Practical English Usage

About Practical English Usage


What is Practical English Usage?

Practical English Usage is a combined usage guide and learner’s grammar. It is intended mainly for advanced students and teachers of English as a foreign or second language; it may also be useful to teacher trainers and materials writers. It is not addressed to native speakers of English, who need a rather different kind of reference work.

A usage guide

Usage guides deal with problem points: words and structures that people have difficulty with, or disagree about. English, like all languages, is full of problems for the foreign learner. Some of these points are easy to explain – for instance, the formation of questions, the difference between since and for, or the meaning of after all. Other problems are more tricky, and cause difficulty even for advanced students and teachers. How exactly is the present perfect used? When do we use past tenses to be polite? What are the differences between at, on and in with expressions of place? We can say a chair leg – why not a cat leg? When can we use the expression do so? When is the used with superlatives? Is unless the same as if not? What are the differences between come and go, between each and every, between big, large and great, or between fairly, quite, rather and pretty? Is it correct to say There’s three more bottles in the fridge? How do you actually say 3 x 4 = 12? And so on, and so on.

Practical English Usage is a guide to problems of this kind. It deals with over 1,000 points which regularly cause difficulty to foreign students of English. It will be useful, for example, to a learner who is not sure how to use a particular structure, or who has made a mistake and wants to find out why it is wrong. It will also be helpful to a teacher who is looking for a clear explanation of a difficult language point. There is very full coverage of grammar, as well as explanations of a large number of common vocabulary problems. There are also some entries designed to clarify more general questions (e.g. formality, slang, the nature of standard English and dialects) which students and teachers may find themselves concerned with.

Problems are mostly explained in short separate entries. This makes it possible to give a clear complete treatment of each point, and enables the user to concentrate just on the question that he or she needs information about. In longer entries, basic information is generally given first, followed by more detailed explanations and discussion of more advanced points.

A complete student's grammar

The grammatical entries in Practical English Usage are grouped into 28 Sections, each dealing with a major grammatical topic (e.g. present tenses, passives, nouns and noun phrases, prepositions, relative clauses). So the site can be used not only as a guide to particular usage problems, but also as a systematic reference grammar. For users who like to work in this way, each Section begins with a short general introduction to the grammatical topic, together with a list of common mistakes that are dealt with in the entries that follow.


The grammar Sections include a good deal of information about the structures used with particular words. In addition, the last three Sections deal specifically with vocabulary questions, and include an A–Z guide to over 250 common word problems of various kinds.

Approach and style

I have tried to make the presentation as practical as possible. Each entry contains an explanation of a problem, examples of correct usage, and (when this is useful) examples of typical mistakes. In some cases, an explanation may be somewhat different from that found in many learners’ grammars; this is because the rules traditionally given for certain points (e.g. conditionals or indirect speech) are not always accurate or helpful. Explanations are, as far as possible, in simple everyday language. Where it has been necessary to use grammatical terminology, I have generally preferred to use traditional terms that are simple and easy to understand, except where this would be seriously misleading. Some of these terms (e.g. future tense) would be regarded as unsatisfactory by academic grammarians, but I am not writing for specialists. There is a glossary of the language terminology used in Practical English Usage.

The kind of English described

The explanations deal mainly with standard everyday southern British English, but contrasts between British and American English are given detailed attention. There are also brief notes on several other varieties (e.g. Australian and Indian English). Information about stylistic differences (e.g. between formal and informal usage, or spoken and written language) is provided where this is appropriate.

Correctness and rules

If people say that a form is not ‘correct’, they can mean several different things. They may for instance be referring to a sentence like I have seen her yesterday, which normally only occurs in the English of foreigners. They may be thinking of a usage like less people (instead of fewer people), which is common in standard English but regarded as wrong by some people. Or they may be talking about forms like ain’t or ‘double negatives’, which are used in speech by many British and American people, but which do not occur in the standard dialects and are not usually written. Practical English Usage is mainly concerned with the first kind of ‘correctness’: the differences between British or American English and ‘foreign’ English. However, there is also information about cases of divided usage in standard English, and about a few important dialect forms.

The rules given in Practical English Usage are descriptive: they explain what actually happens in standard spoken and written English. Some usage guides give prescriptive rules – rules devised by people who feel that the language should be tidied up or protected against corruption. Such rules do not always correspond to actual usage (the rule about not using less with plurals is an example). In Practical English Usage, I avoid giving rules which do not describe the language as it is actually used, though I mention their existence where this is useful.

What Practical English Usage does not do

Practical English Usage is not a complete guide to the English language. As the title suggests, its purpose is practical: to give learners and their teachers the most important information they need in order to deal with common language problems. Within this framework, the explanations are as complete and accurate as I can make them. However, it is not always helpful or possible in a work of this kind to deal with all the details of a complex structural point; so readers may well find occasional exceptions to some of the grammatical rules given here. Equally, Practical English Usage does not aim to replace a dictionary. While it gives information about common problems with the use of a number of words, it does not attempt to describe other meanings or uses of the words beside those points that are selected for attention. Nor does it attempt to cover all the vocabulary problems that learners may meet: for this, another complete work would be needed.

Changes in the fourth edition

After consultation with users, the alphabetical organisation which was used in previous editions has been replaced by a thematic arrangement (see above), so as to make it easier to search for information. A number of amendments have also been made to particular entries to reflect recent changes in the language – for instance, the reduced frequency of some modal verbs, the disappearance of shall, or cases where British English is adopting American usage.

How much do mistakes matter?

It depends on how much people need, or want, a high level of correctness when speaking or writing another language. For many learners this is important – for instance for work, examinations, or their own personal goals – and Practical English Usage will help them to approach standard British/American native-speaker usage. However, it it is important for such learners not to become obsessed with correctness, or to worry every time they make a mistake. It is quite unnecessary to speak or write a language like a native speaker in order to communicate effectively, and very few adults in fact achieve a perfect command of another language. For some learners, on the other hand, accuracy is relatively unimportant: people can use English successfully for international communication even when their grammar differs considerably from native-speaker models. However, too many such differences can make a speaker or writer difficult to understand, so it is good even for these learners to aim at a reasonable level of correctness.

Note also that ‘mistake’ is a relative term. The mistakes listed in Practical English Usage are wrong if produced by someone aiming to write standard British or American English. They would not necessarily be incorrect in some other varieties of the language.

About the author

After studying modern languages at Oxford, Michael Swan spent many years as an English language teacher and course director. He has written and co-authored a wide range of teaching and reference materials, several of which have won prestigious prizes.

His professional interests include language teaching methodology, pedagogic grammar, and mother-tongue influence on second language acquisition. He has published numerous articles on aspects of language teaching and applied linguistics, and has given lectures and workshops in many countries.

In 2014 Michael received the British Council's lifetime achievement award.


Author's acknowledgements

I am grateful to all the people who have helped me with the preparation of this fourth edition. I owe a particular debt to Professor Bas Aarts of University College, London, and Dr Catherine Walter, of Linacre College, Oxford, who both read all of the material in draft, and whose detailed comments and suggestions have substantially improved the new edition. I am equally indebted to Professor Loretta Gray of Central Washington University, who also read the whole text, and whose comprehensive advice on questions of American usage has provided valuable support for this aspect of the revision. Many teachers in different countries were good enough to respond to a request for suggestions for possible additions and improvements: my thanks to the individuals and organisations concerned. My thanks also to members of the staff of the London School of English, who kindly participated in a very constructive workshop designed to explore ways of using Practical English Usage. Several specialists have generously shared their knowledge of specific areas of language and usage, and numerous teachers, students and colleagues have taken the trouble to make comments and suggestions regarding particular entries. Their input, too, has benefited the new edition considerably. I must also reacknowledge my debt to the many consultants and correspondents whose help and advice with the preparation of earlier editions continue as an important contribution to the fourth.

Any pedagogic grammarian owes an enormous debt to the academic linguists on whose research he or she is parasitic. There is not enough space to mention all the scholars of the last hundred years or so on whose work I have drawn directly or indirectly, even if I had a complete record of my borrowings. But I must at least pay homage to two monumental reference works of the present generation: the Comprehensive Grammar of the English Language, by Quirk, Greenbaum, Leech and Svartvik (Longman, 1985), and the Cambridge Grammar of the English Language, by Huddleston, Pullum and others (Cambridge University Press, 2002). Their authoritative accounts of the facts of English structure and usage constitute an essential source of information for anyone writing pedagogic grammar materials today.

Finally, it is with particular pleasure that I express my gratitude, once again, to the editorial, design and production team at Oxford University Press, whose professional expertise is matched only by their concern to make an author’s task as trouble-free as possible.

Publisher's acknowledgements

The authors and publisher are grateful to those who have given permission to reproduce the following extracts and adaptations of copyright material: Entry 282.2 – Extracts from “Errors & Omissions: Another distinctively British usage gets lost on its way across the Atlantic” by Guy Keleny,, 27 August 2010. Reproduced by permission of The Independent.

Sources: Entry 287.3 – The Old Man and the Sea (Kindle Edition) by Ernest Hemingway (Scribner, 2002). Entry 287.3 – Tortilla Flat (Penguin Modern Classics – Kindle Edition) by John Steinbeck (Penguin, 2000). Entry 316.5 – Scots Leid Associe,

Although every effort has been made to trace and contact copyright holders before publication, this has not been possible in some cases. We apologise for any apparent infringement of copyright and, if notified, the publisher will be pleased to rectify any errors or omissions at the earliest possible opportunity.


© Michael Swan 2016

The moral rights of the author have been asserted.