Now you’ve done it.
You made an English mistake, and you’re feeling so embarrassed!
Your face feels hot and you’d like to disappear.
You’d like to catch the next airplane to your home country.
That’s okay. Embarrassment is universal, and everyone makes mistakes when learning a new language. Often, when you’re learning a new language, embarrassment occurs as the result of a spoken or written error.
Why You Should Learn About Common English Mistakes
Have you ever made a mistake while speaking in English? Perhaps you have had some awkward English language situations.
For example, after English class you want to give your teacher a compliment, so you say, “You teach English good.”
It took quite a bit of courage to speak with your teacher directly.
She says, “You think I teach English well? Thank you!” Ah, you forgot that you should not use “good” to describe a verb. Instead you should use “well” to describe a verb. English is so tricky. Instead of feeling pride in your attempt to speak—which is what you should always feel—you begin to feel ashamed of your grammatical mistake.
Here’s another example. Perhaps a good English-speaking friend of yours is moving away to another town or another country. To say goodbye, you tell them, “I will always forget you.” He begins to laugh, and says, “I will never forget you either.”
Later, you realize that you mixed up the words “forget” and “always,” and so the meaning of your well-rehearsed farewell speech makes you feel foolish.
Many English students seem obsessed with perfecting their language learning, and become frustrated when they make errors and spend hours trying to correct those errors. Shame and embarrassment bother every one of us from time to time.
However, while you might try to prepare for embarrassing moments, you can never fully prevent them. With a little bit of skill, those uncomfortable moments can turn into opportunities for learning, humor and maybe even friendship.
It might be a relief for some to learn that even native speakers make mistakes. So before we make fun of non-native English speakers, it’s important to realize that native speakers make mistakes all the time.
For example, on English-language TV programs, characters often say things like, “This is your guy’s cat, right?” Actually, that sentence is supposed to be, “This cat belongs to you guys, right?”
Television writers might be trying to match the level of correct English grammar spoken in “the real world,” but they end up creating more errors than they know.
After all, many English language learners are watching TV to learn how to improve their grammar. Misunderstandings and confusions occur when English mistakes prevent clear communication. Many of these problems can exist in both written and spoken English.
Native English speakers also replace “good” with “well” all the time, so if you’ve ever done it, you’re definitely not the only one!
What follows are the top 15 English mistakes that English language learners make, and how you can avoid making those same errors.
15 Common Mistakes in English You Can Easily Avoid Making
Each example has a common English mistake. See if you can figure out what the mistake is, and then read the tip for more information.
1. It’s or Its
Example Mistake: The spider spun it’s web. Its a very beautiful web.
Tip: “Its,” without an apostrophe, is the possessive version of a pronoun. In the above example, we should use the possessive “its” to talk about the spider’s web, because the web belongs to the spider.
“It’s,” with an apostrophe, is a contraction of “it is” or “it has.” When talking about the beauty of the web, we’re saying that it is a very beautiful web. Therefore, we should use the contraction “it’s” instead of “its.”
So, if you’re not sure which spelling to use—”it’s” or “its”—try adding “it is” or “it has” to the sentence. If neither of those phrases works, then its is the word you’re looking for. For example, “the spider spun it is web” and “the spider spun it has web” do not make any sense. That’s why you should say “the spider spun its web.”
Correction: The spider spun its web. It’s a very beautiful web.
2. Subject-verb Agreement
Example Mistake: The list of items are on the desk.
Tip: In the above sentence, the list of items is one singular list. Therefore, we should not use “are.” We should use “is.”
Correction: The list of items is on the desk.
3. Gone or Went
Example Mistake: She had already went to the bathroom before they got in the car.
Tip: If you aren’t sure whether to use “gone” or “went,” remember that “gone” always needs an auxiliary verb before it. Auxiliary verbs include: has, have, had, is, am, are, was, were, be.
“Went” can’t have an auxiliary verb before it.
In the sentence above, we used “went” even though the auxiliary verb “had” is also present. Since the word “had” is there, we should use “gone” instead of “went.”
Correction: She had already gone to the bathroom before they got in the car.
4. Watch, Look, See
Example Mistake: Stop watching my private journal. / I look at the snow falling. / I don’t play tennis, but I look at them playing every day.
Tip: “See,” “look” and “watch” are often confused in meaning. However, they should be used in different situations. The difference between the three verbs can be explained in the following way:
- Look — to look at something directly.
- See — to see something that comes into our sight that we weren’t looking for.
- Watch — to look at something carefully, usually at something that’s moving.
So, we can “see” something even if we don’t want to, but we can only “look at” something on purpose.
Correction: Stop looking at my private journal. / I watch the snow falling. / I don’t play tennis, but I see them playing every day.
5. Pronoun Misplacement
Example Mistake: Take a deep breath through your nose and hold it.
Tip: The singular pronoun in the sentence should stand in for nouns, but here it’s unclear which noun it’s standing in for. The singular noun closest to the word “it” is “nose,” so it seems that “hold it” means to hold your nose. Instead, we want someone to hold their breath—not their nose.
When we use pronouns properly, we must easily understand which single noun the pronoun stands for. Make sure to be very clear. If it’s unclear, don’t use the pronoun or change the sentence!
Correction: Take a breath through your nose and hold your breath.
6. Future Tense
Example Mistake: I will be going to the dance party yesterday.
Tip: The future tense is being used to talk about the wrong time in the sentence above, since the sentence is talking about something that happened in the past, yesterday. You should only use the future tense when something has not happened yet, but it’s going to happen in the future.
Correction: I will be going to the dance party tomorrow.
7. Literally or Figuratively
Example Mistake: I’m literally melting because it’s so hot. / Figuratively speaking, it’s 100 degrees out here.
Tip: This is a mistake because “literally” means “actually” or “really,” and “figuratively” means not real. “Figuratively” is used to exaggerate, or enlarge the meaning of something.
Correction: Figuratively speaking, I’m melting because it’s so hot. / It’s literally 100 degrees out here.
8. Loan or Borrow
Example Mistake: Can you borrow me that book? You can loan me my notes.
Tip: The listener may be confused since “loan” means “to give” and “borrow” means “to take.” It’s simple memorization that’s required to get the correct meaning.
For example, “borrow me that book” means “take me that book” in the above example. Where do you want the listener to take the book? That isn’t what you meant to say!
Instead, you would like to use the book, so you want someone to give it to you.
Correction: Can you loan me that book? You can borrow my notes.
9. Casual or Formal
Example Mistake: (At job interview) “Hey, what’s up?”
Tip: Know your audience! Casual talk is for friends, not your boss. This isn’t formal, it’s slang. It can even be considered inappropriate or rude. To speak more formally in English, you should avoid contractions (say “how is” instead of “how’s”) and try to be more polite.
Correction: “Hello, how is everything going?”
10. Since or For
Example Mistake: I have known him for always. I saw him since last year.
Tip: You use “for” if you don’t have to calculate the period of time, because the amount of time is indicated in the sentence already. You use “since” if you have to calculate the period of time, because you only have the starting point.
Correction: I have lived here for two months. (You don’t have to calculate, you know the period is “two months.” ) / I have lived here since 1975. (You have to calculate now. If you came in 1975—the starting point—and now it’s 2016.)
11. Academic English or Casual Texting Language
Example Mistake: (In an academic paper) If u want to know my opinion tho, IDK who should be president.
Tip: Try to break the habit of using text language to communicate your ideas. Write everything out completely. This text style is inappropriate language to use for academic purposes. Slang words like “IDK” (which stands for “I don’t know”) are good for conversation and texting only.
Correction: If you want to know my opinion, I do not know who should be president.
Example Mistake: (in a business letter) Dear Mrs. Jones: I am still interested in the job and want to thank you for the interview! I hope you will consider me for the following programs, A, B and C.
Tip: Be sure you understand the purpose for your punctuation.
In the example above, when you address Mrs. Jones, you should only include a comma.
Colons (:) are used when you want to make a list of something, and usually not when you’re addressing someone.
The exclamation point may be viewed as unprofessional. Often, they’re used to illustrate strong emotion, which is something a potential employer might not care for.
Correction: Dear Mrs. Jones, I am still interested in the job, and I wanted to thank you for the interview. I hope you will consider me for the following programs: A, B and C.
13. Run-on Sentences
Example Mistake: I am a woman and I am a good mother and I am an office worker.
Tip: If you can’t say it in one breath, you shouldn’t write it like that either. A run-on is a sentence in which two or more independent clauses (i.e., complete sentences) are joined without appropriate punctuation. The example is missing a period after “woman,” and the example should contain two separate sentences.
Correction: I am a woman. I am a good mother and an office worker.
Example Mistake: A womans hat was left on the bus. / Two dogs use the dish. It is the dogs’s dish.
Tip: Apostrophes indicate that a noun owns something. There are no apostrophes in the first sentence, even though you’re talking about the hat which is owned by the woman.
In the second sentence, there is more than one dog, but the apostrophe is not used correctly. Singular nouns will always add ‘s when you’re indicating possession, even if the noun ends with “s.” Plural nouns that do not end in “s” also take an ‘s. However, plural nouns that end with “s” have an apostrophe added after the “s.”
Correction: A woman‘s hat was left on the bus. / Two dogs use the dish. It is the dogs’ dish.
Example Mistake: one rainy day, i saw sarah at Union street library.
Tip: In this example, Union is the only item that has been capitalized when there should be more.
In terms of capitalization, ask yourself three questions:
- Is this the first letter in a sentence? If the answer is yes, then you should capitalize that word. In this sentence, the first word is “one,” so “one” should be capitalized.
- Is this the pronoun “I”? If yes, capitalize. “I” should always be capitalized.
- Am I using a name that someone gave to this thing or person? If yes, capitalize. “Sarah” should be capitalized, and “Union Street Library” should be completely capitalized because it’s the given name of a location.
Correction: One rainy day, I saw Sarah at Union Street Library.
Some people think that becoming fluent in another language means talking fast and using big, fancy words. However, fluency is easy to achieve by simply talking.
If you practice speaking, you will be able to speak faster and with more confidence. You also want to make sure you also have good comprehension as well. It’s much better to be slow and correct than be fast and make tons of mistakes.
Why? If you’re slow and correct, you can easily improve the way in which you speak, read or write. But first you’ve got to practice. Eventually, you’ll feel like you can speak or write anything!
If you follow the above rules and still make a lot of mistakes when speaking, you should probably switch to writing for a while. It’s easier to produce correct sentences when writing because you can use the dictionary and the Internet to double check your common mistakes. You don’t even have to worry about good pronunciation.
Just take a deep breath and tell yourself that failure is just a part of the learning process. Take responsibility for your mistakes, but don’t make yourself crazy.
Enjoy yourself and have fun as you learn! Most importantly, admire your strengths and others will too.
Take the lessons you’ve learned and move forward.
When you turn each failure into a learning opportunity, you’ll grow stronger and more capable with each mistake you make.
Michelle Suzanne Snyder is a freelance writer. She has taught ESL and lived in three different countries. She believes the benefits of language learning are endless.
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