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