Common mistakes when English is the second language

Any language is complex. One only has to look at a small dictionary to get a rough estimate of the vocabulary. And then there’s the many way that words link together; grammatical rules are complex. The good news is that the reality of language is more intuitive than the rules would have you believe. Languages developed before they could be analysed and broken done into grammatical structures. The grammatical structures exist because of some disposition in our brain. Children learn reasonably proficient language long before they learn the rules; our brains are wired for the structure of language.

Problems can occur when the speaker of one language tries to learn another. It is all too easy to lean the words, but retain many of the grammatical habits of the old tongue. English speakers struggle with gendered words in French and German, declensions in Latin and various other features in foreign languages. Foreign speakers have some of the following difficulties when first learning English.


There is no plural for some nouns, e.g.: advice, information, money, traffic, literature, happiness, knowledge, fish, sheep, work.

There are some semi-exceptions, like food or staff. We can say ‘they tried the various foods of different cultures’ and this is acceptable, but it is probably better phrased as ‘they tried the different types of food from various cultures’.  Else: ‘the two rival staffs didn’t get along’ is probably better phrased differently, even as the meaning is clear.


This overlaps with the previous uncountable nouns. E.G.: Work, as a noun has no plurals; if we see ‘works’ it is a usually a verb, but not always.

‘He works weekends to help with the rent’ is fine, whereas:

What type of work did you previously do?’ refers to what type of job or jobs you previously held, irrespective of whether you had one job or several.

Just to be confusing we might see ‘the collected works of a great author’. It is difficult to account for this, but ‘collected work’ is equally correct.

Similarly, ‘Will he work hard?’ does not have ‘work’ as a noun.

Using ‘work’ as a noun and ‘works’ as a verb is usually right

Other words can be nouns or verbs, and retain the same spelling, e.g.: divorce, benefit, delay, dance, answer, address, coach, email, excuse, fish, grill, interest, offer, study, voice, watch, water.


‘There is a car parked out front’ is fine.

There are cars parked out front’ is the plural.

‘There is a fish in the tank’ refers to one fish.

There are fish in the tank’ means there is more than one fish.

We don’t pluralize fish in this case, we just change ‘is a fish’ into ‘are fish’.


‘Do not’ can become ‘don’t’. This is common in speech, in fiction that contains speech, but not in formal writing. Some authors note the emphasis change when using or not using the contraction, and use this in their writing. ‘I will be back’ emphasises the word ‘will’; ‘I’ll be back’ puts equal emphasis on ‘back’ and ‘I’.

I will          –             I’ll

Cannot     –         can’t

That is      –         that’s

If in doubt, use the full phrase.

Individuals only familiar with spoken English often benefit from some formal IELTS tutoring. Contact GL academy for group IELTS courses of individual private IELTS tutoring in Sydney.

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