“Mutual Friends”? Common Grammar Goofs That Change Your Meaning

2 min read

Have you ever heard the phrases “mutual friends,” “masterful performance,” or “servicing clients”? Then you’re familiar with some standard terms that are also grammatically incorrect. With so many words with similar roots and meanings, it’s easy to mix up words in the English language. Occasionally, incorrect usage becomes commonplace and accepted, as in several examples below.

Mutual vs. Common

Browse through Facebook and you’ll notice people labeled as “mutual friends.” Though it’s widely used, some grammar sticklers label this term as technically incorrect. Instead, it’s more accurate to use the phrase “friends in common.”

The word “mutual” means “experienced or done by each of two or more parties.” In other words, the term is all about reciprocal feelings or actions. Both people have to be experiencing the same thing. People refer to the love between a married couple as “mutual affection.” Two people who loathe each other are “mutual enemies.” And a real estate contract is drawn up to the parties' “mutual advantage.”

Let’s say Dorothy is friends with Rose, and Stan is friends with Rose. Do Dorothy and Stan have a “mutual friend” in Rose? Nope. Instead, Rose is a “friend in common.”

That’s because the word “common” means something that’s “shared by two or more people.” Dorothy and Rose are “mutual friends” because they both feel friendship for each other. But Rose is a friend that Dorothy and Stan share.

The adjective “common” is used similarly in other phrases such as “common ancestor,” “common sense,” or “common good.” These all refer to people or values shared by others or the community at large.

However, while “mutual friend” isn’t exactly the right way to refer to a third-party friend, people have been ignoring this finicky grammar rule for hundreds of years. Even literary powerhouse Charles Dickens titled his 1865 novel Our Mutual Friend.

Masterful vs. Masterly

The adjectives “masterful” and “masterly” both mean “expert or skillful.” But some grammar gurus believe “masterful” has a more sinister subtext.

Most dictionaries define “masterful” as a synonym of “controlling” or “dominating.” So, a person who is described as “masterful” is not only clever but a bit of a tyrant as well. If this definition is correct, it wouldn’t be accurate to say a violinist gave a “masterful performance” unless the musician was also especially ruthless about it. “Masterly” is defined as “performed or performing in a very skillful and accomplished way.”

Other grammar experts don’t see the need for quite so fine a distinction between “masterful” and “masterly.” But, if you want to play it safe, you can strike the word “masterful” from your vocabulary altogether.

Serving vs. Servicing

A computer repair technician says he looks forward to “servicing” his client again in the future. Unfortunately, it seems like he just committed another common grammar goof.

People are generally “served,” but things are “serviced.” A server at a restaurant can serve your drinks, but the bartender might need to service the taps before pouring your beer.

Featured image credit: PeopleImages/ iStock

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