Foreign and native English speakers make mistakes – here are the most common

 

Oops

I’m often surprised when my French husband asks me to correct something he’s written in English.  But he’s right: even though he’s been a fluent English speaker for decades, he still makes mistakes.

It got me thinking – what are the most common errors non-native speakers make in English? After some research, here’s what I found:

– Definite and indefinite articles.  Whether your native language doesn’t have articles, or uses them differently, this can be confusing.  A lot of non-native speakers I know seem to especially have trouble with the difference between “a” and “an”. I’m surprised how many people have learned English without anyone telling them the rule.

Countable and uncountable nouns.  Should you use “how much” or “how many” with words like “money”, “people”, “bananas”, or “rice”?

– Capitalization.  Different languages have different capitalization rules or sometimes, none at all.  What makes learning the rules in English even harder is the fact that they don’t always apply online or in text messages, so non-native speakers today have a lot less exposure to them than they did in the past.

– The present perfect tense.  This tense doesn’t exist in many languages and it’s not particularly easy to explain or understand right off the bat.

– Prepositions. This is one of the ways you can spot even the most gifted non-native speaker.  Prepositions are small, tricky things that often have rather complex rules and exceptions to them.

Of course, these and other common errors can vary depending on how your native language works. For example, this English teacher writes that many Spanish speakers have trouble remembering to include a subject in English sentences since the subject is often implied by the verb in Spanish sentences.  This wouldn’t be a problem for speakers of many other languages.

But let’s be fair – even when you’re a native speaker, you can still make mistakes.  This site has a pretty great list of the most common errors native English speakers make, including:

-Apostrophe usage. Whether it’s forgetting to add them, or — more bafflingly — adding them in when they’re totally unnecessary, apostrophes are so frequently misused by us native speakers that there are actually multiple articles, websites, and social media accounts devoted to sharing apostrophe fails.

-Confusing similar words, like “you’re” and “your”, “it’s” and “its”, “then” and “than”, etc.)

-Saying “could/would/should of”, instead of “could/would/should have.

-Confusing “fewer” and “less than.”  Countable and uncountable nouns aren’t just a challenge for non-native speakers!  Generally, “fewer” is used for things you can count (“dollars”), and “less” is left for the uncountable (“money”).  But the fact that so many English speakers use these interchangeably makes me wonder if both expressions will be used the same way in the decades or centuries to come.

Interestingly, this has already happened with “more than” vs. “over”.  Many of us learned that “more than” is used with numbers and “over” with non-numeric terms.   But as Grammar Girl, Mignon Fogarty, reported in this 2014 article, the Associated Press now considers that these two can be used interchangeably and have modified the rule in the famous AP Stylebook.  Also according to Fogarty, this change makes sense anyway; our British cousins never followed the rule, which seems to have originated in the late 19th century due to New York Evening Post editor William Cullen Bryant’s dislike of using “over” before a number.

Luckily for native and foreign English speakers alike, language is always evolving, so the mistakes you’re currently making may one day be perfectly legit.  But for now, try to be aware of them and avoid them if you can.

by Alysa Salzberg

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2 thoughts on “Foreign and native English speakers make mistakes – here are the most common

  1. I’m from Germany, and have been a fluent English speaker since 2003.
    From your list I believe for me the challenge is a little bit with capitalization and definitely prepositions. (I remember hating them in English class back in high school.)
    But in addition to your list my biggest difficulty is with word order and punctuation, specifically comma rules are very different than in the German language.
    The mistakes of native speakers that drive me crazy are should of (how did of become a good substitute for have??) and pacifically instead of specifically ( don’t get me going, yes, people say it, I’ve heard it from at least three professional working people and one of them even wrote it in an email, I nearly had a small heart attack).

    • Hi Senta, this is Alysa, the author of this piece. Thanks for reading and commenting! I totally understand how you as a speaker of English as a foreign language must be annoyed by the mistakes you mentioned. In answer to your question, the way native speakers get these words mixed up is simply that they sound so much like the words they should be. I know it’s especially hard for people who are exposed to most American accents: because we don’t tend to pronounce consonants as distinctly as many British speakers, for example, it’s easy for “have” to sound like “uv”, which is how “of” is pronounced. As for “specifically” and “pacifically,” I think it’s just the case of both being longer words with lots of similar sounds. But yeah, I’m not a fan of the mix-up, either. Still, I know I make mistakes of my own – I guess we all do, which is one of the many things that make speaking a language so interesting and challenging. I know in my second language, French, there are similarly confused words, or, often, incorrect endings because many are spelled very differently but sound the same. Are there any obvious-seeming, but understandable, errors in German?

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