Learning English is hard. The irregular verbs, the seemingly endless new vocabulary and the slightly nonsensical pronunciation can all add up to be a major headache. Sometimes, you may feel like you’re never going to master it. But I’m going to let you in on a little secret: native speakers struggle as well.
That’s right, even people who have grown up with the language make mistakes from time to time. Whether it’s mispronunciation, not understanding what a word means or simply messing up the structure of a particularly tricky form, native speakers are not immune to the problems you face as a language learner.
Social media sites like Facebook and Twitter have democratised the written word and given everyone a way of communicating to the outside world. What this means, however, is that the common errors that would previously have remained hidden are now splashed across the internet for everyone to see. Whether it’s mixing-up there, their and they’re or confusing effect and affect, native speakers regularly misuse the English language in their writing and speaking.
One important thing to take from this, perhaps, is that you should never be too self-conscious to speak and write in public. If native speakers make these mistakes, then no one will be judging an English learner. However, there’s something else as well. If you can master these common errors, you can ensure that your English is even better than that of some native speakers.
In this article, we’re going to focus on the most common errors that we find time and time again from native speakers. By learning a few simple rules, differences and definitions you can make sure that you always use them correctly in your written and spoken English. Who knows, you may even find yourself earning kudos by helpfully correcting a native speaker!
Below, I’ve picked the eight most common mistakes I could find. Accompanying each one is a brief definition of the language and examples to help you remember the correct use.
There, their and they’re
This is one of the most common errors to begin with. The problems here arise from all of these words being pronounced in exactly the same way. So, what are the differences between them?
There (and adverb) indicates a place or position.
- We found a lovely restaurant and stayed there all afternoon.
It also indicates the fact or existence of something.
- There is a spider in the bathroom.
Their (a possessive determiner) indicates that something belongs to someone or some people.
- They washed their faces in warm water.
- Someone had left their dirty dishes in the sink.
They (a plural pronoun) and are (a form of the verb to be) are commonly contracted to form they’re. This form is often used in the present simple/present continuous tenses.
- They’re professionals. They know what they’re doing.
Could have, would have and should have (commonly written incorrectly as could of, would of and should of)
The origins of this common mistake derive from the tendency of native speakers to pronounce the auxiliary verb have with the schwa sound. To the untrained ear, this can be misheard as of, a completely different word.
Incorrect: I should of taken that washing off the line as soon as I saw the rain clouds.
Correct: I should have taken that washing off the line as soon as I saw the rain clouds.
Incorrect: She would of found it funny if you’d walked all that way for nothing.
Correct: She would have found it funny if you’d walked all that way for nothing.
Incorrect: I could of got here earlier, but you told me to arrive at 5pm.
Correct: I could have got here earlier, but you told me to arrive at 5pm.
Effect and affect
This is a tricky one, and it is also a very common mistake. Getting it right will make your language skills look and sound very proficient.
Effect (a noun): a change that is the result or consequence of an action.
- The effect (result) of the immunisation programme was a reduction in the disease.
Affect (a verb): to make a difference to.
- Learning how to dance has really affected my self-confidence when I go for a night out.
Its and it’s
I’m guilty of mixing these two up when I’m not paying enough attention, so it’s completely understandable if you seem a bit unsure of them as well.
Its (a possessive determiner) indicates something belonging to or associated with something previously mentioned.
- The bird flapped its wings and flew away.
It (a singular pronoun) and is (a form of the verb to be) are commonly contracted to form it’s. This form is often used in the present simple/continuous tenses.
- It’s going to be a lovely day.
- It’s easy once you know how.
Your and you’re
Ignore the spellings, these two words are pronounced exactly the same. This probably accounts for why mixing them up is one of the most common mistakes on this list.
Your (a possessive determiner) indicates that something belongs to or is associated with the person that the speaker is addressing.
- Is this your pencil?
- Your children keep kicking their football into my garden.
You (a singular pronoun) and are (a form of the verb to be) are commonly contracted to form you’re. This form is often used in the present simple/continuous tenses.
- You’re from England, aren’t you?
- You’re making a real mess of that icing.
I.e. and e.g.
Let’s get the Latin out of the way first: i.e. is an abbreviation of the Latin phrase id est, meaning that is. Meanwhile, e.g. derives from the Latin phrase exempli gratia, or for example. But don’t worry too much about that. English speakers never use the full Latin phrase. In fact, very few people even know them. What this means in reality, however, is that they are always misusing them. So, what’s the difference then?
E.g. (for example) is used to give an example or multiple examples.
- I particularly enjoy team sports (e.g. football and cricket).
I.e. (in other words) is used to restate the same information in different words
- Don’t worry about special dietary requirements, I eat pretty much anything (i.e. I’m not vegetarian!).
To, two and too
Yes, they are all pronounced exactly the same and no, I don’t know why. However, understanding the differences in meaning will help you to avoid the common mistakes made by many native speakers.
To (a preposition, an infinitive marker or an adverb) can be used in several ways.
When used as a preposition, to expresses motion in a particular direction.
- I sent a letter to my aunt.
It also functions as an infinitive marker, coming before the base form of the verb.
- to go, to be, to supply.
Finally, to can be used as an adverb to more accurately describe the actions of a verb.
- I pulled the door to (closed the door) so that we could hear each other better (please note that this is a very uncommon use of the word “to”).
Two (a number)
This one is simple, so you shouldn’t have many problems. It’s just the number two.
- I bought two eggs and a loaf of bread.
Too (an adverb) indicates that something is being done an excessive amount or is being done to a higher degree than is necessary.
- That’s too much sugar. The tea will be too sweet now.
We can also use too to mean “in addition to” or “also.”
- We brought some wine too, so at least we won’t run out later.
Lose and loose
These words are pronounced differently, but native speakers still mix them up occasionally. Let’s look at the two definitions:
Lose (a verb) means to fail against someone or something else.
- Manchester United lost against Manchester City on Saturday.
It also means to be deprived of something or to fail to retain something.
- I’ve lost my phone. Can you call it for me?
Loose (an adjective) is used to describe something that is not tight or well-fitted.
- I like the colour of these trousers but they’re a bit loose around the waist. Have you got a smaller size?