both, each, most, much, some and (a) few. However, and adding to the confusion, some synonyms of many – the majority, plenty and informal a lot – always need of, even without the. Numerous and various, on the other hand, are not often used with of, tending to accompany general-meaning nouns.


2. “others” versus “other people”

The plural use of other only sometimes has -s; it does not have it when the next word is a noun (like people, things, ideas or problems). The reason is that, when the next word is a noun, other is an adjective, a kind of word with no plural form in English, but by itself other is a pronoun, a kind of word that does often have a plural form.

The ability to be used alone in a noun position without a following noun is a defining feature of pronouns. The ability to change into an adjective by being placed before a noun is a property of many but not all pronouns. It is possessed, for example, by this, her, enough and one, but not by it, theirs, who and none (see 28. Pronoun Errors). The impossible combination that the above contrast sometimes produces is *others + people (or other noun).


3. Participle versus Relative Clause

This confusion is examined in detail in the post 52. Participles Placed Just after their Noun. Participles are verbs ending in -ing – e.g. going, including – or in -ed (or irregular equivalent) – e.g. named, known. They are often (but not always) equivalent to a longer phrase with a relative pronoun (who, which or that). For example, including often equates to which include and known to who are known (-ing represents active verbs, -ed passive ones).

The intermediate form that sometimes results from these alternatives is a combination of a relative pronoun and a participle, such as *that going or *who known. The rule is that relative pronouns cannot combine with a participle. The verb after a relative pronoun must have an ordinary tense form like go(es) (present simple tense), is/are going (present continuous) or went (past simple). Note the difference between going, known (participles) and is going, are known (ordinary verbs).

To understand why a participle and a relative pronoun cannot go together, consider this:

(a) People living in glass houses should not throw stones.

The ending on a participle is a “joining device”, which means that the sentence needs another verb (30. When to Write a Full Stop). This other verb in (a), alongside living, is should not throw. The problem with adding a relative pronoun is that this kind of word is also a joining device, requiring its own extra verb, so that two extra verbs become necessary altogether. Since there is only one other verb in (a), the combination *who living would be ungrammatical.


4. “as” + (Citation Verb) versus (Citation Verb) + “that”

Citation verbs express different kinds of saying and thinking, and link author names in a text with their reported words or ideas (see 76. Tenses of Citation Verbs).  Very often, they are accompanied by either as or that, e.g.:

(b) Jones (2013, p.78) argues THAT social benefits can assist an escape from poverty.

If as is used instead of that here, it must come before the author’s name, and it necessitates a comma after the citation verb – As Jones (2013, p.78) argues, … (see 104. Referring to Data with “as”).

The common error that these two alternatives can induce is the use of both as and that together (see 79. Grammar Problems in Quotation-Writing). This is an error for the same reason that combining a relative pronoun and a participle is (see above): it introduces too many joining devices.


5. “keep up with” versus “cope with”

There is both a form and a meaning similarity here. Formwise, although keep and cope are not spelt so similarly, their pronunciations are the same except for one vowel (/ki:p/ versus /kəʊp/). The meaning similarity is that both involve the idea of struggle. Keep up with means struggle to do the same as another person or thing, while to cope with means struggle to control or manage someone or something. The incorrect (or non-standard) intermediate form that often results is *cope up with.


6. “as regards” versus “with regard to”

Both of these similar-looking phrases can be used before a noun (or equivalent) to mark it as the topic of what follows. For example, instead of the word formwise near the start of the previous paragraph, one could write as regards (or with regard to) form.

The intermediate expression that one sometimes finds here is with regards to, placing -s after with instead of after as. What makes this confusion especially easy is the fact that with regards does also exist in English, but with a different meaning – conveying greetings rather than introducing a topic (see 48. Tricky Word Contrasts 1, item #9).

The reason for the variable use of -s is that as is a conjunction, so that REGARD has to be a verb, while with is a preposition, requiring a noun (see 84. Seven Things to Know About Prepositions). The verb use is singular and hence needs -s, and the noun is uncountable, and hence cannot have -s.


7. “all” versus “every”

These words do not differ much in their meaning: we can normally say that wings belong to either all birds or every bird. The main difference, of course, is in their grammar. All can go with plural nouns (e.g. all birds) or uncountable nouns (e.g. all work), but not with singular countable nouns (*all bird). Every, on the other hand, goes only with singular countable nouns (e.g. every bird). Moreover, if either one needs to be combined with a following of the  cf. the discussion in (1) above – all acts normally (we can say all of the) but every does not because it needs one to be added in between (every one of the).

A particularly common confusion that results from all of this is adding a plural -s to a noun after every (*every birds). The reverse, dropping -s from a noun after all, seems less common, perhaps because the meaning of both words feels more plural than singular. A plural verb after every is also a possible error (*every bird have wings).


8.“rises” versus “is rising”

More generally, this contrast is between present simple and present continuous tenses of verbs without an object (see 113. Verbs that Cannot be Passive). The intermediate form that is easily produced is *is rise (BE + base verb). To avoid it, there can be value in remembering that a verb after BE always needs an ending (unless it is irregular like PUT).

A complication is the fact that some verb spellings are also possessed by adjectives – words that can be used without an ending after BE. This is the case, for example, with CLEAR, which can equally well make clears, is clearing, is cleared and is clear (each subtly different in meaning). Perhaps the existence of verbs like CLEAR contributes to the problem with verbs like RISE, since there is a resultant need to remember which kind each particular verb belongs to. For lists of common verbs like CLEAR, see 66. Types of Passive Verb Meaning and 140. Words with Unexpected Grammar 2 (question [f]).


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