4 Common Writing Mistakes ESL Students Make

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Everyone makes a few mistakes when learning to write English as a second language, and there are four errors that the majority of ESL learners make (even native English speakers are guilty of these).

Learning to spot and correct these mistakes will help your writing look more polished and natural.

1) Misuse of articles

An article is a word that combines with a noun to show what reference is being made by the noun. There are only three articles in the English language: “a,” “an,” and “the.”

There are two types of articles: indefinite and definite.

‘A’ and ‘an’ are indefinite articles. These are used when referring to anything that is not specific or known to either the reader or the writer. Indefinite articles are also used when referring to a noun for the first time in a sentence.

  • ‘A’ precedes nouns that begin with a consonant sound (e.g. a ball). Another example is that even though word ‘university’ begins with a vowel, the ‘u’ sounds like a ‘y’, and since ‘y’ is a consonant you would say ‘a university’.
  • ‘An’ precede nouns that begin with a vowel sound (e.g. an orange). Another example is that even though the word ‘hour’ begins with a consonant ‘h’, it is has a vowel sound so it would be referred to as ‘an hour’.

‘The’ is a definite article, and is placed before a noun or adjective that is known to both the reader and the writer. It is also used when referring to something familiar to everyone in the conversation, e.g. when playing basketball, you would ask your friend to ‘pass me the ball’ instead of ‘pass me a ball’, because you all know that there is only one ball being used.

‘The’ can be used before a noun anytime after it has first been introduced with ‘a’ or ‘an’. E.g. Sam bought a hat while on vacation. He then wore the hat on his flight home.

‘The’ can be used in front of a singular or plural noun (e.g. ‘the bird’ and ‘the birds’), and in front of an adjective (‘the beautiful bird’ and ‘the beautiful birds’.)

2) Incorrect capitalisation

The first letter of the first word of every sentence should be capitalised, and the use of ‘I’ as a pronoun is always capitalised no matter where it appears in the sentence.

Common nouns such as ‘dog’, ‘car’, or ‘hat’ should not be capitalised unless they are part of a title or are at the start of a sentence.

Proper nouns are capitalised as well. A proper noun is more specific than a noun, and gives the real name of the person, place, or thing. They include:

  • Holidays e.g. Christmas
  • Books e.g. War and Peace
  • Companies e.g. Microsoft
  • Religions e.g. Hinduism
  • Languages e.g. Chinese
  • Institutions e.g. Oxford University
  • Titles e.g. Prime Minister
  • Names e.g. Sarah
  • Geographical areas e.g. Queensland, Australia.

3) Poor punctuation

Punctuation marks include commas (,), periods (.), apostrophes (‘), question marks (?), exclamation marks (!), colons (:), and semi colons (;).

Punctuation marks always come immediately after the last letter of a word and are followed by a space. E.g. We went to a movie, followed by a late dinner; I had the steak and my date had the pasta. It was delicious!

  • The comma (,) is used to separate different grammatical components of a sentence, and is also used to sometimes indicate a pause in a sentence if it was spoken out loud.
  • The period (.) is used to signify the end of a particular sentence.
  • An apostrophe serves three purposes in the English language:
    • To show possession of a noun, e.g. the woman’s hat.
    • As a plural indicator for words ending in ‘s’, e.g. the boys’ night out.
    • In contracted words to show where a letter/s are missing, e.g. do not to don’t.
  • A question mark is used to show that a question has been asked, e.g. Why use a question mark?
  • An exclamation mark is used to signify excitement or or to show an interjection, e.g. Amazing!

4) Improper order of adjectives

An adjective is a word that describes a noun, e.g. ‘purple flower’ or ‘nice house’. Adjectives are always placed before the noun, not after.

There are eight different types of adjectives for describing a noun: opinion, size, age, shape, colour, origin, material, and purpose. This is also the order they must be listed in when describing a noun. E.g.

  • ‘The cute (opinion), small (size), young (age), fat (shape), grey (colour), mountain (origin), furry (material), therapy (purpose) rabbit is popular with the children at the hospital’.
  • ‘The big, grey horse’ is correct. ‘The grey, big horse’ is incorrect.
  • ‘The cute, young puppy’, as opposed to ‘the young, cute puppy.’

This is one that even native English speakers commonly misuse. In fact, not many even know the proper order of the types of adjectives other than as an instinctual use of the terms. Memorise the correct order as they are supposed to appear, and you will be miles ahead of them.

Be on the lookout for these common errors in your ESL writing, and you’ll be a pro at correcting them in no time.