Luckily for ESL students, a great many people with English as their first language make written English mistakes all the time. As a result, there are plenty of articles online that explain common mistakes and how to avoid them. Here is a list of some of the most common mistakes, why they are made, and how to avoid them.



Sentences that are too short and too simple


ESL students are taught very simple sentences at first. As the students advance, they are expected to create longer and more complex sentences. Many students show improvement, only to find that their sentences are grammatically incorrect.


With the help of spelling and grammar checkers, students correct their work, but the downside is that spelling and grammar checkers reward short and simple sentences, therefore, students write sentences that are overly short and too simple. While such sentences are grammatically correct, and they make sense, but they wouldn’t score highly on an ESL test.



Some students create overly long paragraphs


There is no set limit on the number of lines your paragraph should have. Technically, you can make your paragraphs as long as you wish. The problem is that naturally written English has varied paragraph sizes. Essay and book paragraphs may be longer if needed. Online text should have shorter paragraphs to make the text easier to skim read. Paragraphs should only focus on one issue or point.



Trusting the spelling and grammar checker too much


Most writers place too much trust in their spelling and grammar checker. The checker cannot understand the meaning of your text, it only suggests things based on the rules it was programmed with. Professional writers, like the ones at essay writing services, often have to break the checker’s rules, grammar rules, and even spelling rules in order to do their job correctly. ESL students are only marked down if they show repeated errors, such as using ‘their’ instead of ‘there’.



Past, present or future


When you write about things or people in the past, present or future, you have to use tenses. For example:


  • Harry did... (past)
  • Harry will... (future)
  • Harry is... (present)


Stick to the most appropriate tense. Do not be dissuaded by your spelling and grammar checker that claims a ‘passive voice’ is a bad thing. Proofreading your work to check for the correct tense is easy enough; just make sure you do it.



Misnaming certain things and using incorrect words


There are thousands of words that ESL students may use incorrectly. Take the time to learn the correct words as you come across them. Many people who have English as their first language still make these mistakes, so there are plenty of online articles about them. Here are a few examples of incorrectly used words. For example, these words are often used incorrectly:


  • ‘discreet and discrete’
  • ‘everyday’ and ‘every day’
  • ‘principle and principal’



Hyphenating mistakes are common


Each generation hyphenates however it sees fit. The rules of English grammar are mostly set in stone at this point, but there is still plenty of discussion about hyphenating. The Purdue library has narrowed down the most commonly accepted hyphen rules, but if you are truly stuck, you may have to Google them and see what other people are doing.


One of the trickiest rules is hyphenating to avoid confusing letters. For example, technically, ‘shelllike’ should be one word, but we hyphenate it to create ‘Shell-like’ because there are three letter ‘l’s together. On the other hand, a word such as ‘childlike’ doesn’t have the same problem, so it is not hyphenated.



Do not use ‘social media style English’


In other words, if you are trying to learn English, it may be a good idea to stay away from social media. Teachers all around the English speaking world have students in their class that allow “text-talk” to creep into their work - don’t be one of them!


An example sentence of social media ‘text-talk’ that you should NOT adopt is:


  • [Incorrect] “If u cud recomend me a book. Wat wud u recomend? Coz I have sum free time 2 kill.”
  • [Correct] "If you can recommend me a book to read, what would it be? Because I have some free time to kill."



Spelling / Grammar checkers cannot help you proofread for typos


Like I said above, an over reliance for English checking tools may lead to mistakes all the same. In one sentence alone, you can mention “their” and “there”. Both are spelled correctly, which means your spelling and grammar checker will not highlight them as being incorrect. In another writing scenario, you may accidentally write ‘to’ instead of ‘too’ and your checker will also not pick up on this.



Incorrect capitalization


Names always have the first letter capitalized. The beginnings of sentences have the first word capitalized, and ‘I’ is capitalized if you are writing about yourself. Proper nouns are capitalized while common nouns are not. Weekdays, holidays, and months should be capitalized as well.


Here is a capitalization guide. The only one that is missing is capital letters within speeches because they are very tricky. There is a quotes and speeches guide here that you can refer to for clarification.



Avoid overly-familiar words/expressions in academic text


If you were writing to a friend, you may say that plans are ‘set in stone’, or that you do not have any ‘concrete plans’. These are fine, and most people will understand your meaning, but using them in an essay may be a mistake.


With the exception of fiction and/or narrative essays, you may be expected to write using formal English. For example, you may say:


  • ‘I’m trying to find out what is going on so I can say sorry’.


Whereas you should say:


  • ‘I am trying to discover the problem so I may apologize’.





Mistakes such as the ones mentioned in this article will not fix themselves. Practice will not make perfect in this case. You need to actively search out mistakes and learn why they are wrong. Even writers that have been in the business for many years may make mistakes such as using ‘that’ instead of ‘who’ and not even know it. The students that actively search out the most common mistakes are often the ones that rise above their classmates and people that speak English as their first language.


Author's bio: Karen Dikson is a college instructor and writer from New Jersey. She finds her inspiration in traveling and helping her students succeed. Chat with Karen on Twitter.


Hero image by William Stitt (CC0 1.0)