Many ESOL students report that learning English grammar is their biggest stumbling block to achieving language fluency. Many people make common mistakes in every aspect of English.
With so many irregularities – in verb conjugation, with pronouns, with punctuation, with word order, it is easy to understand why.
Today, we would like to point out these tricky aspects of English learning in the hope that you will avoid them.
Along the way, we will give you some handy work-arounds, too!
The Trouble with Verbs
Compared to other languages, verbs in English tend to be straightforward in their usage and conjugation.
For non native speakers of English from countries whose verbs never change form regardless of pronoun or time the action occurred, the few rules that govern verbs and their usage in English serve to confound rather than enlighten.
Here are two helps to remember as your proficiency in describing actions grows.
Simple Tenses are Seldom Used
Present, past and future tenses generally indicate something that was, is or will be true.
- We are students
- This sentence is an assertion of a current fact.
- We were students
- Can be used if the group exclaiming this fact has already graduated.
- We will be students next year
- This statement is appropriate if that group is not scheduled to graduate soon.
Beyond that, using the correct tense requires more than basic English skills.
The progressive tenses are the most used in the English language.
They are also grounds for many mistakes by those learning English as a second language.
I am learn English, rather than I am learning English.
I was go to class, rather than I was going to class.
I will be study English, rather than I will be studying English.
For an in-depth list of verbs tenses, you can download and study this chart.
Irregular verbs tend to be particularly troublesome for people learning English as a foreign language.
For more on the topic of regular and irregular verbs, conjugation and usage, you can refer to the British Council website, or other language learning resources you normally use.
You could also ask your Esl teacher.
You might have heard a sentence like this in conversation or on the telly:
Neither girl brought their book to class.
Every international student has a right to the English teaching they need.
You don't just learn from your English teacher; everyday language you hear also teaches you how to use English.
These instances of subject and pronoun usage, though quite common, are unfortunately not correct.
Neither means not one or the other. With that understanding, it is plain to see that using the plural pronoun their would be incorrect.
Neither girl brought her book to class would be the correct way to express this idea.
Can you correct the second sentence?
Find ESL Toronto here on Superprof.
Vocabulary Gone Awry
I am literally so angry I could explode!
The word literally is often used in slang to express an extremity of feeling or a quality, like so:
That was literally the most beautiful song I've ever heard.
While trendy and popular, using such words as slang is not proper usage of vocabulary. Oftentimes, misusing words result in sentences that make no sense!
While one might appreciate a most beautiful song in that manner, it is unlikely that anyone would explode from anger.
To improve your English, try to resist following popular linguistic trends... at least until you have mastered a substantial portion of the language.
Following the British Council's podcasts is a good way to improve your English listening as well as your spoken English.
On their website, dedicated to language learners like you, you will hear conversation between native speakers over common, everyday subjects such as owning a pet or going shopping.
You can follow these conversations by printing out and reading the accompanying transcripts.
Doing so will sharpen your listening skills, as well as reading skills and writing skills.
These podcasts never use incorrect grammar phrases or promote the use of slang.
However, they will get you familiar with the idiom and its usage.
Advice and Advise
English vocabulary has several word pairs that are the same but for one letter.
Practice and practise is another such a one, and it follows the same rule.
Advice and practice are nouns that can be used as adjectives:
I always follow the advice of my Esl teacher.
I am going to take some practice quizzes before the exam.
Contrast those with:
My Esol teacher advised me to practise my reading and writing.
You'll note the difference in spelling – the change from c to s in both words as they change function within the sentence. Learn about common spelling mistakes here.
Although there is no difference in the way these words sound whether spelled with s or c, in writing them, it is critical to understand that just one letter will decide what type of word it is.
Even native English speakers use the verb in place of the noun sometimes.
Farther and Further
This word pair is another set that bewilders English learners and native speakers alike.
We have to walk one hundred meters farther to our new classroom.
I wish to further my English studies by taking a business English course.
In the first sentence, we have a specific distance given; in the second sentence, a measurable quantity cannot be given.
Thus, the second word suggests immeasurable quantities and the first represents definite distance.
A note on farthings
If you are reading classic literature as part of your English lessons, you might have encountered the word farthing.
It seems like that word would have the same root and origin as farther, but they are in no way related.
You can consult the Oxford English Dictionary for this and other words' etymology and current usage as a slang term.
Modern communication methods seem to encourage disregard for proper punctuation, and nowhere is that more evident than the use of your and you're.
Your taking English classes.
Your, being a possessive pronoun, is not used correctly in this instance. However, you would be correct in saying:
Your taking English classes is bound to improve your English.
Let us now examine this sentence:
You're taking English classes!
Apostrophes denote possession, but they also mark contractions – as in the sentence above. It is important to learn how to use apostrophes and other punctuation marks correctly.
As you progress through your English courses in London or elsewhere, you will gain a greater understanding of punctuation and its uses in reading and writing.
It is true that one must cultivate an aptitude for listening for, and speaking, punctuation. The exclamation point and question mark are easy to hear when spoken, but others, such as quotation marks, are not.
To that end, native speakers have adopted the technique of air quotes – making quotation marks with their fingers as they say the phrase they wish to emphasize.
Using air quotes improperly is considered bad grammar, just as writing them at the wrong place in a composition would be.
As your language skills develop, you too will be able to add emphasis to your speaking skills with body language. Learn how to avoid common mispronunciations with this blog.
Word Order Matters
In English, arranging words to form sentences generally follows this form: subject-verb-object, except to phrase questions. Don't forget the many exceptions in the English language.
This exception was probably covered in your earliest English language classes.
The following example is a further step in understanding word order.
A pretty little grey cat sat under the tree.
Listing adjectives requires a certain order. The qualifications are as follows:
- Quantity or number
- Quality or opinion
- Proper adjective (often nationality, other place of origin, or material)
- Purpose or qualifier
According to this list, the color of the cat is less important than its size; therefore little precedes grey.
Similarly, the opinion that the cat is pretty is far more meaningful than either of its other attributes, hence it is the first adjective on the list.
Whether studying for Ielts or learning English for everyday use, this is one of the grammar lessons you should exercise often, until you can use serial adjectives like a native English speaker.
Who is More Important?
You might find, in the course of your reading, a such a sentence:
I love my parents, Sean Connery and the Queen of England.
This sentence lacks a comma after Connery, leaving the reader to wonder if that person's parents are indeed those illustrious beings.
The issue of the Oxford comma is currently the topic of a heated debate among scholars.
Some argue that the sentence could be thus written:
I love the Queen of England, Sean Connery and my parents.
Changing word order eliminates the need for a serial comma, but it also indicates that the speaker's parents are less important than the other people on the list.
The more you practise, the more fluent you will become, and more adept at recognizing these and other tricky grammar rules!
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