10 Common ESL Mistakes

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This is a guest post by Pratiti Diddi. If you want to write for Daily Writing Tips check the guidelines here.

Learning a new language is never easy. Below you will find ten common mistakes among students of English as a second language. Even if you are a native English speaker I guess you could use a reminder on some of them.

Incorrect: My sister is photographer.
Correct: My sister is a photographer.

Incorrect: It is more cold today.
Correct: It is colder today.

Incorrect: I have told you all what I know.
Correct: I have told you all (that) I know.

Incorrect: Which is the biggest city of the world?
Correct: Which is the biggest city in the world?

Incorrect: I have done a mistake.
Correct: I have made a mistake.

Incorrect: I have been here since three days.
Correct: I have been here for three days.

Incorrect: We waited one and a half hour.
Correct: We waited one and a half hours.

Incorrect: According to me, it’s a bad film.
Correct: In my opinion, it’s a bad film.

Incorrect: It’s getting winter.
Correct: It’s getting to be winter.

Incorrect: Except Angie, everybody was there.
Correct: Except for Angie, everybody was there.

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30 thoughts on “10 Common ESL Mistakes”

  1. Incorrect: It is more cold today.
    Me: Today is colder.

    Incorrect: According to me, it’s a bad film.
    Me: I think it’s a bad film.

    (Did we just discuss dropping the apostrophe even for the “it is” contraction?)

    Incorrect: It’s getting winter.
    Me: It’s getting to be winter.
    Me: The weather is getting to be more like winter.

    Incorrect: Except Angie, everybody was there.
    Me: Excepting Angie, everybody was there.
    Me: Everybody was there, except Angie.
    Me: Everybody was there except Angie.

    (This depends on whether the emphasis was on Angie missing out, or that the group was complete except for her.)

  2. I’m not sure about the other examples, but I don’t think that the use of “Its” is correct in the given correct example, see below (and “Its” isn’t even the only mistake in this simple example):

    Incorrect: It’s getting winter.
    Correct: Its getting to winter.

    This makes me wonder about the correctness of the other examples. Maybe a ‘guest author’ should ask for editorial help before he hits the final button that submits his estimations of right and wrong to a site dedicated to the proper use of English. Whatever that may be, of course.

  3. Actually, here in Texas, “I have told you all what I know” is pretty common. 🙂 But said more like “I told y’all what I know!”

  4. Karla,
    I know you’re joking, but for those readers who may not be familiar with the usage of y’all, your two sentences are very different grammatically.

    I have told you all what I know. Here “all” is the object of “told” and “what” should be a relative pronoun: I have told you all that I know.

    I told y’all what I know! Here “what I know” is a noun clause used as the direct object of “told” and “y’all” is the indirect object.

  5. All who have commented on ELS in the title,

    I should have caught that. I did look at the post before it was published, but I obviously didn’t pay attention to the headline. Sorry.

    I hesitated over the winter example, but I have heard the expression “getting to winter” so I let it stand. For example, a blogger offers the following for readers to respond to:

    You know it’s getting to winter when….

    I’ve gone ahead and changed it since in an ordinary context it would sound odd.

    I think our guest writers are doing a fine job. I’m trying not to meddle with their writing more than necessary.

  6. egorbrandt, “it’s” is a contraction of the words “it is” or “it has.” “Its” is a possessive pronoun. The writer’s example of “It’s getting to be winter” [it is getting to be…] is correct.

  7. @Maeve,

    I know I kicked off the criticism. I do recognize that ESL, English as a Second Language, is an issue for many, for both native English speakers and those learning or polishing their English skills. I also recognize that these examples are contrived, intended only to highlight and elucidate a single point of grammar.

    I likely should have been more courteous in my first comment, to reassure Pratiti Diddi that I wasn’t criticizing the exercise, I just meddle a bit. Well, Okay, I meddle a lot. That was why I labeled my alternatives “Me:” and not “Correct:”, I offered my own reaction and not a technical or editorial correction. Sorry.

    @ Karla,

    My understanding is that “y’all” means “all of you”, as in, “each one of you in the whole group”.

    And I like the exclamation point. If you have to say, “I told you. .”, you are obviously repeating yourself. And the listener needs to show some respect, and pay attention!

  8. Brad: ‘Y’all” can refer to one person or a group of people. Usually for a group, they’d say “all y’all” (I say “they” because I grew up in Iowa–we say “you guys.”) e.g.: “When are y’all leaving today?” said to one person. “When are all y’all going to be done for today”–said to a group of people (instead of “all of you”). I’m guessing the y’all comes from translating from French “vous” or Spanish “ustedes” which both are plural forms of you.

  9. Karla: I’m certain you’re correct that “y’all” is used for second person plural in spoken American English of a regional dialect, also like “you guys,” “yous,” etc. in oher regions. Since in standard English uses the same word (you) for second person singlular and second person plural, those forms for the spoken word would make that distinction.

  10. Karla,
    In my home dialect, you is singular, y’all is plural. It’s a very useful distinction when teaching a foreign language in these parts. For example, in French, “tu” is “you” and “vous” is “y’all.”


  11. There’s no “right on the mark, for the most part” – it’s either right, or wrong, even for ESL students, even for ESL tutors.

    Having said that, I realize a lot of misinformation has crept into the comments. Bull’s eye with M. Maddox who doesn’t seem to understand the use of the French ‘vous’ and still wants us to think she or he actually does – I know, it’s rather hard to grasp the distinction between singular and plural vous for ‘native’ English speakers. So, why even mention it, before looking it up in an FSL tutorial?

  12. egorbrandt,
    Of course I’m thinking of translation exercises in which students are working with singular tu and vous as a plural, not sentences in which vous is singular.

    Btw. Readers’ comments are usually friendly.

  13. egobrandt: Why don’t you take the time to explain rather than flame. You’re correct. Using the French “vous” is a bad example to explain second person plural because it’s just like English. The use of “usted” and “ustedes” in Spanish may be a better example to explain second person singular and plural. Like most Latin based languages, second person has familiar and formal forms. So, while “tu” in French (and also Spanish) is second person singular, so is “vous” – “tu” is familiar and “vous” is formal. English has only one way of saying “you.” However, like English, the French “vous” also is used for second person plural. Spanish provides a better comparison where second person singular is both “tu” (familiar) and “usted” (formal), but second person plural for both familiar and formal forms (y’all, yous, you guys, etc. in Amercian English) would be “ustedes” as Karla stated above (Comment #8).

  14. maeve,

    Thank you for explaining what you thought after you’d thoughtlessly written down and posted your comments. That’s my point exactly.

    It may sound harsh to you, but one’s capacity for logical, rational, and analytic thought doesn’t necessarily follow from the correct words and grammar one uses.

    Take, for instance, your last sentence “Readers’ comments are usually friendly.” Are you implying that I’m not a “reader”?

  15. Roberta B.

    It wasn’t my intention to flame or blame or shame anyone on this list. I pointed out some errors – both in grammar and in logic – that earlier posters made. I thought these errors were obvious to see for the truly interested ‘readers’. Thank you for your long and winding elaboration, a big help!

  16. I am an ESL tutor and found Pratiti Diddi’s post to be right on the mark, for the most part.

    It’s difficult to generalize about “common” ESL mistakes. But I do agree that many ESL students have trouble with articles (as in mistake No. 1). A couple common errors include:

    “I am boring.” (instead of “I am bored.”)

    “We went to a school/the school every Wednesday.” (confusion about count and noncount nouns)

    we will have thanksgiving dinner on friday instead of thursday. (failure to use capitallize letters)

    Many of the “rules” that native English speakers take for granted are difficult for ESL students to grasp.

  17. EGOrbrandt

    “its” not that “your” not a reader “its only that “your” not friendly
    Its getting to winter? according to you “correct

  18. Correct: Which is the biggest city in the world?

    I’m afraid that this sentence doesn’t cut it with me. I would say, “What is the biggest city in the world?”

    What is used when the possible choices fill a broad spectrum.

    Which implies a narrower choice, such as “Which pair of shoes are you going to wear today?”

  19. @ Andy Knoedler,

    “Which is the biggest city?” works for me.

    Because the answer being sought is the *name* of a single city.

    I think the answer to “What is the biggest city?” would be a class of industry, or range of area sizes, or range of population. What, to me, is asking a description of the nature of something, which is looking for a specific identity.

    In a way, “What is the biggest city” is improper, because “the biggest city” limits the range of answers to whichever city is the biggest, and the only reasonable answer is to identify that city – which again goes back to the proper form of question is “Which is the biggest city?” As I say – “which” works okay for me.

  20. @ Pratiti
    I, too, think you’re right on the mark with these examples. We have found them to be very common in documents we edit from non-native English speakers.

    I have often wondered whether errors such as these result from employing the grammar and usage from a student’s native language when translating to English. For example, a Spanish speaker may write “He owns a CAR RED,” which uses correct word placement in Spanish but not in English. Or whether they simply result from misunderstanding English grammar and usage.

    Do you (or others) work with ESL students? If so, maybe you have some thoughts on this. As I said, I wonder about this.

    I’ll add one more mistake I frequently see from ESL speakers: “ask” versus “tell.”
    Wrong: “I told her if she wanted to go to the movies.”
    Correct: “I asked her if she wanted to go.”

  21. I thought the ESL teachers/students might be interested in this site: . It’s also good for writers like me who like to practice.

  22. Allow me to add a mistake I often see and hear both ESL and native English speakers make: “I” increased in quantity (and volume?) to “We.”

    Wrong: “I am an advocate of freedom. We fight for freedom of speech.”

    Correct: “I am an advocate of freedom. I fight for freedom of speech.”

  23. @rpwig
    “What will I do…” (?)- is a question
    “What I will do….” – is a statement

  24. it’s = it is

    example, It is getting cold. = It’s getting cold.

    its is a possessive pronoun

    This is my car this is its tire.

    Sorry guys. This is not debatable.

  25. Also, a very common problem is understanding the differences between: say, speak, talk, tell etc

    Student: Tara said Jo to go away.
    Me: Tara told Jo to go away.

    Student: Ana said me that she was hungry.
    Me: … told me

    Student: He told that he likes coffee.
    Me: … he said

    Student: She told to me that she was coming.
    Me: she told me or said to me.

    Student: He always says lies.
    Me: … he always tells.

    I used to waste a lot of class time on this topic alone.

  26. Well, good information, but i have a question regarding “According to me” how it is incorrect because it makes sense, the grammar is right as “According to” is a prepositional phrase and “me” is the object of this phrase so then what is the matter with this? Looking forward for a logical answer.

  27. Well, I’m mexican and I can tell you the most common mistakes I’ve heard here are:

    – Using “in” for everything (instead of on,at,into,above,upon…)
    because in spanish we use “en” for all those purposes (it has all those meanings)…

    Also, they miss the pronouns that are COD…
    they say “i don’t like at all” instead of “I don’t like IT at all”

    And stuff like that =/

  28. Incorrect- she bought the food from the supermarket
    Correct- she brought the food from the supermarket

    Incorrect-a hair is bigger than a rabbit
    Correct- a hare is bigger than a rabbit

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