19 Basic English Language Mistakes You Can Easily Correct Today

We’ve often commented that English is a difficult language to learn, but the good news is that it’s not all doom and gloom for those of you trying to ace English as a Foreign Language.

Although there are numerous complicated rules that you’ll need to master at some point, there are also quite a few common but simple mistakes made by EFL students that are very easily corrected – little things that, once you’re aware of them, you’ll never make the same mistake again. In this article, we make you aware of some of the most common mistakes and give you some examples to help you understand how to correct them. We’ll cover aspects of English including punctuation, pronunciation, grammar and style so that you can immediately start to hone numerous areas of your English skills.

1. “Could of” should be “could have”

The sentence “it could of been better” is incorrect; it should be “it could have been better”. Many native English speakers and EFL learners alike get confused by this common error, which arises because when “could have” is abbreviated to “could’ve”, it sounds a little bit like “could of” when spoken. The same problem arises as a result of other contractions, such as “should’ve” or “would’ve”. If you’re ever tempted to say or write “could of” or similar, just remember that it’s “have”.

2. Can and can’t

This is an example of a classic English pronunciation conundrum that EFL learners can easily fall foul of. You’d have thought that “can’t” would sound pretty much the same as “can”, but it doesn’t. “Can” has a short “A”, to rhyme with “van”, while “can’t” has a long “A”, like the “A” in “harm”.

3. Apostrophes

A great many native English-speakers don’t know how to use apostrophes, so if you’re struggling, you’re not alone! Many people make the mistake of using an apostrophe to make a word plural. You should never do this. Apostrophes are used to indicate possession or contraction. To give you some examples:

  • The dog’s dinner (the dinner belonging to the dog)
  • It’s a pity that (it is a pity that)
  • You don’t know (you do not know)

Difficulty may arise with the word “it” in this regard. The possessive form, surprisingly, has no apostrophe; for example “The dog ate its dinner.” You only ever use an apostrophe to indicate a shortening of “it is”, as in the “It’s a pity” example above.

4. Sorry about/sorry for

The word “sorry” is one that we Brits are famous for using a lot, but it has more than one meaning. When we’re apologising for something, we say either “sorry for” or “sorry about”. But you can also use the word to express feeling sympathy towards someone. Examples of the different uses of the word “sorry” include:

  • “I’m sorry about the mess”
  • “I’m sorry for ruining your day”
  • “I feel really sorry for him”

5. Third-person singular ‘s’

We won’t get into the nitty gritty of conjugating verbs here, as that’s beyond the scope of this article, but here’s one that’s an easy fix. When you’re referring to someone or something in the third person, you add an ‘s’ to the end of the verb when it’s an individual (singular), but not when it’s more than one individual (plural). For example:

  • He says
  • They say
  • She lives
  • They live
  • It helps
  • They help

There are a few exceptions. Verbs that end in -o, -x, -ss, -sh and -ch all get “-es” instead of just “s”, such as “he kisses”, “she fixes” and so on. When the verb ends in ‘-y’, you change the ending to ‘-ies’, such as “he carries”.

6. Gender

Unlike in many other languages, in English, most inanimate objects don’t have genders, so remember to use the word “it” rather than “he” or “she” when referring to inanimate objects. The only exceptions are boats and cars, which are usually referred to as though they were feminine.

7. The crisis

In French, given context, “the crisis” refers to the financial crisis we’re currently in. In English, you need to be more specific. If you want to refer to it, it’s best to call it “the financial crisis” or “the recession” or even “the credit crunch”, so that people know what you’re talking about.

8. Quite

What sounds like a simple word can actually be rather confusing – or “quite” confusing, as one might say. The trouble with this word is that it can mean opposite things. Used to modify an adjective or adverb, it can mean “very” or “not very” or “almost”.
For example:

  • “It’s quite hot in here” = “It’s very hot in here”
  • “It’s quite hot in here” = “It’s a bit hot in here”
  • “It’s not quite good enough” = “It’s almost good enough”

Intonation is usually the key to differentiation, but it’s a subtlety that may understandably be lost on you until you’re more proficient at English. It’s probably better to use synonyms until you’re confident.

9. Years old

When you’re referring to someone’s age (including your own), there are two subtly different variants:

  • He is 20 years old
  • He is a 20-year-old farmer

The hyphenated version acts as an adjective, or describing word.

10. Requests

When someone asks you something, they might begin their request with the words “do you mind if…” (this is a classic polite British way of phrasing a question, reflecting our desire not to put anyone to any trouble!) – for example, “do you mind if I take this chair?” Some EFL learners mistakenly answer this question with the word “yes” even when they are happy for the person to take the chair. In fact, that correct answer to this question is “no”, because you’re answering the “Do you mind…” bit. If you say yes, you’re saying that you do mind because you don’t want them to take the chair!

11. Enough

It’s not just the pronunciation of the word “enough” that makes it tricky (it’s pronounced “e-nuff”, in case you didn’t know); it’s the placement of it. When the word “enough” modifies an adjective or an adverb (words that describe nouns and verbs), you place it after the adjective or adverb – for example, “clever enough”. But when it modifies a noun, it goes before the noun – for example, “enough water”.

12. However

This is one that lots of British people get wrong. People often mistakenly use it to connect two independent clauses, with commas either side: “I was going to bring cake into the office, however, my flatmate ate it.” You should never use the word “however” in this way! It can be used to introduce a clause, or at the end of one, but never to link two together. If you want to use the word “however”, remember that it can have a full stop or semi-colon before it or after it, but commas should only be used after it. The only circumstances under which you can put a comma both before and after the word “however” is when it’s used for emphasis near the beginning of the sentence (as in the third example below). Examples of correct uses of the word “however” include:

  • “I like chocolate. However, I prefer cake.”
  • “I like chocolate; however, cake is better.”
  • “I like chocolate. Cake, however, is better.”
  • “I like chocolate. Cake is better, however.”

13. Over

This is another word that has a few different uses, which are best illustrated with examples.

  • “There’s an interesting car over there”
  • “There’s a storm over the town”
  • “The game is over” (the game has ended)
  • “I’ll bring it over later”
  • “I’m over it” (meaning that something doesn’t bother you anymore)
  • “I don’t know what came over me” (for example, you were hit with a strange feeling or illness)
  • “He went over and above what he needed to do” (he went beyond the call of duty)
  • “They’ve recruited someone to work over him” (they’ve recruited someone higher in rank who will be his manager)

14. Writing numbers

There are different schools of thought about how numbers should be written, but the general rules are:

  • Single digit numbers should be written out – one to nine
  • For numbers in double figures, or numbers that have two words when they’re pronounced, use numbers: 11, 12, 21 (not twenty-one) and so on
  • Some people say that numbers that only have one word when they’re pronounced should be spelt out – for example “thirteen” or “twenty”.

15. A/an (indefinite articles)

When you’re mentioning a noun for the first time, or when referring to something that is one of many, you use “a” or “an” instead of “the”. For example, you would say “we bought a ticket to the theatre” when mentioning it for the first time, but if you were then to refer to it again, you would say “the ticket” – “We bought a ticket to the theatre… the ticket was half-price.”
You use “a” when the noun begins with a consonant and “an” when it begins with a vowel; so “a glass” and “an olive”.

16. Few/a few

These have opposite meanings. “Few” means “hardly any” while “a few” means “several”. For example:

  • “They were too few in number”
  • “I’ve had a few ideas”

A similar concept is “little” and “a little”.

  • “We’ve had little response” = “We’ve had hardly any response”
  • “I’d like to stay a little longer” = I’d like to stay a bit longer”

17. “To” before a verb

When “to” is used before a verb, this is called the “infinitive”. You use it to communicate purpose, such as in the following sentence: “He is going to tell him the news”. One thing you shouldn’t do with the infinitive, as least when you’re writing academic essays, is split it by putting another word between the “to” and the verb (“to easily reach”, for example). Though this has generally been more accepted in recent years, it’s still better avoided, because many still frown upon it. Rephrase your sentence to avoid this, such as “to reach easily” or “can be easily reached”.

18. Referring to abstract nouns

Some nouns are abstract concepts, such as “kindness”, “fear” or “peace”, rather than physical objects or people. When you’re referring to these, you usually leave out “the”. Here are some examples to explain this:

  • “Give peace a chance”
  • “Kindness costs nothing”
  • “Living in fear of reprisals”

There are exceptions depending on the context; such as “keeping the peace” or “I was pleased at the kindness I received”.

19. Know your audience

The ability to adapt your use of English depending on whom you’re talking with or writing to is crucial, and this is where it’s particularly easy for EFL students to trip up. Some might say that this is not something that’s easily corrected – after all, a lot of the subtleties of the English language lie in making minor tweaks to wording and sentence structure to vary the degree of formality. However, there are a few basic principles that will allow you to do this more easily, of which these are some examples:

  • Don’t use contractions such as “can’t” or “won’t” in very formal writing, such as academic essays.
  • Don’t use slang when writing formally or addressing someone more senior to you.
  • Stick to brief pleasantries and small topics with people you don’t know, rather than launching into your life story (the weather is a good topic).

You’ll find much more about adapting your language in this way in our previous article on English style.
Mastering English is going to take some time, but being aware of some of the common mistakes and how to correct them will help you improve as quickly as possible. If you can get the hang of all the ones we’ve talked about in this article, you’ll be doing well – better than many native English speakers, in fact!