The 5 levels of incorrect English

A shocked expression

What does it mean to say that something is "wrong" in English? Sometimes PhraseMix readers ask me things like "Is this sentence correct?" and I have trouble answering directly. That's because there are actually several different meanings of the words "correct" or "incorrect", "right" or "wrong".

Here are some of the different categories of "incorrect" English that I've found:


Level 1: Unintelligible English

Something that people just can't understand is "unintelligible".

Here's an example of unintelligible English:

"If me and if we don't you have know me find."


You might speak unintelligible English if you're drunk, or if you're trying to talk about something that you don't have enough ability to explain.

If your English is "unintelligible", you'll probably find out quickly because people will make strange faces and ask you to repeat yourself. 


Level 2: Misinterpreted English

When your words are "misinterpreted", it means that someone thinks that they understand you, but actually they don't. The message that they understand is different from what you meant to communicate.

For example, you can easily be misinterpreted when you're talking about days and times:

"Let's meet next Saturday."

If you say this on a Monday or Tuesday, you might mean the Saturday 4 or 5 days later, but the person you're speaking to would probably think that you meant the following Saturday.

This type of incorrect English can be tricky, because you might not find out that your words were misinterpreted until much later.


Level 3: Funny-sounding English

My wife is a non-native English speaker. A few times a day, she says something that makes me smile because of how funny it sounds. Like if I'm cooking some spinach, she might ask me:

"Did you wash the leaves? We don't want any sands in it."

This is funny to me because "leaves" is a funny word when you're talking about food. I imagine leaves on a tree, not spinach in a bowl. Also, "sand" is uncountable, so it sounds funny when she says "sands". I imagine trying to count each little piece of sand stuck to the spinach.

You probably make a lot of mistakes like these. In fact, you might not be able to avoid them even after studying for many years. You should try to improve these errors, but they're not as big of a problem as unintelligible or misinterpreted English.


Level 4: Frowned-upon English

Why do native English speakers have to study English grammar in school?

It's because we all pick up language habits which are common, but frowned upon. In other words, some people speak that way, but other people frown upon it (meaning they don't like it).

A good example of English that's frowned upon is the word "ain't" to mean "am not":

"I ain't had a meal that good in a long time!"

Picky people will tell you that this isn't correct English, but a lot of people use "ain't" every day. 

People learning English as a foreign language might think that they should avoid expressions that they hear are "bad English". But it's good to remember that some "bad English" is actually really useful.


Level 5: Unusual and unexpected English

As a native English speaker, I use words and phrases incorrectly all the time!

I do this because I want to sound new, fresh, and different. For example, when someone asks "How are you?" the standard answer is:

"Good! And you?"

But that's a little boring to me, so I often answer:


That's a strange and unexpected answer.

Sometimes it's fun to say things the "wrong" way to give your words a different flavor, as I've written about before.


What kind of English mistakes do you make?

What kind of "wrong" English do you use most often? The categories listed above are in order from the worst to the best. If you just use English that sounds a bit different from other people, that's not so bad. In fact, it probably makes you more interesting to talk to. On the other hand, if other English speakers can't understand what you mean, that's a big problem and something that you should work on.

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