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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