Common errors in English

Common errors in English - writing tips

Of course I can't make you an overnight writing sensation, but if you avoid the following ten typical mistakes in your own texts, you'll be able to write much better English. By the way, this applies to short texts in English coursework at school, letters of application, or a doctoral thesis!

ten typical mistakes in english

1. Using false friends

We often know (alleged) English terms and use them in our texts, although they either do not exist in English or have a completely different meaning. False friends are such a common problem that they are covered in their own section (aimed mainly at German speakers but also useful for speakers of other languages).

2. mixing up American and British English

As you probably already know, there is not one English, but a number of different standard varieties (British English, American English, South African English, Australian English, etc.).


At school, most will learn either British English (BE) or American English (AE). So when we write a text, we should make sure we remain consistent within one of these varieties. 



  • Attorneys usually work in city centers and like expensive jewelry (AE).
  • Barristers usually work in city centres and like expensive jewellery (BE).

As you can see, some differences are just in the spelling while others are entirely different words.

In addition to these lexical differences, there are also a number of grammatical peculiarities:

  • Do you have a car? (AE).
  • Have you got a car? (BE).

In addition, some irregular verbs work differently, some prepositions are used differently, and there are even some differences with verb forms:

  • It has got cold (BE) vs. It has gotten cold (AE).
  • Have you done your homework yet? (BE) vs. Did you do your homework yet? (AE).
  • At the weekend (BE) vs. On the weekend (AE).

Generally, the the formal written forms of AE and BE are more similar than the informal (spoken) language. It’s best to choose a variety and stick to it!

3. Confusing the Simple Past and Present Perfect

There is often confusion between the Simple Past (I had breakfast) and the Present Perfect (I have had breakfast). Unfortunately, if you go into detail, the distinction between the two tenses can actually be relatively complicated. But following consideration should help: The Present Perfect is used whenever the thing (event) in the past has a relation to the present.


Here are some typical cases and examples of the Present Perfect:

  • You think about past and future at the same time: I can't go to football training because I've broken my arm.
  • Something absolute: Jane has crashed with her bike again. However, details will be added in the Simple Past: Jane has crashed with her bike again. She rode into a tree while talking on her phone.
  • Something with the meaning sometime/so far: He has never said 'sorry' in his whole life.
  • Repetitions: I've eaten five biscuits this afternoon.
  • Things that last until the present: I've known John for years (and I still know him today).

The Simple Past, on the other hand, is used when past actions have already been completed. You can often easily recognise this time form because it is associated with signal words. This means time phrases like yesterday, last week, a month ago, in 2019, etc. An example for this would be: I visited Paris last summer.


However, the Simple Past can also be used without these signal words. Here are some typical cases and examples:

  • Successive actions in the past: First we went for a walk and then we had lunch. 
  • Interruption of a past action in Past Progressive: We were walking to the shop, when his phone rang

Please note: All tenses that are in progress (whether in the past - Past Progressive - or the present - Present Progressive) are formed with a -ing at the end of the verb. Many languages, such as German, lack such a verb tense, and instead you have to deduce the progressive aspect from the context or additionally rewrite it.


Prepositions combine nouns, pronouns and phrases with other words in a sentence. In the sentence The cup is on the table, the preposition on links the phrases the cup and the table and establishes a logical connection between the two.


The problem now is that you have to find the right preposition at the right moment. Here are a few examples of cases that often go wrong:


Weekdays - on - on Monday

Months, seasons, dates, times - in - in summer; in an hour; in 2018

From a specific date vs. over a specific period - since 2012 vs. for 5 years

Use of by - by 8 o'clock; by 9 o'clock, I had already finished

Use of in vs. at - in the kitchen; at the table


These prepositions have to be learnt in combination with the nouns, so just check if you're not sure.


Run-On Sentence is, quite simply, a sentence in which two independent sentence parts have been stuck together without a proper connection. Most of the time these are incorrect commas or missing conjunctions (but, because, and, so, etc). Here are two examples:

  • Not good: I need a new phone, my old one is broken.
  • Better: I need a new phone. My old one is broken.
  • Even better: I need a new phone because my old one is broken.
  • Not good: Let's go it's far too cold in here.
  • Better: Let's go! It's far too cold in here.
  • Even Better: It's far too cold in here, so let's go. 

6. Lack of Care with plural and singular

There are two common problems in distinguishing singular from plural. On the one hand, the plural works differently for certain words, on the other hand you have to be careful how you continue a sentence after the plural:


Problem 1 - Different plural forms:

Singular Plural
person people
man men
woman women
wife wives
child children
foot feet
tooth teeth
sheep sheep
deer deer
wolf wolves
goose geese
mouse mice
louse lice
shelf shelves
leaf leaves
thief thieves
half halves
knife knives
loaf loaves
bacterium bacteria
criterion criteria
thesis theses
crisis crises
series series

Problem 2 - What happens next?


The second problem is unfortunately somewhat more complicated. As long as the sentences are simple, using the plural is relatively simple: Katie has a dog. Katie has two dogs.


But here are a few examples where it's no longer so easy:

  • The team is (are) playing well. - In BE you can use here either the singular or the plural (as a so-called Collective Noun). You have to think about whether the team is a group (is) or a group of individuals (are). In AE the singular is usually used in such cases. Of course there are exceptions, such as: The police are coming! Police is plural in both varieties.
  • A serious problem is car crashes - The verb should match the subject (serious problem) and not the complement (car crashes).
  • Advanced knowledge of at least two languages is required for this position. - Here, it is important remember that the subject (advanced knowledge) is singular even though a plural (two languages) follows.

7. inCorrect usage of mass nouns

A Mass Noun is a noun that denotes something which cannot be counted, such as water, and take a singular verb form. Most languages use mass nouns, but English has a tendency to use them in cases when they would not be used in other languages. This can lead to some confusion.




Information - This is nearly always treated as a mass noun in English (as is info). But other languages often treat information as a countable noun. For example, German often uses the plural Informationen when English would use the mass noun (taking a singular verb form). The singular Information would be used in German when a discrete piece of information is referred to (here in English you would use a phrase such as a piece of information). Consequently, German speakers sometimes use the plural informations in English when the mass noun would be correct.


Data -  It comes originally from the plural form of the Latin datum. Nowadays, though, data is usually treated as a mass noun and so takes a singular verb, such as when talking about computer data for example. In formal academic English data does often take a plural verb but in most other contexts data is a typical mass noun.

8. Confusion and problems with articles

Most people who learn languages with grammatical gender such as German despair of the articles. Why is it die Gabel (Fork), das Messer (Knife) and der Löffel (Spoon)?


In English life is actually a bit easier. There are two articles: the definite article (the) and the indefinite article (a/an).


The first problem is simple again. When do I use a and when do I use an? The answer is relatively simple: an stands before vowels (a pear vs. an apple) and is fundamentally based on pronunciation - not on spelling!  So you say, for example, an hour (because the "h" is not pronounced) and a university (because it begins with a “y” sound). Due to different pronunciations, the use of a/an unfortunately depends on the speaker - so there is no universal rule (e.g. a herb (BE) vs. an herb (AE).


The second problem is more complex. When to use an article at all and when to omit it?


Whenever we talk about people or things in general, we leave articles out. Therefore we write: Life is hard and not the life is hard. We use the whenever it is clear which particular person or thing it is: I'm going to the stadium. I didn't like the film. We also don't use the to talk about (all) things in general: You would say Books are sometimes expensive and not The books are sometimes expensive. Also, the is not used with days of the weeks or months (unlike in German for example).


A special case is acronyms (e.g. NASA, NATO). Here the article is omitted (with a few exceptions) - My father works for NASA.


So, be careful not to use the definite article too often.

9. Unclear references of the pronouns

A pronoun (he) can replace a noun (Oskar). If you now use pronouns, you should make sure that the association remains unambiguous - otherwise you quickly create confusion!




When Oskar finally found his dog Felix, he was so happy!


Who was happy now - Oskar or Felix? This problem becomes much worse when it comes to longer sentences.


So it’s better to write: Oscar was so happy when he finally found his dog Felix!


Aside from these ambiguities, we must also make sure that the pronouns agree on number.

10. Misplaced / dangling modifiers

A modifier is an optional phrase (or simply a word) that changes another phrase. A very simple example: He is a clever boy. Here the adjective (which in this case is a modifier) changes the noun.


A so-called Dangling Modifier is a grammatical construction in which the modifier is incorrectly separated from what it changes (the target). This is almost always confusing or even amusing.



  • Problematic: After properly waking up, the day felt more exciting. (This might sound poetic, but logically makes relatively little sense.)
  • Better: After properly waking up, he felt the day was more exciting.
  • Problematic: On her way to the shop, Katie found a silver man's watch (sounds like the man is silver!).
  • Better: On her way to the shop, Katie found a man's silver watch.

English Proofreading

If you would like help with writing in English then please take advantage of my English proofreading services. I mostly concentrate on academic texts, especially in the fields of archaeology and earth sciences. I also take on other projects, such as websites and brochures. 


I also offer special student prices. So please get in touch if you need help.