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Top Grammatical Error of 2018–Do You Avoid It?

When a newspaper makes the mistake on the front page of the sports section, you know an error has spread. The writer, copyeditor, and proofreader all missed it. Can you recognize it?


When I saw that error in a Seattle TImes headline, I cringed, but I wasn’t surprised. Just a couple of nights earlier, I had heard a pundit on a talk show use the same incorrect verb phrase: have came. 

Here’s the problem: Came is a past tense verb. But when you use a helping verb such as has, have, or had (or variations such as could have, will have, etc.), you need the past participle form: come. The headline should have read “may have come of age.”

To avoid mistakes like that one, you need to know your past tense and past participle verb forms. And you probably do. But there are a few tricky ones that I have sprinkled into the test below.

Fill in the blanks below with the correct verb forms. Then compare your answers with mine.

Example: Verb=go. I had ______ to lunch before I realized you needed the report right away. (The blank needs the verb form gone.)

  1. Verb=write. Has anyone _____ to Dr. Crabbe about the system?
  2. Verb=run. No one knew that Dale Richards had _____ for City Council.
  3. Verb=swim. Katy has _____ this race several times before.
  4. Verb=lend. This morning the bank _____ Diane’s business $25,000.
  5. Verb=begin. The program has already _____.
  6. Verb=take. Has Reetha _____ the bar exam yet?
  7. Verb=lead. The teacher already  _____ the students in singing the national anthem.
  8. Verb=drive. Naomi has _____ from Chicago to Philadelphia before.
  9. Verb=see. Has Pablo _____ a specialist about the pain in his arm?
  10. Verb=choose. Tisha has already _____ the colors for the logo.
  11. Verb=buy. Ask Gina where she has _____ the lanyards in the past.
  12. Verb=come. Our team has _____ from behind many times.
  13. Verb=ride. Rob _____ his bike every day last week.
  14. Verb=lie (recline). I should not have _____ in the sun so long.
  15. Verb=forecast. The team _____ this problem last year.


My answers, based on Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary:

  1. Verb=write. Has anyone written to Dr. Crabbe about the system?
  2. Verb=run. No one knew that Dale Richards had run for City Council.
  3. Verb=swim. Katy has swum this race several times before.
  4. Verb=lend. This morning the bank lent Diane’s business $25,000.
  5. Verb=begin. The program has already begun.
  6. Verb=take. Has Reetha taken the bar exam yet?
  7. Verb=lead. The teacher already led the students in singing the national anthem.
  8. Verb=drive. Naomi has driven from Chicago to Philadelphia before.
  9. Verb=see. Has Pablo seen a specialist about the pain in his arm?
  10. Verb=choose. Tisha has already chosen the colors for the logo.
  11. Verb=buy. Ask Gina where she has bought the lanyards in the past.
  12. Verb=come. Our team has come from behind many times.
  13. Verb=ride. Rob rode his bike every day last week.
  14. Verb=lie (recline). I should not have lain in the sun so long.
  15. Verb=forecast. The team forecast or forecasted this problem last year.


If you need to confirm a past tense or past participle verb form, use a dictionary. It will show you both forms in addition to the –ing form. If it shows just one past tense form, then the past tense and past participle are the same.

Here you can see that lay is the correct past tense of lie, lain is the correct past participle, and the –ing form is lying. 

Dictionary with lie_lay_lain

Which verbs fooled you?

I wish you an error-free 2019!


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By Lynn Gaertner-Johnston

Lynn Gaertner-Johnston has helped thousands of employees and managers improve their business writing skills and confidence through her company, Syntax Training. In her corporate training career of more than 20 years, she has worked with executives, engineers, scientists, sales staff, and many other professionals, helping them get their messages across with clarity and tact.

A gifted teacher, Lynn has led writing classes at more than 100 companies and organizations such as MasterCard, Microsoft, Boeing, Nintendo, REI, AARP, Ledcor, and Kaiser Permanente. Near her home in Seattle, Washington, she has taught managerial communications in the MBA programs of the University of Washington and UW Bothell. She has created a communications course, Business Writing That Builds Relationships, and provides the curriculum at no cost to college instructors.

A recognized expert in business writing etiquette, Lynn has been quoted in "The Wall Street Journal," "The Atlantic," "Vanity Fair," and other media.

Lynn sharpened her business writing skills at the University of Notre Dame, where she earned a master's degree in communication, and at Bradley University, with a bachelor's degree in English.

24 comments on “Top Grammatical Error of 2018–Do You Avoid It?”

  • Hi Kelly,

    I think “Seahawks defense” is fine. We can regard it as an adjective, similar to “Beatles song,” “Supreme Court decision,” and “California fires.”

    Thanks for commenting.


  • Hi Bart,

    I haven’t found speaking aloud to be helpful in choosing correct verbs. In my experience, verb phrases such as “have led” (correctly spelled), “had lain,” and “has swum” don’t come naturally to people. But if that approach works for you, excellent!

    Thanks for stopping by.


  • Hi Lynn, great post. It’s always so funny (cringe-worthy, indeed) to see these in print. I am curious…what do you think about “Seahawks defense…” ? Is it considered possessive, and would we need an apostrophe after the s at the end?

  • All one really has to do is speak the sentence out loud…unless you’re from a part of the country that says “buyed”.

  • As English is my second language, I saw the error right away. Past participle is the trickiest tense to learn. The verbs you used in your test stand out, and one has to pay special attention to them when learning English. Native speakers have luxury to speak or write incorrectly and get away with it. For example, it frustrates me to see “your” instead of “you are”. It comes in emails a lot. I read your posts all the time and am grateful for the opportunity to improve my writing. Thank you Lynn, please keep doing it.

  • OK, Lynn, you got me! I read the headline 4 or 5 times–even out loud. Problem? EVERY time I read it, I automatically corrected “came” to “come”–both in my head and when reading out loud. When I read your comment on what was the error, I was stunned. I was thinking you wanted “Seahawks’ defense” (which as you wrote to Kelly, is acceptable).

    BTW, more and more common (even ubiquitous?) is writing “then” rather than “than”. If the wrong verb form is #1, then mixing “then” and “than” has got to be #2.

    I shall be more careful of my proofreading in the future. Thanks for the note.

  • Hi everyone! It was fun to wake up to your comments.

    Olga, it’s interesting that you recognized the error right away because of your English language study. I am learning these rules in Spanish. I don’t think I would recognize an error in Spanish immediately, but I am certainly attuned to past tense and past participles. Regarding other errors that native English speakers make, I can’t agree that they get away with them. Somebody is noticing. By the way, thanks for your kind remarks.

    John, I had to laugh at your comment. I can just imagine you reading the headline over and over. I proofread my book “Business Writing With Heart” several times, and a proofreader reviewed it as well. Still, a couple of typos sneaked by. You’re right about “then” and “than.” I received an email from a writing and publishing coach, with the subject “Would You Rather Cuddle Up With a Good Book Then Market It?”

    Kumar, you are welcome.

    Peter, I’m sorry it’s confusing. Maybe I’ll do another blog with more details. However, I bet you normally choose correct verbs because you have heard and seen them used correctly. The answer in Number 3 must be “has swum” because “swum” is the past participle form–the one that goes with a helping verb. You’ll notice that I included “has” in the sentence, so the only correct form is “swum.” Use a dictionary when you have a doubt about a verb in your writing.

    Anita, very few people know and use “lain,” but it is correct. When I first started teaching business writing many years ago, I used to teach lie-lay-lain and lay-laid-laid (for “to set”), but people never seemed to get it. So now I just encourage people to say “I stayed in the sun too long.” We choose our battles!

    JC, I don’t know where people learn these rules anymore. Perhaps on this blog? I watched my daughter (now age 24) go through school, and I never saw homework on correct verbs.

    I appreciate your thoughtful comments!


  • Ugh! This is my #1 pet peeve in today’s language errors. It is so common now that I fear it will take over and push out the rule of grammar. How can they not be teaching this in school? (But then again, I’ve heard teachers make these mistakes too, so there you go.)

  • I’m in the same boat as John Held. I read it several times and automatically corrected it in my head without noticing the mistake. I too focused on Seahawks missing an apostrophe.

  • I was stuck on the verb for lend as lent (#4). I wanted to say loaned but realized that lend and loan are two different verbs. Tricky indeed.

  • Hi Phil,

    Yes, that a/o error is apparently easy to miss. Lucky for us, a grammar and spelling checker WILL catch it.


  • Hi Pamela,

    In my experience, many people make that error. It’s rare that I see “lent” used correctly. Glad you realized the difference!


  • Thanks Lynn! I have more verb questions for you! I often see “sunk” used as the past tense of “sink” (e.g., “The Titanic sunk in 1912”), even in publication. Is that really considered correct now? Whatever happened to “sank”? I’ve seen the same thing with the past tense of “drink.” Another example: “The sun shined brightly today.” I was taught that the past tense was “shone,” but I can’t remember the last time I saw that in print. Thanks for your expertise; you are my go-to source for correct grammar!

  • Hi Lynn!

    Bear in mind that my first language is italian… I was fooled by “swum” and “begun” (but I was aware of my mistakes even before checking your answers!), plus I had no idea about the verb “lie”. So that makes 3 mistakes and I consider it not that bad!

  • Hi Lorelee,

    Great questions! I thought I knew all the answers, but I had several surprises.

    First, “drink”: My “American Heritage College Dictionary” gives the expected “drink, drank, drunk”–with “drunk” as the past participle form (“have drunk”). But my “Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary” gives both “drunk” and “drank” for the past participle form. In other words, “have drank” would also be correct by those rules. Strange! (Grammarly wants to correct the “have drank” that I just typed.) However, I’m happy to report that “The Chicago Manual of Style” allows only “drink, drank, drunk.”

    Then, “sink”: Both of the dictionaries I mentioned above offer “sink, sank or sunk, sunk.” So “The Titanic sunk” is correct by their rules. However, “Chicago” allows only “sank” as the past tense verb. It specifically states “Avoid using ‘sunk’ as a simple past, as in ‘the ship sunk.'”

    Finally, “shine”: Both dictionaries show “shone or shined” as the past and the past participle forms. But it’s more complicated than that. “Chicago” points out that “shine, shone, shone” is correct for something that shines like a star. But the past tense “shined” is appropriate for polishing something, such as “He shined the candlesticks.” Neither dictionary makes that point obvious at the beginning of the word entry. However, both do show “shined” as the correct verb for the transitive verb form as in “to make bright by polishing.”

    By the way, I also just checked my “Canadian Oxford Dictionary” for another opinion. It gives this information:

    –drink, drank, drunk (like “Chicago”).

    –sink, sank or sunk, sunk (However, it adds, “Although both ‘sank’ and ‘sunk’ are used as the simple past of ‘sink,’ ‘sunk’ is more informal and is best avoided in written texts.”)

    –shine, shone. (It gives only “shone” as the past and past participle forms at the top of the entry. Later it offers “shined” for the past and past participle forms of the transitive verb: “shined his shoes.”)

    Thanks for your question, Lorelee. I learned something this morning.


  • Hi Debby,

    You did well for someone who speaks English as a foreign language. Nice work!

    You will hear many Americans using the wrong verb in the examples you gave, especially “lie.” Don’t let hearing incorrect verbs make you doubt your correctness.

    Thanks for commenting.


  • This really looks bad and impact badly on the English Writers. They have to work on their mistakes. Sometimes, I also notice some mistakes in English Newspaper and avoid. But we also know that English is one of the most widely used and spoken languages in the world. It’s really a hot top you have shared. Keep posting and sharing. Thanks.

  • Lately I hear and see a lot of the article “an” used when the following word begins with a consonant, e.g., an basket. It’s understandable before a word beginning with “h”, which is sometimes voiced (heavy) and sometimes not (hour), and where there may be regional differences, as between the American and British “herbs”. (I know English articles and other “little words” can be maddening — my own father never got the hang of him/her/it and often referred to me as him or it.) Because some of my Indian friends make the a/an mistake, especially in writing, where one can’t hear the dissonance of two consonants bumping into each other, I suspect “an” must be used differently in Indian English, which was learned from the British — not sure, just speculating!

  • Hi Tina,

    Thanks for stopping by with a comment. I offer a couple of corrections for you below so you can continue to improve.

    This really looks bad and IMPACTS badly on English writers.

    Sometimes, I also notice some mistakes in English NEWSPAPERS and avoid THEM.

    It’s really a hot TOPIC you have shared.


  • Hi Linda,

    Interesting! I don’t hear or see examples of “an” before a consonant sound–only the h, as you mentioned.

    However, I find many examples of “a” before a vowel sound. In my world, that one vies for the commonest error.

    Thanks for the observation.


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