The Weekly Countdown – 52 Common Errors for ESL Learners

Do you know that probably everyone has failed at something?  

Even very successful people?

Steve Jobs in his 2005 graduate address at Stanford emphasized the importance of failure to success, when he explained that he was fired at the age of 30 from the company he co-founded.

“It turned out that getting fired from Apple was the best thing that could have ever happened to me,” he said. “It freed me to enter one of the most creative periods in my life.

”So can this theory of “making mistakes” be applied to learning? And especially in learning a second language?  Many educational theorists and educators believe so. They state there is great value in mistakes in learning. Mistakes inspire you to learn. Well, with that said, this article focuses on just that… 52 common mistakes for the ESL speaker

1.     Some nouns borrowed from other languages keep their original plural forms: datum, data; cherub, cherubim; crisis, crises.

2.     Other foreign words use an Anglicized plural or the foreign plural: appendix, appendixes/appendices; curriculum, curriculums/curricula; formula, formulas/formulae

3.     Some nouns occur in the singular form only: much dust, not much dusts; more courage, not more courages; less fun, not less funs. These nouns are called mass nouns or non-countable nouns.

4.     There are over a hundred finite verbs that form the past tense and past participle without adding “ed”. These verbs are often groups of words that include such auxiliary verbs as can, must, have, and be.  These past tense and past participle verbs are irregular in form and are best learned through use:



Past Participle


Past Participle

5.     Some adjectives and adverbs do not follow the rule of using superlatives “more” and “most” like beautiful, more beautiful, most beautiful; loud, more loudly, most loudly:  bad, worse, worst; ill, worse, worst; good, better, best; well, better, best.

6.     The simple subject must be determined to match the verb:  One of the ships is sinking. Each of the sofas is over 5 feet long. A swarm of ants is invading the picnic.

7.     Some nouns in the plural form (ie. adding “s”) are really singular in meaning:  trousers, tongs, wages, pliers, tactics, scissors, odds, barracks but need a plural verb: The trousers are too short.

8.     Some nouns that end in “s” are singular in meaning and require a singular verb: measles, billiards, news, mathematics, linguistics, mumps, and measles. For example, Measles is a disease that occurs in childhood.

9.     Some nouns in the plural form can be both singular and plural. In most case they are plural. For example: Politics is interesting to study. The politics of the situation abroad are complicated.

10.     Traditionally, masculine pronouns have been used to refer to abstract, singular nouns like mayor, professor, judge, senator, doctor, person, employer, and reader. For example: A mayor must use his discretion in how to solve the dispute. However, as more and more women move into these roles and to avoid sexist language, you can use both third person singular pronouns: A mayor must use his/her discretion in how to solve the dispute. Or you can use a plural form: Mayors must use their discretion in how to solve the disputes.

11.     Omitting determiners or articles so the sentence is ambiguous: When my mother showed up at the furniture store, she was accompanied by a friend and interior decorator. Are there one or two people accompanying your mother? Example: When my mother showed up at the furniture store, she was accompanied by a friend who was an interior decorator (one person). When my mother showed up at the furniture store, she was accompanied by a friend and an interior designer (two people).

12.     Don’t use useless prepositional phrases. Example: With reference to your question, I think we should go on Thursday. Just say, I think we should go on Thursday. Other phrases to omit include: It goes without saying, At this point in time, By way of response, It seems unnecessary to point out that…

13.     Avoid redundancy (repeating the meaning of words): grateful thanks, true facts, young teenager.

14.     Avoid circumlocution (talking around subjects): ahead of schedule (early), am in possession of (have), at an early date (soon), at this point in time (now), best of health (well), caused injuries to (injured), draw attention to (point out), during the time that (while), give rise to (cause), in advance of (before), in the event that (if), in this day and age (today), made a statement saying (stated or said), made an escape (escaped), owing to the fact that (because), put in an appearance (appeared), render assistance to (help), succumbed to injuries (died), take action on the issue (acted), the reason why is that (because), this is a topic that (this topic), was of the opinion that (thought), was witness to (saw).

15.     Use of adverse, averse: Adverse means opposing like to have an adverse view on something. Averse means disinclined like The city was averse to the new plan for the amusement park.

16.     Use of advert, avert: Advert means refer. The speaker adverted to the newspaper article. Avert means to ward off. My elderly mother averted a fall down the stairs by grabbing the railing.

17.     Use of ambivalent, ambiguous: Ambivalent means mixed or conflicting feelings about an idea of person. The marketing expert was ambivalent about the new product campaign. Ambiguous is a statement capable of being misinterpreted because it is not clear. The employee thought the manager’s directives were ambiguous so he made an appointment with the manager to ask some questions.

18.     Use of amiable, amicable: Amiable is used to describe people who are friendly and kind. The airline staff was amiable to the passengers. Amicable is used to describe arrangements or settlements that are agreed to peacefully by both parties. The buyout meeting was amicable.

19.     Use of ante, anti: These prefixes have different meanings. Ante means before as in antebellum, before the war. Anti means against as in antinuclear.

20.     Use of appraise, apprise: Appraise means to evaluate like the supervisor appraised the staff. Apprise means to inform as the supervisor apprised his staff of the new developments.

21.     Use of apprehensive, comprehensive: Apprehensive means dreadful and filled with anxiety. She was apprehensive about the power point presentation. Comprehensive means all-inclusive or covering completely. Her power point presentation was comprehensive and the audience completely understood the major points.

22.     Use of ascent, assent: Ascent refers to an upward movement like a climb. Assent refers to an agreement with an opinion or idea. The hikers planned to ascent up the mountain today. But, the group assented that the weather was too dangerous.

23.     Use of censure, criticize: To censure expresses disapproval, but to criticize may be neutral, express approval of some characteristics ad disapproval of others. The school board censured the book because of the language. The school board criticized the English staff for using a certain book that contained inappropriate language.

24.     Use of complement, compliment: A complement is something that fills or completes. A compliment is an expression of praise. So the young couple complemented each other in their attitudes and beliefs. The young couple would compliment each other whenever they achieved their persona goals.

25.     Use of comprehensible, comprehensive: Comprehensible means capable of being understood. Comprehensive means all-inclusive. So the assignment was comprehensible. And the material the test covered was comprehensive.

26.     Use of congenital, congenial: A congenital defect is a bodily defect dating from birth. To be congenial means to be pleasant and sociable.  The baby had a congenital heart problem. The nurses were all very congenial.

27.     Use of credible, credulous: Credible means believable. Credible is the opposite of incredible. Credulous is an adjective that describes the ability to believe even when there is insufficient evidence. So you could have a credible story and the person listening is credulous.

28.     Use of deadly, deathly: A poison is deadly if it can cause death. If it cannot kill, then it is deathly. Example: The snake bite was deadly. The silence in the meeting was deathly.

29.     Use of deduce, deduct: To deduce means using reason to come up with a conclusion. To deduct means to subtract to arrive at an answer. So you can deduce from his job performance that he is an excellent employer and worthy of a raise. You can deduct the overcharge on the merchandise and pay a lower price.

30.     Use of disinterested, uninterested: Disinterested means impartial and showing no preference. Uninterested means to be bored or to show no interest. Example: I was disinterested in who would place first in the art contest. I was uninterested in wrestling; I would never go to a tournament.

31.     Use of detract, distract:  Both words mean to draw away from. Detract has come to mean making less desirable. Distract means to draw the mind away from what it is thinking. Example: His poor manners detract from his friendly personality. I was distracted by his poor manners during the interview.

32.     Use of disinterested, uninterested: Disinterested means impartial and showing no preference. Uninterested means to be bored or to show no interest. Example: I was disinterested in who would place first in the art contest. I was uninterested in wrestling; I would never go to a tournament.

33.     Use of elicit, illicit: Elicit means to draw forth or to bring out. Illicit means unlawful. Example: My son can always elicit an argument from anyone; he sure is good at debate. The illicit actions by that thief were reason for him to go to jail.

34.     Use of eminent, imminent: Eminent means famous or prominent. Imminent means soon to take place. Example: The eminent document was signed to ensure freedom. Final exams are imminent.

35.     Use of hanged, hung: Hanged is used with executions. Hung is used to denote other kinds of suspension. The outlaw was hanged. The pictures were hung by the fireplace.

36.     Use of hypercritical, hypocritical: Hypercritical means overly critical. Hypocritical means you don’t practice what you advise. Example: Mrs. Jones was hypercritical of her staff. She kept track of all of the errors anyone made. It was hypocritical of Mrs. Jones to keep track of all of those errors when she said that true learning involves making errors.

37.     Use of impracticable, impractical. If something is impracticable, then it is impossible to put into practice. Impractical if referring to a person means one who is incapable of dealing sensibly with practical or day-to-day matters. Something may be impractical if it does not produce what you want it to do. Example: The savings play was impracticable; there was no way that it could even be implemented. Whereas, the plan to sell the products overseas was impractical as there would be limited profits with the high cost of shipment.  

38.     Use of intense, intensive: Intense means something is present to a high or extreme degree. Intensive means highly concentrated or exhaustive in application. Example: The argument was intense. The hospital has an Intensive Care Unit.

39.     Use of mean, median: Mean is the middle point between two extremes. Median refers to the middle value. Example: The mean in math is achieved by dividing the sum of quantities in a set of number of terms in the set. Whereas, the median salary earned at the company is larger than half and smaller than half of the salaries earned.

40.     Use of mysterious, mystic: Mysterious refers to things that excite, wonder, and surprise and that may be difficult to explain or understand. Mystic refers to having direct association with the deity. Example: It was mysterious that a double rainbow formed after the rainstorm the other night. And the mystic predicted that the world would be ending soon.

41.     Use of respectable, respectful: If something is respectable, then it is worthy of respect. Respectful means showing respect for something else. Example: His speed in the mile run was respectable. And you should be respectful at the meeting; try to listen attentively to everyone’s opinion.

42.     Use of rightful, rightly: Having a just or legally established claim. Example: Her father was the rightful owner of the company. She rightly refused to comment on her religious beliefs.

43.     Use of funny, fun:  While both can be adjectives, fun can also be a noun. Example: The joke was funny. We had a lot of fun telling jokes.

44.     Adjectives follow a certain order if referring to a specific noun: article, judgment, size, shape, age, color, nationality, and material. For example: My brother wants a white new car to drive. This sentence is incorrect as the color of the car comes before the age of the car. The sentence should read: My brother wants a new white car to drive.

45.     The subject of a sentence should not be repeated in pronoun form. Example: My engineering professor she is very smart. You should say: My engineering professor is very smart.

46.     Over-reliance on traditional phrases. Often, two logically-related sentences do not need a transitional word to link them. For example, “The beaver gnawed on the tree. Consequently, it fell down.” In this instance, “consequently” is not needed because readers can figure out for themselves that the tree fell as a consequence of the beaver’s chopping.

47.     Use of continual and continuous:  Continual means something that’s always occurring with lapses of time. The continual music next door made it hard to study for finals. Continuous means something continues without any stops or gaps in between. The exercise teacher’s continuous talking took away from the workout session.

48.     Use of farther and further: Farther implies a distance that can be measured. Further is used for lengths that are more abstract. For example: The driving distance from my house to my college is farther than the driving distance from my friend’s house to her college. The stock market crash caused further worry to all of the investors.

49.     Use of since and because: Since refers to time. Because refers to causation. Example: Since I finished my resume, I will ask my friend to edit it. Because I finished my resume, I will now be able to ask my friend to edit it.

50.     Use of anxious and eager/excited: Anxious implies a fear or anxiety. Eager/excited means you are looking forward to something. Example: I was anxious when I had to give the sales presentation. I was eager/excited to give the sales presentation.

51.     Use of irony and coincidence: Irony is the incongruity in a series of events between the expected results and the actual results. Coincidence is a series of events that appeared planned but are actually accidental. So it is ironic that a team that has no wins in basketball would win first place, especially when half of their team members were sick. It is a coincidence that you go to Disney Land and you see your neighbors there also when you never knew they were going in the first place.

52.     Use of impactful or impact. Impactful is not a word and although you might hear it, it is not standard English. Use impact instead. The impact of the online English classes helped me secure an overseas sales job.


So go ahead and make mistakes. The important thing is that you see mistakes as a means to improve and reach success. Steve Jobs knew all about that. Write and tell me what you think about this article. About mistakes. About language learning. We’re here to help you become successful.

The Weekly Countdown:  52 Common Errors for ESL Learners shares mistakes in English grammar, sentence structure, and word usage to meet language success.

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