Learn and Speak languages with native speakers


How to write more professionally:

4 common mistakes made when writing in English

by Sarah Macklin


Unless a foreigner has lived in England for a considerable amount of time, you can usually tell that English isn’t their first language. There’s something in the way they write or talk that gives it away. We’ll be discussing what the most common grammatical mistakes are when non-Natives write or talk in English and how to fix them.

  • Understanding prepositions

Many foreign people have a problem with prepositions in the English language. To native speakers, we don’t have to think about how we use these prepositions, it just comes naturally.

Firstly, a preposition is a word such as ‘on’, ‘at’, ‘by’, ‘after’, ‘with’, etc. They are usually small words that appear in front of nouns or pronouns. They can be used to describe when and where something happens, e.g. They arrived at the train station on Tuesday at 4pm.
It would be incorrect to try and say, “They arrived to the train station at Tuesday”. To English ears, this just sounds wrong. There is no logical reason as to why we arrive at somewhere on Wednesday. It’s usually a case of learning the expressions and being able to understand it for yourself. Some more examples include:

  • Scientists found some unusual data in their laboratory
  • She placed her bag under the chair
  • You can purchase your coffee from the shop

Similarly, many English people have begun to say, “I should of packed my bag by now”. This is incorrect. In this situation, the preposition should be ‘have’: “I should have packed my bag by now”.

Top Tip: Use ‘in’ to tell someone your location, but ‘into’ to show your movement towards something.
I walked into the pub
I swam in the sea

  • The Singular ‘They’

Many people are taught that ‘he/she’ is singular, and ‘they’ is plural. However, English also makes use of ‘they’ or ‘their’ as singular.

For example:
If your pupil is struggling, he/she could ask the teacher for help. Or he/she could try looking for a relevant book in the library. This way, he/she will find what he/she is looking for and learn something new.
This can get confusing. You can lose track of what the sentence is saying because the ‘he/she’ breaks up the sentence, meaning you lose what is being said.
In this example, we can replace he/she with the singular ‘they’. The new example would read:
If your pupil is struggling, they could ask the teacher for help. Or they could try looking for a relevant book in the library. This way, they will find what they are looking for and learn something new.
This flows much more easily, and is easier to understand.
The other reason we might want to use this rule is if we don’t want to reveal the gender of the person. This might be because we want to keep them anonymous. It could also be to keep the article/sentence gender neutral, i.e. not giving away the gender of the person in question.
“They are training as a barrister” doesn’t demonstrate the gender of the person who is training to be a barrister. However, we understand that this is about one person, because it reads ‘a barrister’. If it was about multiple people, it would read, “They are training as barristers”.

  • Tenses

Present and past tense are usually the most confusing to non-Native English speakers. It is difficult for them to grasp the difference between “I went to my piano lesson” and “I have gone to my piano lesson”, or “I walked here yesterday” and “I walk here yesterday”.
It would not make sense to say “I have gone to my piano lesson”. It makes more sense to say “I have been to my piano lesson” if you’re talking about it in the past, or similarly “I went to my piano lesson”. ‘Went’ is the past tense of the verb ‘go’. If you were attending your piano lesson in the present, you would say, “I am going to my piano lesson”.
This is because, as in these examples, we sometimes add –ed to verbs when talking in the past tense, but sometimes we don’t, as in the case of ‘went’. You wouldn’t say “I goed to my piano lesson” so we constitute the verb ‘go’ for the past tense which is ‘went’: “I went to the shop”, “I went to a concert”, etc.
Similarly, “I look forward to hear from you” doesn’t make as much sense as “I am looking forward to hearing from you”. You’re talking about hearing from them in the future, so it needs to be in the future tense.
This is a major example of English discontinuity in which some rules apply for certain instances, and then different rules apply for others.

  • Apostrophes

Again, this is another thing that English people struggle with too. The main thing to remember is that apostrophes are never used to make something plural. Go through the steps first:

  • Make the word plural, e.g. horses
  • Ask yourself, it is possessive as well as plural?

If it’s both plural and possessive then you would write: “The horses’ hay was fresh”. The hay belongs to the horses, but obviously ‘horses’ already has an S on the end. It would be incorrect to write horses’s, so we remove the second S to make horses’.
We use apostrophes when something has been abbreviated.

  • I should not                        -->                  I shouldn’t
  • We were out until midnight       -->          We were out ‘til midnight
  • You are                                -->                  You’re

These are the top 4 mistakes made by non-Native English speakers. If you can fix and understand these, then your writing and speaking will be much smoother and fluent. Some things need to be learnt by heart and then repeatedly practised. It sounds wrong to say “I am in a train”, and over time you’ll start to learn that it’s right to say, “I’m on a train”.

As has been mentioned above, English speakers still don’t entirely get all of these correct all of the time, especially when writing or commenting on social media. People are becoming more and more lazy with their language online, by leaving out apostrophes and using slang or ‘text’ language. But by practising them, you’ll become much more accustomed to how things should sound and look.