Learning English for non native speakers can be fraught with difficulties when it comes to things like illogical pronouns, irregular verb tenses, and the exceptions to the many grammar rules.

Take the issue of pronunciation for example, which can create some of the most common errors in English usage. You only have to think about words like that, this, those, that, and others and how they can sometimes sound like zis, zose, udder, zat or dat!

Even first language English speakers have been known to struggle with ‘th’ sound – this alone should be an indicator that English phonology can make it a very difficult language to learn.

Fortunately, it doesn’t have to be this way. Let’s take a close look at some of the common errors in English usage.

Becoming aware of these common English mistakes for non-native speakers is something that greatly helps to improve your English.

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English Vocabulary: Correct and Incorrect English Words

The latest Oxford English dictionary calculates approximately 250 000 distinctly English words that do not have their roots in other languages. Of course, this can make learning English for non native speakers even more complex, especially when so many English words function as both a verb and a noun!

Consider these examples:

  • Watch: a piece of jewellery used to tell the time, or an act of observation?
  • Share: something that you would share, or the act of dividing things up evenly?
  • Run: an unattractive snag in hosiery, or exercise that is faster than walking?
  • Water: clear liquid, or something that you do to keep your plants alive?

Between the spectacular diversity of word choices, and the potential muddle of correct and incorrect English words being verbs or nouns, there is little wonder that scholars enrolled in English language programmes make common English mistakes for non-native speakers when it comes to vocabulary!

Using Verb Tenses for Time Indicators

There are languages where the verb never changes its form. In Mandarin Chinese, for instance, the words I do remain the same regardless of whether the action was performed today, the day before, or tomorrow.

In English, verbs change their form according to the pronoun or subject preceding it: for instance, instead of ‘it does’, you could say ‘we do’ or ‘they do.’

In so many languages, time indicates a qualifier at the beginning of the sentence and pronouns will not change the verb form:

'Yesterday I do ...,' but, 'tomorrow you do ...'  and ‘every day he do ...'

This use of the verb in English is even more contrary because it can change its form three times – even just in the present tense.

So as you can see, learning English for non native speakers is not easy, especially when it comes to avoiding common errors in English usage regarding how to use all 16 verb tenses!

There’s also the issue of how to correctly arrange words to properly form a question. For instance, common errors in English usage can occur by saying ‘you are going?’ instead of ‘are you going?’

plants being watered by means of watering can
The word "water" is both a verb and a noun. - Source: Unsplash

And then, mastering verbs can make how to learn English for non native speakers even more difficult. The first tip to getting this right is to determine whether the verb is for action or linking.

Most of the time, action verbs are easy to identify because of course, they are describing an action. However, some verbs provide both linking and action functions. It just depends on how they are being used.

Let’s look at the verb ‘taste’ as an example.

He tasted the soup.

The soup tasted so good!

In the first example, taste is an action verb (an action is performed); in the second sentence, the word taste links soup to the descriptive, i.e. good.

Courses in basic English usually cover the difference between action and linking verbs. You should be familiar with both linking and action verb usage before enrolling in your intermediate-level English class.

When it comes to sentence construction, English is like an art. It is full of clues that reveal a lot more than simple word interpretation. In fact, when it comes to how to learn English for non native speakers, the student can sometimes be overwhelmed by the subtle nuances that give rise to common English mistakes for non-native speakers.

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The Importance of Proper Punctuation

Apart from the hilarity (and confusion) created by mixing up correct and incorrect English words, punctuation errors can result in some common English mistakes for non-native speakers. See how the omission of the can do to this simple sentence:

It is true that, in most languages, omitting a comma can result in hilarity. Imagine leaving the comma out of this sentence:

Let’s eat Grandpa,

instead of …. Let’s eat, Grandpa!

When it comes to how to learn English for non native speakers, correctly using punctuation is vital to grammar, spelling, and comprehension.

The Oxford Comma

Believe it or not, there was a successful multi-million dollar law suit in America concerning a comma!

The Oxford comma can certainly make learning English for non native speakers tricky! Its job, which is to separate the last two items of a list, can make all the difference to a list. See this example:

I love my children, Beyoncé and Adele.

This sentence could certainly be taken to mean that Beyoncé and Adele are the names of the speaker's children.

Placing a comma after 'Beyoncé’ would make it evident that the two people in question are a part of a list of people the writer loves.

Some scholars are determined that the Oxford comma is essential to comprehension for natives, as well as essential for learning English for non native speakers, while others argue that it’s unnecessary.

In addition, rearranging the list of love people in the example above could also indicate that the children are less loved than Sting because the actual word order is also an important clue to interpreting meaning in English.

If the Oxford comma issue puzzles first language speakers, imagine the common English mistakes for non-native speakers that can result?

Another punctuation mark that can create correct and incorrect English words is the apostrophe.

The apostrophe signifies possession: “The dog's ball” means that the ball belongs to the dog.

“Shirley's jumper” means that the jumper belongs to Shirley.

However, like with so many other English grammar rules, this one also comes with exceptions.

The word, ‘its’ without an apostrophe means belonging. For example the horse threw its shoe.

It+'s is the abbreviation or contraction of the words ‘it is’

It's cold inside. Or: Take your raincoat; it's raining.

Similar in complexity is ‘let’s’ which is short for let us with no possession inferred.

Let's go see a show tonight. Compared to: he lets his child run wild – no apostrophe, meaning the child has permission to run about unrestrained.

If all of this seems complex, especially when it comes to the acceptable errors that are commonly found and created on social media, consider finding a private English tutor who could provide you with proper English grammar foundations, and ensure that you avoid common English mistakes for non-native speakers.

orange VW beetle
Whether it's a "boot" or a "trunk" depends on where in the English-speaking world you are. - Source: Pexels

Different Words for the Same Concept

Dependent on where you live, or which region of the English language you are studying; you might come across words that mean something different when used in an alternative English-speaking country.

For example, in British English, a jumper is a knitted sweater, but look for a jumper in stores across the United States and you will be shown a wonderful selection of sleeveless dresses.

In America, the engine of a car is under the hood while a bonnet is a sort of hat that women in the 1800s wore!

You might wear wellies when you go outside in the rain, but in other English-speaking countries, gumboots or goloshes are worn!

And when it comes to the word welly, there is another meaning that only those with an in-depth grasp of both regional dialects and Oxford English would understand: welly is also a noun that means vigour or power!

Yet another word that has numerous representations is boot.

It can be a sheath for mechanical parts or it can be a boot. You can also give someone the boot metaphorically – meaning you are forcing them out of something. And then, how do you switch on a computer? Well, you boot it! Of course, if it’s a bit slow you would need to reboot it!

In South Africa, where we use UK English, we also stow our luggage in a car’s boot.

With such diverse usage of the word 'boot', it is really no surprise that English students are confounded by correct and incorrect English words in sentences!

Ability in English comes with hard work and practice, but remember that using a private tutor to learn English online, using a website like Superprof has enormous benefits.

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Niki

Niki is a content writer from Cape Town, South Africa, who is passionate about words, strategic communication and using words to help create and maintain brand personas. Niki has a PR and marketing background, but her happiest place is when she is bringing a story to life on a page.