Native speakers' mistakes ≠ learners' mistakes


I sometimes browse through Twitter looking at things with the #English hash tag to re-tweet out to my followers. Today I came across this one:

I clicked on the link, and found pretty much what I expected to find: a list of mistakes that English speakers make in written English. These are precisely the kind of points I used to teach to my American high school students.

But these are NOT the mistakes that English learners need to focus on.

The lists of English mistakes you read about in these lists come from writing and grammar teachers' frustrations with the writing of native students. Native students already know a language that they call "English". But their teachers have this other language that's also called "English" but is really a totally different form of the language. It's the form that is meant for formal written communication, and it's about 20-30 years out of date with the form that's actually used for written communication in the business world.

So these mistakes are meant to point out the difference between Spoken English (which the students already know) and Essay English (which the teachers want them to learn).  Some of the favorite examples are:

  • lie / lay
  • they're / their / there
  • immigrate / emigrate

The problems that English learners have are entirely different. The mistakes that they need to be pointed to are the ones where the language doesn't work the way that it seems like it should. Here are a few examples that I have noticed time and time again:

  • delicious - The word "delicious" isn't the most common word to describe tasty food. It's more common to say that food was "good".
  • so - "So" is usually used in a positive sense: "That's so great!" In negative sentences, it's better to use "not that", "not too", or "not very": "The speech wasn't that long. It wasn't too difficult to understand. It wasn't very interesting."
  • explain - "Explain" doesn't require a preposition afterwards: use "explain something", not "explain about something".

The problem with teaching the native-speaker mistakes to English learners is that it can lead to speaking and writing that is far too formal. I often read something written by someone who obviously put a lot of classroom and textbook hours into their learning and think, "That sounds great - if you're talking to a robot." Of course, I try to make my comments a little more constructive than that, but the point is that overly formal language can make it hard for a person to cope in casual speech environments or to make social connections with other English speakers.

So next time you see one of these lists of mistakes, take a minute and think about who it's really for.


  Print this Article