This page has information about usage.


The English language has some useful rules for the learner to know. For example: that most nouns add an -s in the plural, that adverbs are formed by adding -ly to the adjective, that the usual word order is Subject-Verb-Object.

However, @much of English grammar cannot be predicted from general rules.~ The student of English has to learn case-by-case how these words work. This aspect of the English language is often called usage There is a detailed discussion of the term usage at the foot of the page. (word grammar).

There are three usage examples in the following sections.

Usage example: Illocutionary verbs

A common usage problem for learners is predicting how certain common illocutionary verbs These are verbs of saying, not doing. Examples are: predict, apologize, deny, suggest, demand, admit, etc. should be used, particularly in reported speech. For example, you can say both: I command you to go and I command that you go. But you can only say: I insist that you go. I insist you to go is wrong.

Usage example: quite

This word has two very different meanings, dependent on the adjective that it qualifies. The sentence She's quite clever means she is not very, but reasonably, fairly, rather clever.

The sentence She's quite beautiful! means she is very, very beautiful, perfectly beautiful. (To understand these different meanings you need to know that clever is a gradable adjective, and beautiful is a non-gradable adjective.)

Usage example: not only

This expression is a cohesive device used to alert the reader/listener that a second item or example is coming next (usually introduced by the words but...also). He is not only stupid, but he is also rude and loud.

If the expression is used at the beginning of the sentence, then the subject and verb must be inverted (and, in some cases, an auxiliary added): Not only is he stupid, but he is also rude and loud. Not only did he put his pen in the electricity socket, but he also screamed at me when I tried to stop him.

More examples of usage mistakes

Usage mistakes do not simply occur when a particular word is used in a way that most native speakers would consider unnatural. Longer passages of text may also seem the same. In other words, the sentence is grammatical, but it is not expressed in a way that a native speaker would do so.

Here is an authentic example from an ESL student: I could get a lot of experiences in this trimester and made up a lot of friends for me. A native speaker would express this idea something like: I had a lot of experiences this trimester and made a lot of friends.

The above sentence comes from a page analysing the mistakes in a passage of authentic text. If you read the error analysis, you will note that there are many more usage mistakes than grammatical mistakes.


Above are just a few of the countless examples of usage that can cause learners difficulty. In order to use words correctly, learners can do the following:

  • Invest in a good reference work. (Collins Cobuild English Usage is recommended.)
  • Type the word or phrase under investigation into Google. Note how the word or phrase is used in the multitude of hits that are returned.

Another possibility is to ask a question about any word usage that you are not sure about. There are suggestions on this page with the title Getting answers to English language questions.

Quizzes and further reading

There are several interactive quizzes on Usage in the Other Grammar drop-down menu on the Grammar index.

There is more about usage in the English: An easy language? section.

More on the definition of usage

The word usage has various definitions. In this article it refers to what could be designated single word grammar. Hence I distinguish between (standard) grammar and usage mistakes as follows:

  • If the mistake contravenes a generalizable rule for all members of that word class, then it is a grammar mistake. Otherwise it is a usage mistake.

For example: He live in Frankfurt contravenes the rule that all verbs in the 3rd person singular present simple tense require an -s (with the exception of modals), and is hence ungrammatical.

Conversely, My grandfather is a very high man is a usage mistake. We can formulate a rule that high applies to mountains not people. But the rule applies to one member of the word class (adjectives) only and hence the mistake is one of usage.

On this basis, these errors are grammar errors:

  • I play tennis yesterday.
  • Do you have dog?
  • I live in Frankfurt since 10 year. (3 errors)

And these are usage errors:

  • I always enjoy to sleep late on Sundays.
  • What is the reason of your lateness?
  • She replied she didn't know the answer.

The issue is of more than purely theoretical importance because learners need to know whether they should consult a grammar book or a good dictionary/usage manual to find out if what they have written is correct.

It is interesting to note that two excellent English reference works both have the word usage in their title: Garner's Modern American Usage and Swan's Practical English Usage.

Swan's book includes numerous entries on what I would term grammar; including negation, passive, modals, determiners, etc. And Garner's contains exclusively what I would term usage mistakes, but a different kind of usage mistake than the one I have explored in the article above.

Namely, Garner's usage mistakes are mistakes typically made by native speakers in choosing the wrong word for a particular context. An example is the incorrect use of it's in the sentence: The dog has lost it's bone.

Paul Brians' excellent website has a comprehensive list of the most common usage mistakes in this category.