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3 Classic English Mistakes That Learners Make

3 Classic English Mistakes That Learners Make

For more common mistakes that English learners make, take a look at Are You Making These 4 Advanced English Mistakes?

You know the expression “we learn from our mistakes,” right?

Like when you spent an afternoon talking to a complete stranger on the phone about your personal life because you thought it was your mother.

Or when you weren’t paying attention at the supermarket, and you went home with 1 litre of diesel instead of the bananas you wanted.

These are mistakes that we learn from (hopefully).

And it’s the same with learning a language, of course.

Making mistakes is really one of the best things you can do.

When you make mistakes, you realise what problems you have.

And when you realise what your problems are, you can fix them.

But of course, you need to notice that you’re making a mistake in the first place.

If you don’t notice your mistake, then you’ll just keep making it, and then how can you fix it?

And that’s why I spent this morning going through these books:

Error correction books

These books are where I write down the mistakes my students make during our online lessons.

And after looking through these books, I discovered something interesting.

A lot of the mistakes that my students make are similar.

They’re not exactly the same, but they all represent some common misunderstandings about English.

The types of mistakes were the same for high and low-level students from lots of different countries.

And you know what that means, right?

That means you might be making these mistakes, too.

So let’s look at five of the most common English mistakes my students make:

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Classic English Mistake #1

“I’ve got a lot of work to catch up.”

First of all, can you spot the mistake?

What should the sentence say?

We’ll take a look at how to fix this later, but before that, let’s have a look at the problem.

First of all, think about the verb “look.”

As you already know, we can use the verb “look” without an object:

“Can I help you?” “No, I’m just looking.”

Or with an object — but when we use an object, we have to use a preposition:

“Wow — look at his head. It’s massive!”

It’s like this verb is really sensitive and needs to have some “protection” from the object.

Look at his head.

Now, let’s use it in a question:

What are you looking at?

“Wait! Why do we have the preposition there?” you might or might not be saying. “I thought we don’t use a preposition if there’s no object!”

Well, actually there is an object in this question. The object comes later when the question is answered. But it’s still there — floating in the air like a balloon.

And that means the verb must have the preposition — to prepare the verb for contact with the object when the answer finally comes:

Question: What are you looking at? Answer: His head.

You’ll usually find the “invisible object” in three types of sentences:

Questions:

What are you waiting for?

Relative clauses:

I’d like to know what you’re thinking about.

Infinitive of purpose:

We’ve got a lot to look forward to.

Classic English Mistakes #1: Don't say: What are you looking? Say: What are you looking at?

So what about the original mistake:

“I’ve got a lot of work to catch up.”

Can you fix it?

Answer in the comments!

 

Classic English Mistake #2

“Just a moment — I close the door.”

OK. Take a minute to look at this sentence and think about what’s wrong.

Done that?

Good — let’s move on.

This sentence is actually correct in many languages, including Turkish, French, Italian… In fact, English is the only language I know that does things differently here. (Edit: Russian also does something similar. Thanks to Andre for pointing this out.)

Let me explain.

First of all, we need to look at the situation.

Why did my student say this?

Was closing the door a plan?

Or did she say it because she wanted to describe something she does every day?

Actually, neither of these things. (Although I’m sure she closes at least one door every day.)

This was a spontaneous decision.

She decided to do something and then said it at more or less the same time.

This is a common situation in life, right?

Every day, we volunteer to answer the door, or suddenly need to check our phone for some information, or offer to help someone from time to time, right?

Most languages use the present simple tense for these situations.

But in English, we use “will.” (Don’t forget to contract)!

So you’re sitting at home with your flatmates or family and the doorbell rings. You say:

“I’ll get it.”

Or someone asks you if you want to come with them to watch the new Star Wars film on Friday, but you need to check your calendar. So you say:

“Maybe — I’ll just see if I’m free.”

Then you realise that of course you’re free. It’s Star Wars. Nothing else matters!

Classic English Mistakes #2: Don't say: I check. Say: I'll check.

That’s it!

So remember — next time you want to do something spontaneous, just add a little “ll” sound to the end of that verb.

 

Classic English Mistake #3

He doesn’t listen. He just talks, talks, talks, talks, talks.

Again — let’s take a minute to think about what might be the problem here.

Done? OK — let’s go!

Actually, this is something that a first-language English speaker might actually say.

The problem here isn’t that it’s incorrect.

Or that it doesn’t sound natural.

The problem here is that when students say this, it sounds a little more aggressive than what they wanted.

I like to call this “machine-gunning.”

Partly because the technique involves using repetition, like a machine gun.

But also partly because it sounds kind of cool.

There are two ways to use this technique.

There’s the standard way and there’s the aggressive way.

Most of the time, because we’re all calm and awesome people, we prefer to go for the standard way.

How to do that?

The technique is really simple — we simply add “and” between the verbs.

So instead of:

He tries, tries, tries but never succeeds.

Say:

He tries and tries and tries, but never succeeds.

Classic English Mistakes #3: Don't Say: He eats, eats, eats. Say: He eats and eats and eats.
Mr America” by Robin Corps is licensed under CC BY 2.0

OK. So can you fix the original mistake?

“He doesn’t listen. He just talks, talks, talks, talks, talks.”


So there we are — 3 classic English mistakes I hear a lot from my students.

Make sure you’re not making them, too!

So now it’s over to you. Here are the original mistakes again.

  1. I’ve got a lot of work to catch up.
  2. Just a moment — I close the door.
  3. He doesn’t listen. He just talks, talks, talks

Can you fix them?

Answer in the comments!

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13 thoughts on “3 Classic English Mistakes That Learners Make

  1. 1. I’ve got a lot of work to catch up.
    Correction: I’ve got a lot of work to catch up with.
    2. Just a moment — I close the door.
    Correction: Just a moment. I’ll close the door.
    3. He doesn’t listen. He just talks, talks, talks.
    Correction: He doesn’t listen. He just talks and talks and talks.

  2. Re: #2

    This sentence is not correct in Russian, sorry, in the context like that, we use a future form of the verb and not an infinitive.

    I feel that “will”, or heaven forbid “shall”, when it isn’t contracted to ‘ll, sounds not only too direct and too formal, but it’s a common and even a vexing mistake, as in #3.

    In fact, I believe, in some contexts ’ll is normally the only choice and ’ll is best not seen as a contraction at all, but as an independent form. As well as ‘ll in speaking, is never represent “shall”, but that’s another story…

    Thanks.

    1. First of all — thanks for letting me know about the Russian mistake — we’re onto it! It’s been a long time since I used any Russian, so it’s a bit rusty.

      I love your suggestion that ‘ll should be considered as a form in its own right. I both totally agree with you and totally disagree. Here’s why.

      Yes — you’re absolutely right. When we use ‘ll in this context it has no real reference to the future (well, kind of — but it really doesn’t feel futurey). It’s actually a sort of suggestion, assertively put.

      Buuuuuuuut — What about when we want to use an auxiliary to either emphasise the point or as a question tag? Then the true nature of the modal comes out. And in interesting ways. Sometimes it’s will:
      “He’ll remember.”
      “You say that … but will he?”

      Sometimes it’s shall:
      “Oh for God’s sake. I’ll do it, shall I?”

      So I guess although conceptually it’s a great idea to see this ‘ll as its own feature, it’ll never be free of the shackles of syntax and live a life of liberated semanticity.

      Will it?

      1. Well, that’s quite a question about the destiny of English and I do love the joke (on 2:55) in something like this.

        As for #1 — categorically no! The prepositions are not to end sentences with. (sarcasm sign)
        But you may, jolly well, begin it with one. 🙂

        By the way — How would You vote? and why.

          1. I’ll have to let you know once I’ve watched it. It’s open in a tab waiting for me to be not-busy!

            Looks like a great debate and I’m really looking forward to watching it. Thanks for sharing it. I’m surprised David Crystal isn’t on the panel, actually. It’s exactly the sort of thing he’d revel in.

  3. Oh hiya. We’d been waiting for you “To”Man. Because Gabriel said in a previous post that there will be one more post on “to” man and “-ing” lady in the future, where he deals with all the other random places you turn up. Want to know more about you. Please?

  4. Hi, Gabriel. Thank you for another useful entry.
    Now, about the first mistake: I admit I’d say “I’ve got a lot of work to catch up on.” It wouldn’t be a mistake, right? Is there any difference between ‘on’ and ‘with’ in this sentence or they’re totally interchangeable?

    1. Hi Sanches,

      Great question. Actually I’d use either “catch up on” and “catch up with” when it comes to work.

      So yes — I’d say that they’re totally interchangable in this situation.

      However, when we’re talking about reaching the same point as someone else, I’d be inclined to use “catch up with.”

      This can be physically — “Look — they’re miles away and they’re walking really fast. We’ll never catch up with them.”

      Or it can be in terms of progress: “I missed, like, 2 weeks of school, so I’m basically not going to have a social life until I’ve caught up with everyone in the class.”

      Hope that makes sense!

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