Why you make basic mistakes in English – and why they aren’t basic!

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Learn why you keep making those “basic” mistakes in English and change your attitude about them

Are you like many of my students who get incredibly frustrated with basic mistakes in English that they just can’t seem to get right? Or perhaps you are an English teacher and spend your time in the staffroom venting your own frustration about why your students continuously make the same errors, and never seem to advance?

Very often we lay the blame on the student (if we are teachers), or if we are the learner we blame ourselves. We tell ourselves we are terrible at English and that we are never going to progress. International exams heavily penalise these “basic errors” in B2+ exams. But guess what guys – they aren’t basic errors AT ALL.

Our idea of what is easy or difficult language is based on a completely artificial concept, which is how course books are designed. We believe that if you learn something in a beginner course, then it is easy, and if you learn it in a proficiency class, then it’s hard and advanced. But this is absolute rubbish. It doesn’t take into account how complex this so-called “easy” language is, and that it will take our brains longer to absorb and consolidate it. Not only that, but when we are focusing on communicating ideas and our fluency, forming these structures takes something of a back seat. 

Do basic errors matter when it comes to English exams?

If you are planning on doing an international exam like Cambridge or IELTS, then unfortunately, as things stand, you really need to make an effort to work on this challenging language., As I said earlier, examiners will judge your language in the context of coursebook difficulty. I’m sorry – it sucks. But such is international testing.

If you aren’t planning on taking an exam, then you can take it much more easily! Give yourself time, and your brain will get there. Or maybe it won’t, and that’s OK too, Do you know why? Because these kinds of errors rarely actually affect your communication. 

Photo of an Engliosh grammar test
Does this look familiar? Grammar is given so much focus on English courses because it is easier to test.

So, to put your minds at ease, here are 5 examples of “basic” language which is actually bloody hard.

Basic mistake in English #1 – Forming comparatives

The first “basic mistake” in English we are looking at is comparatives. Comparatives are taught on A1 level courses, and are generally considered easy-peasy. But let’s take a moment to analyse how we form them, and then maybe I will change your mind! First of all, we have a really complicated rule with where we add -er, and when we use more which is based on how many syllables there are in a word. So if the word has one syllable, we add -er, and if it has more than one we use “more”.

Unless it’s a 2 syllable word which ends in -y. Then we take off the –y and add -ier. And of course, if it’s a one syllable word that is spelt consonant + vowel + consonant, then we double the final consonant when we add -er. Are you still with me? Feeling a bit dizzy? Feel free to sit down. OK, so we also have some adjectives which are irregular and don’t follow this rule. Two happen to be insanely high frequency words, good and bad. And then if we are comparing things which are the same, then we ignore ALL of those rules, and we use a completely different structure – as + as. Still think they are easy?

Basic mistake in English #2 – articles

There are over 140 different rules for how to apply articles in English. These span things from official titles, to geographical terms, to jobs, to meals of the day. To make things harder, there is often a lot of language transfer when it comes to articles because languages use articles so differently. For example, Spanish learners overuse the article the, because in Spanish every noun will have an article. Slavic language speakers very often don’t use an article when it’s needed because in those languages it isn’t used as widely.

I normally tell students to learn 3 main rules for articles, and then discover the rest as they come up. But even those 3 main rules are still a lot to juggle when you are trying to communicate ideas. We use a/an with singular, countable nouns, and an when the noun starts with a vowel sound. Remember to use a/an the first time you mention something in a sentence.  We use the when something is unique, the second time we mention something in a sentence, and when we know what we are referring to. We use the zero article, that’s no article at all, when we are generalising, when we talk about institutions like prison or hospital, and with meals.

It’s enough to make you tear your hair out! Articles are not simple. They are really, really hard! How they continue to be seen as a basic mistake in English is beyond me.

Basic mistake in English #3 – Question Tags

God, I hate question tags. They make my students cry and as far as communication is concerned, they are not worth the effort. While comparatives and articles will affect how good your written English is, question tags are something that are used in spoken English. So, if you want to confirm information, or check something, that’s when they are used.

 And in order to form them you need to do some epic brain gymnastics – let’s look at what you have to consider.

3 students feeling very bored in a class
Actual photo of students trying to use question tags and asking themselves why on earth the matter.

 First of all, if you make a positive sentence, then the question tag needs to be negative, and vice versa. Next, you need to consider what aspect you have used in your sentence and identify the correct auxiliary which is used with it – so if you are speaking in the present simple, that auxiliary will be do if it’s a verb, or to be if it’s a noun or adjective. Then, if you are speaking in present aspect, you will need to consider whether it is first or third person, plural or singular.

And all of this AFTER you have just put a sentence together. And you know what? If at the end of a sentence you say yes or no to confirm, absolutely EVERYONE will understand you. Because what really matters here is your intonation.

This horribly complicated structure is taught at an A2 level, and when I worked with coursebooks I saw my students’ confidence and motivation plummet when this came round because they found it so hard and felt they were failing. You’re not – it’s a really complicated structure.

Basic mistake in English #4 – Question forms

A lot of Latin based languages do not differentiate their grammar structures when it comes to forming questions – they just alter their intonation so the listener knows it’s a question. English doesn’t do that, it employs a difficult inversion process where you need to either change the order of the words in a sentence, and even add more words into it.

So if a positive sentence is “you like cheese” then you need to add the auxiliary do at the start. But if it’s “she is pretty”, then we need to invert the noun and verb to “Is she pretty?”. Then we also have question words like where, what and why to contend with.

And then once students finally master the question form structure, we get examples of sentences like  “when he was in Spain, he went swimming” and this often gets misconstructed as “when was he in Spain he went swimming” because they have worked so hard to get the order right that it’s difficult to break the pattern.

White board with an explanation about English grammar on it
Talking about the future is in no way easy!

Basic mistake in English #5 – Expressing the future

One of the hardest things in English is expressing the future correctly. That’s because it’s oversimplified in course books and not taught well. A lot of traditional English courses require you to do an exam at the end, and the easiest and most convenient way to grade students is by grammar exercises. These do nothing to help you understand how to actually apply language, and the future is a great example of it.

The most overused word I hear when people talk about the future is “will” – and it’s usually not the word we want.

That’s because as far as the future goes, we use will to express predictions (that we expect from experience) and to make promises. Going to is used for predictions we expect (based on external information or observations) and plans. We most commonly use the present continuous to express the future as that’s used for arrangements and very close futures, which is what we usually talk about. But of course if it’s a scheduled thing in the future then we would use the present simple. And if we are speculating then we’d probably just use a modal verb.

Are you still with me?! This is A LOT to get your head around, and requires a lot of exposure to the language. It’s also very hard to get right because so many students have “will ” as the way to express the future drummed into their head and that can be a hard pattern to break. So, again, nothing simple here.

I’ve chosen 5 “basic” pieces of language to go into detail with here, but there are plenty more I could choose.

And of course your first language will mean some of these “basic mistakes” in English are harder or easier for you personally. But the important thing is that you should not feel bad about your English (and consequently yourself) because you keep making these errors.

Teacher reaction has a lot to do with this. Because we have all collectively agreed that the stuff at the beginning is easy, and the stuff at the end is hard, teachers will often have little patience for these repeated mistakes. I was one of those teachers – 100%.  I would get really irritated by my students who just didn’t get it, and it exasperated me. I presumed it was down to them not trying hard enough. I was wrong.

Ultimately, practice and exposure to the language will iron out these so-called basic mistakes in English. And like I said at the beginning, they rarely cause any miscommunication. It is true that in written English, these errors stand out more and can potentially cause a negative impact – but that’s written English. If you use the language for speaking, then it’s not a big deal.

Remember, effective communication is when you have made your idea understood, and have understood the information you needed to. End of story. And I guarantee that being kinder to yourself will have an incredibly positive effect on your English – so start there 🙂 

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