Common Usage Errors

Even if you passed the TOEFL with high marks, you might still make mistakes in English sometimes. And that’s ok! Just remember that most native English speakers probably speak your native language much worse than you speak English. 

If you want to arrive in the USA super confident about your English, you can start to look out now for some common usage error problems from non-native speakers. There are many more differences between English and other languages than we list here, but you may have to do an international student exchange program to figure them out.

False friends
You know those people in life whom you think you’ve figured out but it turns out they’re actually completely different? There are words like that when comparing English to other languages, and they’re called “false friends.” This happens a lot to people whose native language has a Romance or Germanic background, such as French, Spanish, or German (and several others), since they share similar roots as English. The English word “chase,” for example, means to run after someone and looks like the French word “la chaise.” But “la chaise” actually means “chair,” so the lesson here is that it’s safest to learn proper translations so no one follows the wrong person.

Subject-verb agreement
The rules of English, no matter if it’s British or American, require that the number of subjects in the sentence must match the verb. The example “She loves ice cream” describes one person (singular), so the verb used is also singular. But in some other languages, the numbers don’t have to match: In Chinese, there’s only one version of the verb.

Gender
Conversely, English doesn’t have gendered nouns, so English speakers don’t have to worry about matching the right grammar for, say, a book. But numerous other languages do use gendered nouns, including Spanish, Hebrew, Hindi, and many, many more. Speakers of those languages have to pay attention to how verbs or adjectives are adjusted based on the nouns being used – and though it might sound as if not using specific forms in English is easier, native speakers of those languages sometimes have a hard time letting go. 

Plus, in English our adjectives never change, so we always have blue eyes. But in some other languages, such as Spanish, German, and Japanese, adjectives are conjugated based on the gender of the word, the number of subjects in the sentence, or even the tense. If your native language makes those changes, you’ll have to try to remove them when speaking English. 

Articles
When discussing languages, an “article” is not something you read in the newspaper but actually a word used to modify a noun, and basically alerts the reader or listener to more details about that noun. In English, for example, the word “the” is the article in the sentence “I’m going to the store” so you know there’s only one store. But not every language uses articles, so native speakers of those languages should try to remember to include them when speaking English. 

Tenses
Tenses can also cause problems when learning English. Some languages, like English and Russian, change verbs (and some other things) to imply time – if it happened in the past, if it’s happening now, or if it will happen in the future. But it will not be a surprise to learn that in other languages the conjugations are based on a less complicated version than English uses, like in French, or don’t use tense at all, like in Chinese. If your native language isn’t as picky about tenses as English is, this might be a very tough concept to learn. Chinese international students, in fact, may want to sign up for a course in English so they’ll know exactly when an assignment is due.