7 Common ESL Errors (And How to Fix Them)
  • 7-minute read
  • 26th December 2019

7 Common ESL Errors (And How to Fix Them)

Learning a new language can be hard. And if you’re an ESL (English as a Second Language) writer, you can be forgiven a few mistakes in a first draft. That’s why we have proofreading! But what are the most common ESL errors? And how can you avoid them? Check out our list to find out.

1. Article Choice, Part 1: Definite or Indefinite?

Some of the most common ESL errors are related to article usage. In English, we use articles to specify something about a noun. In particular:

  • We use the definite article (the) when referring to a specific noun (i.e., when there is only one of the noun that the author could be discussing).
  • We use an indefinite article (a or an) for something non-specific (i.e., when the noun could apply to multiple examples of what it denotes).

The choice thus depends on what the speaker/listener knows about the situation. For instance, the following sentence refers to a specific dog:

I was walking the dog.

This implies that the listener (or reader) will know which dog the speaker (or author) is referring to. However, the next sentence could refer to any dog:

I was thinking about getting a dog.

Some languages, such as Russian and Chinese, do not have articles. This can lead to errors such as missing out an article or using the wrong one:

Missing Article: I am good baker.

Wrong Article: I am the good baker.

In the first, the article is missing, so the sentence is ungrammatical. The second uses the definite article, but this suggests the speaker is the only good baker. Assuming they were simply claiming to be one good baker among many good bakers, though, it should read as follows:

I am a good baker.

This uses the indefinite article, clarifying that the speaker is one good baker among many. So make sure to check your article usage!

2. Article Choice, Part 2: A vs. An

Another common ESL error relates to article choice is about which of “a” or “an” to use in any given sentence. Both are indefinite articles used when a noun could apply to multiple examples of what it denotes. But the correct term to use depends on how the following word sounds:

  • When a word starts with a consonant sound, use “a” (e.g., a dog, a cat, a European, a university lecturer).
  • When a word starts with a vowel sound, use “an” (e.g., an office, an egg, an hour, an honorable person).

Note that it’s how a word sounds that matters, not what the first letter is! So we use “an” with “hour” because the “h” is silent.

3. Problem Prepositions for ESL Speakers

Prepositions specify the relationship between words in a sentence.

In ‘the cat sat on the mat’, for example, ‘on’ is a preposition that tells us the position of the cat in relation to the mat.

But there are many different prepositions, many of which have multiple meanings, so knowing which one to use can be challenging. And even when prepositions seem to overlap in meaning, they may not be interchangeable.

“To” and “at,” for example, can both indicate a location in a sentence. However, “to” indicates a destination, whereas “at” tends to be used with a current location. As such, we could not switch them in the following:

I am going to the theater.

I am going at the theater.

You are staying at home.

You are staying to home.

Similarly, we can use “at,” “in,” and “on” to indicate a time. However, we use “at” for a precise time, “in” for long periods, and “on” for days or dates:

I am going home at 5pm.

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My last vacation was in July.

I have plans on Tuesday.

As such, you should pay special attention to the prepositions in your writing. It can also help to have a good dictionary on hand to look up prepositions while you write, as it should have examples of how each term is used.

4. Word Order

Word order is a big part of any language. But different languages use different word orders. And this can be confusing for ESL writers. In English, the basic word order is subject + verb + object (i.e. SVO). For example:

Subject Verb Object
The girl… …kicked… …the ball.

Other languages use an SOV or VSO word order, but your writing will be ungrammatical if you use these in English.

English can be extra difficult in this respect, as the position of a word can vary depending on how a sentence is constructed. For example, a sentence written in the passive voice would use an OVS word order:

Object Verb Subject
The table… …was moved… …by the workers.

It can therefore help to ask a native speaker for advice.

5. Homophones

Homophones are words that sound similar but have different meanings.

“Bear” and “bare” sound exactly the same, for example, but the first is a big hairy animal and the second means “naked,” so you wouldn’t want to get them confused in your writing! Knowing which term to use can be hard if English is not your native language, though. As such, you may want to check a dictionary for the correct spelling if you’re using an unfamiliar word.

6. Tricky Synonyms for ESL Speakers

As well as words that sound similar, English has plenty of synonyms (i.e., words with the same meaning). Sometimes, this means you can use words interchangeably. For instance, “begin” and “start” can both be used as follows:

The test will begin at noon.

The test will start at noon.

Unfortunately, some words with similar meanings differ in how they are used.

For instance, the words “quick” and “fast” are both adjectives that mean “speedy.” But “quick” also implies brevity, which is not the case with “fast.”

As such, a short conversation could be described as a “quick chat,” but a “fast chat” would imply talking at high speed! This is why it’s important to check a dictionary when using synonyms, especially if it is an unfamiliar word from a thesaurus. Asking a native speaker can also help!

7. Irregular Plurals and Verbs

Some of the worst rule-breakers in English are irregular plurals and verbs, which don’t follow the usual spelling and grammar rules.

For example, most English nouns can be made into a plural by adding “-s” at the end (e.g., catcats). But irregular plurals may have a different word ending or not change at all. For instance:

Singular Correct Plural Incorrect Plural
Knife Knives Knifes
Child Children Childs
Sheep Sheep Sheeps

These are all irregular plurals, so they do not follow standard spelling rules.

Most past tense and past participle verbs, meanwhile, are formed with the letters “-ed” at the end (e.g., listenlistened). But irregular verbs do not follow this pattern. Take the following, for example:

Simple Present Tense Simple Past Tense Past Participle
Buy Bought Bought
Swim Swam Swum
Cut Cut Cut

As shown above, sometimes the simple past tense and past participle forms of an irregular verb are the same. Sometimes they differ. And sometimes they’ll both be the same as the simple present tense version!

You can see why this may become confusing. But with a good dictionary, you should be able to find the correct spelling each time.

How to Handle Common ESL Errors

As we say above, practice makes perfect! Make sure you look out for these common ESL errors in your work. The better you get at spotting where errors may occur, the easier it will be to avoid them.

And if you are unsure about anything, you can always ask a proofreader for help! We’ll even provide helpful feedback, helping you grow as a writer.

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