Speakers who are eager to fine tune their English often focus on pronunciation and accent as the way to set things right. But more often, problems with English grammar and usage are significant obstacles to clear speech. English grammar and usage can be viewed as the “walking before you run” phase that is necessary for anyone to become an understandable English speaker. From my 20 years of working with speakers of other languages, I’ve compiled the 6 most common English grammar errors that keep speakers from sounding intelligible and intelligent.
1. Subject-verb agreement
Subjects and verbs agree in number: singular subjects require singular verbs, and plural subjects require plural verbs. Not using the correct verb form for this rule is more apparent when using irregular verbs because a completely different verb form is used. Hint: one good reason to master irregular verbs!
A. The manager were at the office.
B. The manager was was at the office.
A. Do you has an opening on your sales team?
B. Do you have an opening on your sales team?
Which one sounds better and why?
2. English Irregular verbs
Irregular verbs do not follow the simple rule of adding -ed in the past tense. Irregular verbs are verbs with the same base form as regular verbs that change form for use in the past and past participle.
Past participle: seen
While you can find extensive lists for irregular verbs. I recommend starting with with a short list of verbs that you consider important in expressing what you do everyday or contribute to your success at work. On the “must know” list is: “to have, to be, to go, to do.”
Start with 10 verbs, master them and move on to the next 10. You’ll find a list of irregular verbs on this website.
3. Asking questions and sounding fluent: subject-verb inversion
Mastering not only the art, but the mechanics of asking questions makes social and business interaction go more smoothly. It also contributes to a satisfying back and forth of questions and comments with friends and colleagues.
If you are using question words (what, who, where, how, why), it is important to know that English usage requires the inversion of helping verbs and their subjects. This means the helping verb (have, will, do) are placed before the subject. Despite the fact that meaning can be derived from the following sentences, intelligibility suffers and the message loses coherence.
What the group has reported to the department head?
When you will have the report ready for the meeting?
Why we didn’t call the service company?
Where the meeting has been held?
How you have shipped the delivery?
Rewrite these sentences to include helping verb + subject inversion: “has the group reported, will you have, didn’t we call, has the meeting been, have you shipped.”
4. Beware of literal translations from one language to another.
Literal translations from one word to another use words that are similar but do not really mean what is intended. A word can be identical “asister” in Spanish does not mean “to assist” but “to attend.”
Likewise, a combination of words in one language does not equal the same meaning in another.
If you’re not familiar with English usage, “Estoy de acuerdo.” can come out as “I am agree.” rather than “I agree.”
Another example is the contrast in how words are used in different languages to mean the same thing. In English, “we make a decision, make progress and have a lesson” but translated literally into another language, you would hear: “we take a decision, have progress, make a lesson.”
Similarly, words combine for nuances in communication that reflect a greater familiarity with a language and a more sophisticated presentation of ideas. For example when speaking about business sales and numbers, English speakers use words such as “sales have risen significantly” or “increased” not “sales are going up.” This mastery of word combinations tells your listeners that you are speaking knowledgeably about the topic and in command of presenting your ideas.
5. Phrasal verbs. Phrasal verbs are two or three words phrases that are commonly used to express meaning that each word of the phrase cannot express alone. Examples of phrasal verbs are “break down, pick up, fed up with, throw out.” Speakers often leave off the second or third words altogether and fall short of the intended meaning. Example: “The car ran out of gas so we didn’t pick up the clothes from the cleaners.” Without complete phrasal verbs, you hear “The car ran gas so we didn’t pick clothes from the cleaners.”
Phrasal verbs combine to expand meaning in speech. For example, you can say, “You respect the president” but using a phrasal verb, you can say “ You look up to the president.”
My goal is to “get across” that English grammar is not something you can “turn your back on.” Even if at times, you get “fed up with” the topic. I suggest you “hang in” there because if you “stick with” it, you too, will be more successful in “getting your ideas across”.
For a list of phrasal verbs and their meaning, see this website.
6. Comparatives using adjectives (Spanish): Más fuerte, sí; more stronger, nó! Using both “more” and the suffix “-er” create a double comparative. When comparing two or more things or people, these are the rules:
Use more for adjectives that have 3 or more syllables: “beautiful”
Use more for adverbs that end in “ly”: “closely”
Use more for adjectives that have two syllables: “credible”
Use -er for adjectives that have one syllable: song, big, tall
Use -er for adjectives that have two syllables and end in “y”: busy, lazy
Mastering the art of communication requires that you pay attention to English grammar and usage just as much as pronunciation and accent. Make an assessment of your English grammar skills using this list of the most common English grammar glitches. If you’re not making these errors — GREAT! If you are, make a commitment to master all or any of these 6 English grammar topics for greater speech clarity and better communication.