Are Language Errors Mistakes or Improvements?

Apparently my life dictates that I am never to be monolingual. In my mid-twenties I use Spanish almost daily, I regularly tease my brain by reading the German news, and, most recently, I am flooded with French after moving in with Le Boyfriend.

Of course I speak all of these languages with varying proficiencies, but all are good enough that I could function in one of the above languages should the need arise.

Sound complicated? Is it. However, what is life without a challenge?

I love seeing Le Boyfriend speaking his native language. It is rare that I get the privilege of seeing him speak unedited to other native French speakers for days on end, so I consider myself lucky when it happens. Why? Well, although his English is impeccable (actually better than mine on most days) it is still not his native tongue. I can imagine when frustrations mount and emotions take over or when he wants to tell that perfect joke, having to express himself outside of his mother tongue can make him tongue tied. No, what am I saying – I don’t just imagine this, I know this.

During a recent weekend trip to visit some friends (all of whom speak French together) my brain began to feel like it was performing gymnastics. I also saw Le Frenchman’s begin to do the same. Among several mistranslations and countless funny uses of directly translated phrases, I began to think about some of the more common mistakes that non-native speakers make in English and why they actually could be considered improvements rather than errors.

I have 25 years.

Any English speaker would look at you and wonder how you could literally hold 25 years anywhere on your person. However, anyone else would wonder how you could be 25. After all, only 25 is 25.

Wouldn’t you rather have 25 years anyway? That way you age no longer defines you, it is something you own. Now that is empowering! When you must no longer be your age, then you are free to be anything else you want to be. I don’t care if that is hungry, thirsty, president, or olympian.


This word is beloved by speakers of other languages.  It just seems so natural to say something is touristic. That sharp sound of the “c” at the end pops and gives the word an air of sophistication and authority.

On the other hand the real English word for this is touristy. That word just sounds like it was invented with the internet; it is too short and too sweet. So, in this case, I think we should defer to the non-natives on this one who, with their word touristic, make traveling a noble pursuit and one worthy of a dignified description.

Some gums. (Or counting the uncountable)

Personally I have heard this one countless times and always wondered why we don’t naturally try to quantify abstract ideas. Why do we only ask for gum in English. Or rice. Or ice. Or gold. Seriously, why are there no plural versions that we can quantify?

It is time to take back the abstract. Who says we can’t count the uncountable. Wouldn’t it truly make more sense to ask for some gums or some ices? None of these things are formless masses that we can’t count. In fact, every single one of these objects is absolutely countable, we are just too lazy to do so. Which is exactly why we should give these objects the dignity of being a plural.

Explain me this

“Hey, can you explain me this?” I hear this in my household constantly. Although I am so used to hearing this structure, it never sounds like anything other than painfully incorrect.  However, when I think about it, explaining [something] to [somebody] is overly complicated and unpleasant to say.

Simply saying “Explain me this” gets straight to the emotional core of the idea behind the phrase. [Someone] needs [something] explained. Period. The end.

The raw abbreviation of the more convoluted expression of this sentiment should naturally appeal to English speakers. After all, we are notorious for shortening everything. Can you say bae?

So I vote that this one should immediately be incorporated into the everyday vernacular.

Language was given to us to be corrupted. If you think about it, English is really just a combination of lazy German and bastardized French pronunciation. Furthermore, as its own language, English has been changing for centuries. Think about that time we got rid of the word thou in the 18th century or, even more recently, when we decided that literally means something more akin to I’m serious.

Besides, the number of non-native English speakers now out numbers natives at 510 million to 340 million. So it should be no surprise that this language will be shifting in innovative and unexpected ways.

But you know what? That’s what makes speaking to others so fun! Don’t you think? Tell me, how you choose to use these expressions and do you think one way is better than the other?


2 Comments Add yours

  1. Katie says:

    I enjoyed this post a lot. I work with a lot of 2nd tongue English speakers and so these slips are very familiar to me too. I like your way of looking at the ‘mistakes’ as improvements, often they’re used precisely because they do make more sense than the ‘correct’ way. Are you aware of ELF (English as a Lingua Franca)? Because English is used so much internationally it’s now becoming more accepted that these ‘mistakes’ shouldn’t be corrected if the meaning is communicated. After all what else is language for if not for communication? 🙂

    One I came across while teaching tag questions: Am not I? Instead of aren’t I. After explaining the rules of how to form a tag question I set the students on an exercise…all of them followed the rules to a T and produced ‘am not I?’ as an answer to one of the questions. I’d never even realised before that the correct answer ‘aren’t I?’ is grammatically incorrect. I ended learning more than them that day 🙂


    1. Jessica says:

      Hi! Thank you for such a lovely, thoughtful comment! I really enjoyed reading your opinion. I had no idea that English was actually designated as a lingua franca, however, it doesn’t surprise me – people speak it from Germany to the Amazonian Rainforest!

      To your point about grammatically incorrect tags – it’s so true! Living with a Frenchman I’m constantly being asked to consider and evaluate some of the things that I say and it always surprises me that grammatically they make NO sense. (I’m sure you don’t necessarily think about what you’re saying in English, you just say it!)

      Anyway – anytime you come across a fun “error” in your class you should tweet it to me. I am absolutely fascinated by languages and always want to see more of their quirks 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

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