Top 11 ESL English Grammar Mistakes and How to Overcome Them
So, you want to speak English well?
You can start by learning common English idioms.
You can also start speaking naturally by learning some American slang.
But before you do all that, it’s important to make sure that you’re not making basic English grammar mistakes, and the best way to do that is to use FluentU.
FluentU takes authentic videos—like music videos, movie trailers, news and inspiring talks—and turns them into personalized language learning lessons.
With grammar info about each word and sample sentences to see how it’s used, you’ll be speaking like a native in no time. Give FluentU a free try and see for yourself!
In the meantime, let’s discuss some common English grammar mistakes for ESL learners, and how to overcome them. Once you understand the grammatical rules behind these top 11 ESL English grammar mistakes, you’ll be more likely to use these structures correctly in the future.
Top 11 ESL English Grammar Mistakes and How to Overcome Them
May vs. Might
Deciding when to use “may” rather than “might” can be tricky because the difference between these two verbs is quite small. They both indicate that something is possible, but “might” suggests slightly more uncertainty than “may”.
“I might take a trip to India next year” means that maybe you will go to India, but maybe you won’t. “I may have a slice of cake after dinner” expresses slightly more certainty that you’re going to eat that cake.
Even more confusing is the rule that “may” becomes “might” in the past tense. So, in the present tense, you would say “he may eat the last piece of cake”, but in the past, this sentence becomes “he might have eaten the last piece of cake”.
Fewer vs. Less
This mistake is difficult for both English-language learners and native-English speakers.
Both “fewer” and “less” describe the opposite of more, but you need to look at the noun in order to decide which word to use. “Fewer” is used for countable nouns, like books, cars, people or cups. Basically, if a number can come before the noun, like 2 books, 10 cars, 100 people, or 5 cups, then the noun is countable.
“Less”, on the other hand, is used for uncountable nouns, like love, water, electricity, or science. If you can’t make the noun plural, then it’s an uncountable noun. For example, you would say “this parking lot is too crowded. I wish there were fewer cars”, but “I wish you would turn off the lights, so we could use less electricity”.
Could, Should or Would
These 3 similar-sounding verbs also cause problems for many English-language learners.
“Should” is used to give advice” (“That shirt looks great on you. I think you should buy it” or “You should get vaccinations before traveling overseas”).
“Would” is used to describe unlikely or unreal situations (“I would love to go to Italy, but I don’t have enough money” or “She would come to the party if she didn’t have to wake up early tomorrow”). “Would “ can also be used to make polite offers (“Would you like some tea?”)
Lastly, “could” can be used in 3 different ways: 1) to describe a past ability (“When I was younger, I could run twice as fast”), 2) to describe possibilities in the future (“If we work really hard, I think we could save up enough money for a vacation this year”), and 3) to make polite requests (“Could I have a cup of tea?”)
Since vs. For
The words “since” and “for” are both used when you’re talking about time.
The difference is that “for” is used with a period or duration of time, while “since” is used with a point or exact moment in time. “For” can be used with all tenses, but “since” is most often used with perfect tenses. That means “for” comes before time expressions like “30 minutes”, “6 months” and “10 years”, while “since” comes before time expressions like “Monday”, “January” or “2009”. You could say, “he jogs for 1 hour everyday” or “he has lived in Bangkok for 10 years”. Using “since” you would say “he’s been jogging since 7am”, or “he has lived in Bangkok since 2003”.
Bring vs. Take
“Bring” and “take” have almost the same meaning, but they imply different directions. Their relationship is similar to the one between the verbs “come” and “go”.
“Bring” suggests movement towards the speaker, making it similar to “come”: You ask people to bring things to the place where you already are. For example, you could say “bring that book over here”, or “please bring a snack to the party”.
“Take”, on the other hand, suggests movement away from the speaker, making it similar to “go”: You take things to the place where you are going. You could say “don’t forget to take your book to school”, or “please take me home”.
Make vs. Do
“Make” and “do” are another pair of verbs that tend to be problematic for English learners because, in many languages, they have the same meaning.
“Make” normally means to create or produce something, as in “I need to make dinner” or “we made a strawberry cake yesterday”.
On the other hand, “do” often requires an action or an activity, as in “do some exercise” or “do business”.
However, there are no clear-cut (not ambiguous, clear, distinct) rules for these two verbs, and there are many exceptions as well as collocations you will need to learn by heart.
To help you with that, the guys at FluentU’s English YouTube channel have created the following superb (great) video:
With FluentU English‘s videos, you’ll learn how to use English in a correct and natural way. Subscribe to the channel today and leave mistakes behind!
You can also read the post on the differences between make and do that inspired the aforementioned (mentioned before) video.
If you’re using more than one adjective to describe a noun, keep in mind that these adjectives need to go in a certain order in the sentence. This is the reason why “it’s a big red car” is correct, but “it’s a red big car” sounds wrong.
The normal adjective order is: 1) quantity or number 2) quality or opinion 3) size 4) shape 5) age 6) colour 7) nationality 8) material. Of course, it’s unusual to use more than 3 adjectives to describe one noun, so you’ll rarely need to use all of these at once.
Me vs. Myself
Deciding when to use “me” and when to use “myself” is another common mistake that both native-English speakers and English-language learners make. Many native English-speakers make the mistake of saying “myself” when they should say “me”, because they think “myself” sounds more polite. This is wrong!
“Me” is an object pronoun, so it refers to the person that the action of the verb is being done to. For example, you could say “my parents want me to help with the chores more”, or “please call me if you have any questions”.
“Myself”, however, is a reflexive pronoun, like himself, itself or themselves. It’s generally only used in the same sentence as “I”. For example, you could say “I gave myself a break from studying today”, or “I cleaned the entire house by myself”. Use “myself” when you are doing the action to “you”.
There, Their or They’re
All three words are pronounced the same, but they’re used in different ways.
“There” can be used to specify a place (“The book is over there on the table”), or it can be used with the verb “to be” to indicate the existence of something (“There are 5 cafes on this street”).
“Their” is a possessive adjective, like my, your, or his (“that’s their house”).
Lastly, “they’re” is a contraction of “they are”, so it is the subject “they” plus the verb “are”. For example, you could say “they’re going to play soccer with us tonight”.
Its vs. It’s
Just as many people confuse “there”, “their” and “they’re”, many also confuse “it’s” and “its” because both words are pronounced the same way, yet have a different meaning. “It’s” is a contraction of “it is”, so it is the subject “it” plus the verb “is”. For example, you could say “it’s really cold outside today”. “Its”, on the other hand, is the possessive form of “it” (“this city is known for its amazing pasta”).
A vs. The
Many languages don’t use definite and indefinite articles, and if you’re not used to distinguishing between the two, it can be a difficult concept to master.
When you’re talking about one thing in a general way, use the indefinite article “a”; but if you’re talking about something everyone in the conversation is familiar with (or the writer and reader if you’re writing), then use “the”. For example, if I say “let’s watch a movie”, I’m suggesting that we watch any movie. We don’t know which movie we’re going to watch yet – I just want to watch something, anything. However, if I say “let’s watch the movie”, I’m referring to a specific movie that you and I have already talked about watching together.
Conquer these common English grammar mistakes, and you won’t just sound more fluent—but your confidence in English will soar, too!