The Three Most Common English Language Errors Made by Non-English Speakers

The three most common errors educated English as a Foreign Language (EFL) speakers make and how to fix them.

By K. Titchenell, Abacus English Editing Services

Producing polished and publishable copy in formal English is extremely difficult for many writers, particularly those whose first language is unrelated to English – Chinese, Japanese and Thai, for example. Most aspects of English grammar are fairly easily learnt and educated Asians generally handle these better than, say, the average American does. However, there is a specific set of usage and grammatical mistakes which native speakers of English nearly never make, but which make up the majority of errors made by Asian language speakers. An analysis of many papers and articles over a number of years has revealed that perhaps as many 80-90% of usage errors fall into three well-defined categories, and, once identified, these errors are not difficult to correct. Just keep reading.

The Three Major Errors

  1. Definite and indefinite articles. Non existent in many languages, the presence, absence, and choice of definite and indefinite articles, “The”, “A” or “An” before a noun determines whether that noun is a specific predefined instance, a general reference to any example, or, in some cases an iconic or representative case of the noun.

  2. Count nouns and non-countable (mass) nouns. Certain nouns can be counted, others cannot and are quantified differently. The “How much” or “how many” problem is a pervasive but easily solved misusage. “How much space” and “How many pencils” are correct, but “How many researches” or “How much example” are both very wrong in English.

  3. Prepositions, and the choice of which one to use in verbal phrases and other situations. Why is it that one “partakes of something” but “takes part in something”? Why does one have an aversion to something, but a dislike for something?

The Googling Solution.

It is usually possible to do a very specific search of online literature using a search engine to find the number of examples of a specific phrase that can be found on the web. It can be tricky to define the right search and one will always find erroneous usages, but in general, the quantity of usages found on the web can justify a specific usage. For example, to determine which is correct “researches are” or “research is”, a search for the two phrases (each in quotes) will yield the a clear answer in the form of an approximate count of how many of each are found on the web (210,000 and 17,300,000 respectively). If searched properly, the preponderant usage is nearly always correct. If the official grammar book contradicts prevailing usage, it should be, and probably soon will be changed.

Of course one will always be erroneous usages on the web (210,000 in the above example), but they are usually clearly outweighed by the right ones. To be more sure about the results, one can restrict the search to specific countries, or domains. For example, searching within the Cambridge University website, the search: site://www.cam.ac.uk/ “researches are” yields no results at all, while site://www.cam.ac.uk/ “research is” yields 28 hits.

Articles

The definite article, “the” is normally used when one specific case of a noun is meant: “The dinosaur I saw had longer eyelashes than yours.” But it can also signify an iconic or representative abstraction: “To the researcher, such events can be very revealing. To the random vacationer, they are simply irritating.” (No specific researcher or vacationer is referred to here, only researchers and vacationers in general.)

Normally, singular nouns require an article, while plural nouns take no article if indefinite, “people are funny”, or a definite article if a specific group of the noun is meant, “the people who planned the ice-cream barrage are in this room”. There are some general rules, but also many exceptions which simply have to be learnt, and the Brits and Americans don’t agree on everything. Specific place names may or may not require an article and this can only be learnt from experience or by looking them up; there is no consistent rule. It is The San Joaquin Valley, The Rift Valley and The Holme Valley, but Death Valley, Grass Valley, and Apple Valley never take an article.

This aspect of English can be very confusing to foreigners, as dictionaries and other reference resources rarely explain whether a noun needs an article or not. While there is no irrefragible rule, there are some guidelines. With some nouns, particularly place names and proper nouns, the only way to be certain is to examine usages.

Exceptions to the rule requiring articles for singular Nouns in English

Names of countries have no articles (if singular)

  • France borders Switzerland.

  • The BBC is not permitted in Zimbabwe.

  • But: (plural country names) I’m visiting the United States next week after touring the Netherlands and the British Isles.

  • Exceptions: I have never been to the Ukraine, the Gambia, nor the United Kingdom (or the UK).

There is no article used with with the names of languages.

  • Swedish was not much use in Argentina.

  • English has a vast vocabulary.

  • Mahatma Gandhi corresponded in Gujarati.

There is no article before the names of meals.

  • Breakfast was revolting.

  • We had lunch with a dyspeptic Croat.

  • Dinner lasted until midnight.

There is no article with proper names (if singular).

  • Rupert dropped the eggplant on the Persian carpet.

  • Geoffrey bent his spanner.

  • But: (plural) the Morgans have revolting table manners (plural proper noun).

  • Exceptions: The Fonz, the Cisco Kid, the Scarlet Pimpernel.

There is no article with titles and names:

  • Prince Charles has big ears.

  • President Fillmore is the one nobody remembers.

  • Dr. House insulted the patient.

  • But: the Prince of Wales, the Bishop of Canterbury, and the Dalai Lama walked into a bar.

There is no article with professions and fields of study.

  • Statistics is sometimes useful for proving things that aren’t true.

  • Music should not be studied by the deaf.

  • He wants to work for NASA.

  • He’ll probably end up in food service or law enforcement.

  • Exceptions: He’ll probably end up in the military|the navy|the army.

There is no article with mass (uncountable) nouns:

  • Water is in short supply.

  • Coffee can be used to disrupt a concert.

  • Research is lacking in the field of invertebrate alcoholism

There is no article with singular islands, mountains and lakes.

  • More people know that Loch Ness has a monster than know it is in Scotland.

  • Kauai is mostly coastline.

  • Mount Fuji is the most photographed mountain in the world.

  • Moussorgsky didn’t name it “Pandemonium on Bald Mountain”.

  • But: The elephants traversed the Alps|the Pennines|the Adirondacks (plural).

  • Exceptions: They climbed The Matterhorn. They went boating on The Serpentine. The dragon flew over The Lonely Mountain. The Hebredes is off the West coast of Scotland.

No article is used with most names of towns, streets, stations and airports.

  • Charing Cross station is some distance from Piccadilly|Big Ben|Hyde Park Corner|St. Paul’s Cathedral — but it’s not close to: the Marble Arch|the Embankment|the London Eye|the Serpentine.

  • Can you direct me to Curson Street?

  • She found joy in Sienna.

  • They depart from LAX on the 14th.

No article is used with some destinations:

  • He went to school unwillingly. (He is in school.)

  • She didn’t go to work today. (She is at work.)

  • They never went to college. (She is at college.)

  • He might have gone to prison. (He is in prison.)

  • They never go to church. (They are in church.)

  • It’s too early to go to bed. (He is in bed.)

  • That’s in skid row.

  • They told us we were going to heaven or hell.

  • She had to go to hospital (UK). But: she had to go to the hospital (USA).

Some nouns may be used with or without an article, but have very different meanings depending upon whether an article is used.

  • She loves to walk in nature (the natural world). But, it is not the nature of cats to follow the herd (not characteristic of cats)

The article is absent in modes of transport and some expressions. Note significant differences between USA and UK usages.

We went:

  • by car.

  • by train.

  • by air.

  • on foot.

  • on holiday (UK) on vacation (USA).

  • on air (in broadcasting)(UK) But: on the air (USA).

Count Nouns and Non-Countable (Mass) Nouns

In English, nouns that can be counted (count nouns) and those that cannot be counted (mass nouns) are handled very differently. In many cases count nouns and mass nouns are easily distinguished my simply asking whether making the noun plural and putting “how many”, a definite article, or a number in front of it makes more sense than “how much”:

Count nouns :

  • A pencil: three pencils
  • A frog: three frogs
  • A minister: three ministers.

Mass nouns are uncomfortable with numbers:

  • A confusion: three confusions (No. “How much confusion”)
  • An air: three airs (No, “How much air”)
  • A misery: three miseries (No, “How much misery”)
  • A research: three researches (No, “How much research”)

Many nouns can be both count and mass nouns, often with different meanings.

Paper:

  • How much paper? (boxes, rolls or reams of paper)
  • How many papers? (He published three papers last year)

Oil:

  • How much oil? (one quart)
  • How many oils? (olive oil, corn oil, linseed oil — three oils.)

Mystery:

  • Much mystery surrounds the case of the giant rat of Sumatra.
  • Many mysteries were set in English country houses.

Remember, mass nouns do not take indefinite articles and are quantified by “how much”. When in doubt, just compare the results count from a search for “much [noun]” to that from a search for “many

[noun]s”.

Prepositions

Prepositions are used in many contexts in English and can produce many variations of meaning.