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Top 10 Most Common Mistakes Made by English Learners

Here are, at least in my opinion, the top 10 most common mistakes made by English learners. I could probably list more, but then it wouldn’t be the top 10, would it?

My name is Michael Stromberg.  I have had the privilege of teaching English as a second language in 38 schools in 9 countries.  I have taught students of myriad nationalities:  Thai, Khmer, Vietnamese, Malaysian, Singaporean, Korean (North and South), Japanese, Chinese, Nepali, Russian, Palauan, Yapese, Chuukese, Chomorro, Italian, French, Mexican, Scottish, and even the odd American and Canadian (and believe me, they were odd!).

If there is one thing that I have gained from all of these experiences it’s that these learners of English make some pretty common mistakes.  I’d like to describe the top 10 common mistakes in English from my experience for you.  Why?  So that if you’re a teacher you will be aware of these top 10 mistakes that English students make, and possibly make your job easier.  And if you’re a LANGUAGE ON English Schools, you can avoid making these same top 10 mistakes in English, and possibly make your job of learning easier too.  Everybody wins!

Read on to discover the the top 10 most common mistakes made by English learners!

1. Wait… there’s more than one?

Yes, there are.  But how do we know?  Well, we have more than one finger, don’t we?  Did you think that they were there just for decoration?

Try this simple exercise:  Teachers, open your wallet and count the number of $100 bills that you have.  OK, that’s not a good example.  Try counting the number of times that you’ve had to say that you were sorry to your significant other.  See what I mean?  (And if you’ve never had to say this or say it only one time, I don’t want to know about it!).

It’s quite simple, really.  As soon as you reach the second time, you merely add an “s” to the end of the word and you have what is commonly called the “plural” form of the noun.  This can be a truly singular experience for many of you.  Hmm…singular…single…1!  Eureka!  I understand now, most revered teacher!  Now can we move on to another most common mistake that English learners have, teacher?  Not so fast, Chae Won.  Remember, this is English, not mathematics.  There are exceptions to every rule.  Otherwise, why else would English teachers be paid?!

Sometimes we have to add “es” to the end of a noun to indicate that it is plural – more than one.  For example, the noun “match” would need the ending “es” added to make it plural, making it “matches”.  Or, if the noun ends in “sh” or “x”, we would again need to add “es” to the end of the word.  “Wishes” is a good example of this.  So you may construct a sentence as follows:  “Against the teacher’s wishes, the students used matches to set the desks on fire.”  (Please note that I don’t condone this activity; I’m simply speaking from experience).

One final note about the use of “s” (or “es”) to create the plural form of a noun.  I always tell my students to think of the “s” as “$”.  Why else are you learning English? 

Don’t stop here! Keep  reading to find out all of the top 10 most common mistakes made by English learners.

2. Can’t we agree on anything?

Yet another common mistake that learners (and teachers!) of English make is that of subject-verb agreement.  No, I’m not talking about whether or not they both want to order Thai food that evening, or whether it was good for both of them, but that the form of the verb is in compliance with the rules set forth by the “authorities”.  I used to think that they were ensconced in some ivory tower in Cambridge or somewhere like that.  I’ve discovered, however, that they are actually other ESL teachers from Australia (or so they say).  Anyway, it’s really simple.  If the subject is he, she, or it, the we add an “s” to the end of the verb.  For example, “The ESL teacher in Bangkok puts  on his tie in the 99 degree heat”.  If the subject is I, you, we, or they, we don’t add an “s” to the end of the verb.  An example of this is:  “I defend myself from the repeated kicks of my students in the Hakwon following their intense dislike of the worksheet that I had handed out”.  Notice that no “s” is used here.  Please also note that British English varies considerably from the American/Canadian English in this regard.  My best advice to you is to politely listen to how they do this and then to scoff about it (politely!) with your colleagues.

3. She’s having contractions!

In the world of common English mistakes there is one little punctuation mark that causes havoc.  It’s the apostrophe, and I’d like to give a trophy to those teachers and students that really understand how to use this little creature.  It’s used in only 2 situations – to indicate possession and to replace one or more letters in certain words.

Let’s talk about possession.  It’s often said that in the legal world, possession is 9/10 of the law.  Is this true in English?  No, that has absolutely nothing to do with this concept.  If something belongs to someone or something (the subject), then we use the apostrophe to indicate this.  For example, “The student’s homework ate his dog”.  Notice that the apostrophe is placed between the end of the subject (student) and a final “s”.  What if it is a plural subject?  “The teachers’ repeated complaints about the poor conditions in the school resulted in the management finally agreeing to install running water at certain times of the day”.  Notice that in this case the apostrophe is placed after the end of the subject (teachers).  It’s that simple!

But teacher, didn’t you just place an apostrophe in a word that didn’t imply possession?  Well, your question just did the same thing!  This is another use of the apostrophe as one of the most common mistakes in English.  Sometimes we place an apostrophe to take the place of certain letters.  Examples are I’m (for I am), didn’t (for did not), and they’re (for they are).  Why do we do this?  It makes our speech sound more fluid and it saves time.  Is it a requirement?  No, it is up to you.  I mean it’s up to you.

Any use of the apostrophe, other than that of possession or contraction, is wrong!

4. Verbs need to conjugate too!

Yet another common mistake in English is how to “conjugate” a verb.  This refers to how a verb changes to show a different person, tense, or mood.

Different person

In English, There are 6 different persons : first person singular (I), second person singular (you), third person singular (he/she/it/one), first person plural (we), second person plural (you) and third person plural (they). We must conjugate a verb for each person. The verb to be is a particularly unruly verb for conjugation because it’s so irregular.  (Possibly bran may help?)

I am

You are


We are

You are

They are

Different tense

We can also conjugate for the different tenses (past, present, future).

I was, I am, I will be

You were, you are, you will be

He was, he is, he will be

We were, we are, we will be

They were, they are, they will be

To conjugate the verb “to eat” in present continuous, it would look like this :

I am eating

You are eating

He/she/it/ is eating

We are eating

You are eating

They are eating

To conjugate the verb “to live” in future perfect continuous, it would look like this :

I will have been living

You will have been living

He/she/it/they will have been living

We will have been living

You will have been living

They will have been living

5. Yo, what it is?

The incorrect ordering of words is another common English mistake.  Have you ever considered that maybe, just maybe, the reason that you have to wait so long for your waiter (or waitress) to bring your words to the table is because you haven’t ordered them correctly?!

If it’s a statement, then it’s the subject followed by the verb:  “It is”.  If it’s a question then it’s the verb followed by the subject:  “Is it?”  (Yes, I’m sure about that!).

6. Can you count to two too?

If one is the loneliest number, I certainly wouldn’t opine that this is true of the number two, as it is crowded by a couple of impersonators.  The misunderstanding and improper usage of these simple but quite different words is yet another one of the top 10 common English mistakes made by learners (and teachers) of English, in my experience.  The word “to” is used as a preposition, indicating direction or identifying a person or thing affected (“He’s going to the market” and “She’s nice to him”), an infinitive (“to teach”), and even as an adverb (“He moved the chair to between them”).

Two, is of course, the correct spelling of the number 2.  Too can mean either also or more than enough.  For example, ”Yoo-hoo, I’ve had too much of this voodoo too”.

We are halfway there! Keep going to learn all of the top 10 most common mistakes made by English learners.

7. Lose that loose attitude towards vocabulary!

This top 10 common English mistake is such an easy one to fix in my opinion.  “Lose” means to have had someone or something and then not know where it is, to be on the short end of a cricket match, or, even worse, to know where it is but not have it any more.  For example, “Ryan, I’d highly advise you to not go to Patpong this evening if you don’t want to lose all of your money!”.  “Loose” means simply that something (or someone) is not tight.  “The class was extremely loose, so that the students were easily able to circulate counterfeit attendance sheets”.

Follow these simple rules and you can’t lose!  Hey, if you don’t like the examples above maybe you need to loosen up!

8. How are you doing?

No, this is not an idle question.  This next top 10 common English mistake is the mistake of using adjectives in the place of adverbs.  In its most general usage, an adverb modifies a verb.  This means that it gives the verb quality, as an adjective gives quality to a noun.

For example:

A major restaurant chain says to “Eat Fresh”.  Oops!

A major airline boasts that you can now “fly direct” from city A to city B. Oops again!

I guess that those top MBA executives don’t know their grammar well enough, or worse, that they think that the general public is too ignorant to notice or even care.  Well, I care!

So (you know who you are), why not claim to “Eat Freshly”?  And major airline, why not boast that you can fly directly.  Just add -ly to the end of  the adjective and you’ll be speaking (or writing) correctly.

9. Stand up and be counted!

This top 10 common English mistake has always been one of the most vexing to me.  In my experience many students believe that the pronunciation, or more specifically, enunciation, of certain letters in a given word is optional.  This is not French that we are talking about!  In English each letter is there for a reason.  That reason is so that it can and should be enunciated.  Sure, some letters are silent and are just sitting around.  I don’t honestly doubt that.  (This may be in deference to the French, so that they don’t feel as if they’ve gone overboard).

Pronounce each letter in a word as if you mean it.  Otherwise, you’ll never be able to properly insult your English teacher!

10. In toe nation!

This final common English mistake refers more to style than anything else.  In addition to properly using grammar, vocabulary, and punctuation, one should be able to use the quality of intonation to give more meaning to what he/she is trying to say.  This can also apply to writing, in a much subtler manner.

Stress, or emphasize, the important words that you want to express.  Don’t be afraid to raise your voice when you want to express an important word or phrase of your communication.  Lower your voice when you want to say something that is not as important.  Don’t speak in a monotone – you’ll sound like a television news reporter reading from a list of industrial production numbers in some totalitarian regime.  Or worse, you’ll sound like one of my previous headmasters in an after-hours staff meeting in which we were chained to our seats.

Use body language and even your hands if you feel the need.  If you can integrate all of the above remedies with high-quality intonation and body language you may even be able to be a viable participant in an all-out argument among teachers about some inane grammar point.

Congrats! You have read all of the top 10 most common mistakes made by English learners.

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Well, that’s it! I hope you have enjoyed the Top 10 Mistakes Made by English Learners. 

6 thoughts on “Top 10 Most Common Mistakes Made by English Learners”

  1. There is a mistake In this sentence: ““The student’s homework ate his dog”” It should say “His dog ate the student’s homework”. Otherwise it says that the homework ate the dog, which is completely absurd.

  2. Interesting, just done skimming this post. Very amazing information you got there. Definitely following your web! Thank you a lot.


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