I've been doing this job for some twenty years plus now (and got a book out of it), and I've about reached the point where I can more or less determine...
The top ten Typical Errors in English (as made by Polish students) (updated 5 February 2020)
But I should say at this point that this is not a definitive top ten: it’s simply what I think.
For sure there will be some teachers that would disagree with my list; indeed, many will argue, for example, that the use or non-use of a/an/the should be on this list. But it’s a complicated issue, and many students are well aware of the problems that articles give them, and so they can learn more about these here. Getting personal pronouns mixed up is also a common problem; however, it's something students simply make by mistake; they know what the error is and it's not because of any lack of knowledge. Word order and phrasal verbs also give considerable problems, but unfortunately there are several examples!
But I'm certain that we would all agree that the errors I’ve chosen would be in, at least, our top twenty lists.
As I mentioned earlier, I'm not saying that this is the definitive top ten; this is purely a subjective opinion, and for sure some teachers would disagree with their rankings, but I'm also sure that we will all agree on these errors to be in, at least, our top twenty lists. All these can also be found in the TEE book.
The main mistake is underlined on the examples given in each of the headers.
So let's start with, what is, in my opinion, the number 10...
10. I like to watch information on TV.
I think you mean the news.
In English, we think of information as a collection of pieces of general knowledge; facts that inform us how to do things, where to go, what to see, etc. Like the kind of things you find in an information centre in a popular tourist area, for example.
News (which is an uncountable noun: you don’t watch a new or a news, but you can watch 'a news item', a 'news story' or even 'a news flash') is information we get that tells us about recent events or happenings around your home country and all over the world. It is the kind of information that is particularly reported by – and also presented by – newspapers, radio, or television. But it can also be information that we, as individuals, feel that we have to give to people if we believe that the recent event or happening is important enough to be news to them and that they should know about it: Have you heard the news? Robert’s getting married!
The confusion perhaps lies in the fact that to inform (the verb) can be used to give both news and information that would be considered important: Let me inform you what’s happening today. I can inform you that the game has now been arranged for Monday. I need to inform my boss about my holiday arrangements. We need to inform the next of kin about the disaster.
So I can understand the confusion, but we should say I like to watch the news on television. After all, would you call The Times, Bild, Le Figaro, El Pais, Gazeta Wyborcza and La Repubblica information papers?
9. I was talking to a friend today morning.
In English we don't usually say 'today morning', or even 'today afternoon', 'today lunchtime', and so on.
What we can say is I was talking to a friend this morning, or in the present tense, There's a meeting this afternoon, or the future: There will be chicken and chips for lunch this evening.
This all refers to the events that happened or are planned today, but we don't say 'today'. We say 'this'.
If we want to report on this in the past and keep to a similar structure, we would use 'that' instead of 'this', so, for example: Fred? He wasn't in that morning.
So let's get together and talk about the subject this lunchtime (NOT: today lunchtime).
8. I have twenty years old.
This is a result of a literal translation error. We say I am twenty years old, not have.
Even worse, if you drop ‘old’ and you just say I have twenty years, this tells me that you only have twenty years of your life left and after that you will be dead…
However, you could say I have a birthday on the 25th of January but this does sound unnatural in spoken English, as well as suggesting that you might have more than one birthday (like the Queen, who has her proper birthday and an official birthday. Please don't ask me why). It is better to say my birthday is on the 25th January.
In Poland, an event known as a name day is popular, and is even regarded by some as more of an excuse for a celebration than birthdays. (Usually because you don't have to mention your age anymore!) You can say I have a name day on the 25th of January as it is certainly possible that your name falls on many different days and that the 25th just happens to be yours.
A similar error is made when learners incorrectly describe how tall they are or something is: I have one metre sixty centimetres. (One metre sixty centimetres of what? Rope?) This could also be fun if a learner tries to practise describing their height using imperial measurements: I have six feet.
As with the age, we use the verb to be (am, are, is): I am one metre sixty centimetres tall. She is five feet seven inches. You are almost two metres tall! It's almost one hundred kilos!
7. I have no occasion to do any work at home as I'm so busy.
Here, the speaker is talking about the fact that they are always too busy to find a free period of time when they can do the cleaning, vacuuming, dusting and all the other household chores that are needed to be done regularly.
The problem is the word occasion. Although it means ‘a time at which something happens’, it just seems out of context with the rest of the sentence. To say I have no occasion is also not what would be generally considered an accepted phrasal structure. It's not what we native speakers would actually say in such a situation.
What our speaker should have said was I have no time, but they could also say I have no opportunity/chance to do any work at home as I'm so busy.
There are some structures with occasion, the most popular meaning being ‘a particular time’: They met on two occasions. I saw him on one occasion last year. We see them occasionally (using the adverb). It also refers to a special time or event: His party will be a big occasion.
There are formal (and not particularly common) usages that are similar to the example expressed above, such as This would be a good occasion to clear the cellar (meaning a good time or opportunity), but this is a different sentence structure from the example.
Now if the speaker was being a little more formal then they might say There hasn’t been any occasion to do any work at home, and although I cannot find a suitable occasion to do any work at home is correct as an accepted word order, it does sound strange and a little pompous in spoken English (to behave and sound in such a serious way that the speaker believes they are more important than they really are).
So it is not no occasion, but no time: I have no time to do my homework. I have no time to do any work at home as I am so busy. Or even I don't have time to do any work at home, or maybe even I haven't got time to do any work at home as I'm so busy!
6. What does mean ubiquitous?/What means ubiquitous?
Both examples are incorrect, and these are very common mistakes.
You should say What does ubiquitous mean?, otherwise you might get smart answers such as 'It means what it means'.
And if you really want to know, ubiquitous (pronounced /juːbɪkwɪtəs/ or you – be – quit – us) is an adjective used to describe something or someone that seems to be everywhere: Sugar is ubiquitous in the diet. I visited Seville and I saw the ubiquitous McDonalds. Paris Hilton is one of the most ubiquitous personalities around when it comes to the gossip magazines.
5. I very like English cuisine.
Very is a problem as it is a word used as an intensifier. So what is that?
Well, an intensifier is a word that is used before an adjective or adverb so that it can make the meaning of that adjective or adverb stronger. For example, I’m very hungry is much stronger than just saying I’m hungry. It’s very likely to rain is stronger than it’s likely to rain. But we don't say I very like English cuisine as like is a verb, not an adjective, and very does not like verbs. Maybe they had an argument at a party or something like that.
Very like does exist as two words together which then form an adverb phrase, but with the meaning ‘very similar to’ or ‘almost the same as’: My sister is very like her mother in many ways. This movie is set on a world very like this one. She gave a little noise of pleasure, very like a laugh.
Fortunately, there is one intensifier that really does like verbs, so the best examples would be I really like English cuisine, but we can also say I like English cuisine very much, as much is an adverb and follows the main part of the sentence.
Sorry, what’s that? Very’s just had an argument with fantastic? Oh dear, it appears to also have a problem with many absolute adjectives...
4. I don't know how it looks like.
First, the correction: it should be I don't know what it looks like.
The use of what, and particularly how, are question words that virtually all English students have problems with, often using why instead of what when it comes to either asking for meanings in the subject of the English language: 'How is pierogi in English?' and when making an enquiry or asking a question about the name of something: 'I remember how it is called'.
In virtually all cases, when asking about the meaning of something, the word what is usually needed instead of how: What do you say (or what should you say) when someone falls down because of the ice? What is pierogi in English? I don't know what it's called in English.
You can also remember this rule when it comes to appearances: I don't know how it looks. or I don't know what it looks like.
The use of how and what is explored in further detail in the TEE book.
3. Brian has just given up smoking. He's very nervous so be careful what you say to him.
An example of a false friend which is a word that looks and sounds the same in another language but has a different meaning.
To be nervous is that feeling you get when you are about to do something that is either unpleasant, frightening, worrying, unpredictable or very uncertain, or it is something that you do not want to do but you have to do it, and this really worries you: I’m terribly nervous as I’m seeing the dentist (I don’t like going to the dentist because it scares me, but it is necessary for me to see the dentist to have my teeth checked). I’m really nervous about the exam tomorrow. I’m a little nervous about this job interview because I’m worried about what they will ask me. Were you nervous before your wedding? Were you nervous during your job interview?
Now Brian is basically not in a very good mood because he has given up smoking and there is a chance he might shout at you if you say the wrong thing.
He is agitated, bad-tempered (good example), cranky, grumpy, grouchy, disagreeable, uptight, short-tempered, irritable (the best choice), testy, or tetchy.
But he is not angry. Or nervous.
2. Today I’m doing a cake, and then making a course in photography because I like to make photographs. Later I will make the washing up, do a phone call, do a shopping list and make the shopping. Unfortunately I will do a lot of mistakes.
This is a frequent error, so much so that it easily makes our number two slot, so we will look at this in detail.
DO is a general word for action, for doing something. Let’s do the cleaning. He’s doing the driving. I’ve done all the housework this morning. Do you want me to do the photocopying? It is particularly used when we talk about an activity without saying exactly what it is: Let’s do something! I’m bored. I’ve got nothing to do. So if you weren’t in the office yesterday, what were you doing? We also use do when we're talking about work: What do you do in the office? I’ve done many things in my working career.
MAKE, however, means to PRODUCE, CREATE, CONSTRUCT, BUILD.
So you do the shopping (the activity of going out and buying things), you make a shopping list (you are creating this with a pen and a piece of paper, although a lot of people use their phones these days), you do a course (you do not create it) but you do the test (you are writing). And just to make the point further (I am creating this example for you to help you understand this better), you make mistakes. It is your fault, you created them.
Incidentally, we can also say take a course, but we always say make a film (produce a movie) but take a photograph. Should you take a film, this can mean literally taking a roll of film from your analogue camera and then taking it to be developed. These days, with modern digital technology, this is a bit rare.
There are a number of examples, particularly with idiomatic expressions, where using do or make may not be so clear. You make a phone call and make love to someone are two good examples when perhaps do would seem more obvious. And if you are asked to make your bed, you are expected to tidy and arrange all the bedsheets/linen so they look nice and neat on your bed, and not to get tools and materials (wood is quite good) to physically and literally make a bed!
There are many books (TEE included) that say if you are not sure of a sentence, then make is more likely to be correct, but do check a dictionary with examples; there are plenty that are not. Otherwise, the above rules about do and make generally work well.
Just to confuse you – which is something I enjoy doing, as you have now learnt through reading this website – there is also the idiom make do, which means to be able to manage only with what is available: We’ve only got your older brother’s school uniform, so you’ll have to make do with that. I'm not buying a smartphone! You only text and call, so you can make do with your normal mobile phone!
1. I don’t plan to change my job. But if I will change my job, I’ll become an entomologist.
Conditionals. Probably this is the one mistake I hear every day. It's a problem, and in my view, the regular placing of the verb 'will' in the if-clause of the conditional sentence is the most popular mistake made by Polish students of the English language.
We do not normally use will or would in the if-part of a conditional sentence. For example, the incorrect If I will catch the 1030 train, I will get there on time should read If I catch the 1030 train, I will get there on time (without will in the first part, or clause, of the sentence). The equally wrong If I would win the lottery, I would buy a big boat should read If I won the lottery, I would buy a big boat. If I had taken part in last week’s lottery, I’d be a millionaire now.
But there are a small number of exceptions to the rule. If we want to talk about a possible result that may then lead to something else as a consequence, we could say, for example: Have a drink of water if it will help you feel better. I will let you know by the end of the week if we will offer him the position. (There are concerns that offering the job position to this person could lead to an uncertain result.) If you are willing to do something or ask somebody to do something: I would be grateful if you would (or could) complete the exercise by the end of the day. If you will all sit down please, I’d like to begin. Or if you are really not happy about the result of something: Well, if you will drink too much cola, you will get tummy ache. Or you are emphasizing a possibility: I'm not expected to be here next week. But if I will be here (as there is a chance that I could be) then I'll have a lesson. (But if I am here is also perfectly acceptable.)
Going back to the problem example: although the correct second sentence should be: But if I do change my job [or if I change my job], I will become an entomologist, in natural spoken English the two sentences together would sound unnatural as 'job' is repeated straight after the first sentence. So they should say: I don’t plan to change my job. But if I do, I’ll become an entomologist.
But here is an extra piece of information mainly for elementary learners (and for intermediate students upwards, just to remind them): Many students often get if and when mixed up, unsure when it is correct to say, for example, when I go to England I’ll buy some English books and if I go to England I’ll buy some English books. We use when to say that it is certain: when I go to England suggests that there is a strong possibility of going, and that the speaker may have already got their tickets to go there; if I go to England suggests that this is only a possibility and going to England is only an idea.
So there is my top ten. Do you agree? Please do leave any comments on the site's facebook page at www.facebook.com/typicalerrorsinenglish
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