Top 10 ESL English Grammar Mistakes and How to Overcome Them

So, you want to speak English well?

You can start by learning common English idioms.

You can also start speaking naturally by learning some English slang.

But before you do all that, it’s important to make sure that you’re not making basic English grammar mistakes.

Let’s discuss some common English grammar mistakes for ESL learners, and how to overcome them. Once you understand the grammatical rules behind these top 10 ESL English grammar mistakes, you’ll be more likely to use these structures correctly in the future.

May vs. Might

Deciding when to use “may” rather than “might” can be tricky because the difference between these two verbs is quite small.  They both indicate that something is possible, but “might” suggests slightly more uncertainty than “may”.

“I might take a trip to India next year” means that maybe you will go to India, but maybe you won’t. “I may have a slice of cake after dinner” expresses slightly more certainty that you’re going to eat that cake.

Even more confusing is the rule that “may” becomes “might” in the past tense. So, in the present tense, you would say “he may eat the last piece of cake”, but in the past, this sentence becomes “he might have eaten the last piece of cake”.

Fewer vs. Less

This mistake is difficult for both English-language learners and native-English speakers1.

Both “fewer” and “less” describe the opposite of more, but you need to look at the noun in order to decide which word to use. “Fewer” is used for countable nouns, like books, cars, people or cups. Basically, if a number can come before the noun, like 2 books, 10 cars, 100 people, or 5 cups, then the noun is countable.

“Less”, on the other hand, is used for uncountable nouns, like love, water, electricity, or science. If you can’t make the noun plural, then it’s an uncountable noun. For example, you would say “this parking lot is too crowded. I wish there were fewer cars”, but “I wish you would turn off the lights, so we could use less electricity”.

Could, Should, or Would

These 3 similar-sounding verbs also cause problems for many English-language learners.

“Should” is used to give advice” (“That shirt looks great on you. I think youshould buy it” or “You should get vaccinations before traveling overseas”).

“Would” is used to describe unlikely or unreal situations (“I would love to go to Italy, but I don’t have enough money” or “She would come to the party if she didn’t have to wake up early tomorrow”). “Would “ can also be used to make polite offers (“Would you like some tea?”)

Lastly, “could” can be used in 3 different ways: 1) to describe a past ability (“When I was younger, I could run twice as fast”), 2) to describe possibilities in the future (“If we work really hard, I think we could save up enough money for a vacation this year”), and 3) to make polite requests (“Could I have a cup of tea?”)

Since vs. For

The words “since” and “for” are both used when you’re talking about time.

The difference is that “for” is used with a period or duration of time, while “since” is used with a point or exact moment in time. “For” can be used with all tenses, but “since” is most often used with perfect tenses. That means “for” comes before time expressions like “30 minutes”, “6 months” and “10 years”, while “since” comes before time expressions like “Monday”, “January” or “2009”.  You could say, “he jogs for 1 hour everyday” or “he has lived in Bangkok for 10 years”.  Using “since” you would say “he’s been jogging since 7am”, or “he has lived in Bangkok since 2003”.

Bring vs. Take

“Bring” and “take” have almost the same meaning, but they imply different directions. Their relationship is similar to the one between the verbs “come” and “go”.

“Bring” suggests movement towards the speaker, making it similar to “come”: You ask people to bring things to the place where you already are. For example, you could say “bring that book over here”, or “please bring a snack to the party”.

“Take”, on the other hand, suggests movement away from the speaker, making it similar to “go”: You take things to the place where you are going. You could say “don’t forget to take your book to school”, or “please take me home”.

Adjective Order

If you’re using more than one adjective to describe a noun, keep in mind that these adjectives need to go in a certain order in the sentence. This is the reason why “it’s a big red car” is correct, but “it’s a red big car” sounds wrong.

The normal adjective order is: 1) quantity or number 2) quality or opinion 3) size 4) shape 5) age 6) colour 8) nationality 9) material. Of course, it’s unusual to use more than 3 adjectives to describe one noun, so you’ll rarely need to use all of these at once.

Me vs. Myself

Deciding when to use “me” and when to use “myself” is another common mistake that both native-English speakers and English-language learners make. Many native English-speakers make the mistake of saying “myself” when they should say “me”, because they think “myself” sounds more polite. This is wrong!

“Me” is an object pronoun, so it refers to the person that the action of the verb is being done to. For example, you could say “my parents want me to help with the chores more”, or “please call me if you have any questions”.

“Myself”, however, is a reflexive pronoun, like himself, itself or themselves. It’s generally only used in the same sentence as “I”. For example, you could say “I gave myself a break from studying today”, or “I cleaned the entire house bymyself”. Use “myself” when you are doing the action to “you”.

There, Their, or They’re

All three words are pronounced the same, but they’re used in different ways.

“There” can be used to specify a place (“The book is over there on the table”), or it can be used with the verb “to be” to indicate the existence of something (“There are 5 cafes on this street”).

“Their” is a possessive adjective, like my, your, or his (“that’s their house”).

Lastly, “they’re” is a contraction of “they are”, so it is the subject “they” plus the verb “are”. For example, you could say “they’re going to play soccer with us tonight”.

Its vs. It’s

Just as many people confuse “there”, “their” and “they’re”, many also confuse “it’s” and “its” because both words are pronounced the same way, yet have a different meaning. “It’s” is a contraction of “it is”, so it is the subject “it” plus the verb “is”. For example, you could say “it’s really cold outside today”. “Its”, on the other hand, is the possessive form of “it” (“this city is known for its amazing pasta”).

A vs. The

Many languages don’t use definite and indefinite articles, and if you’re not used to distinguishing between the two, it can be a difficult concept to master.

When you’re talking about one thing in a general way, use the indefinite article “a”; but if you’re talking about something everyone in the conversation is familiar with (or the writer and reader if you’re writing), then use “the”. For example, if I say “let’s watch a movie”, I’m suggesting that we watch anymovie. We don’t know which movie we’re going to watch yet – I just want to watch something, anything. However, if I say “let’s watch the movie”, I’m referring to a specific movie that you and I have already talked about watching together.

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2 thoughts on “Top 10 ESL English Grammar Mistakes and How to Overcome Them

  1. There are more – Few, some, little; many, more and much; Me and my; but these are very good examples of the mistakes that ESL students make at times

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