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How to avoid making mistakes in English

by Tomasz P. Szynalski

Learners make mistakes and reinforce them because they produce sentences (1) too carelessly or (2) too early. You will avoid mistakes if you follow a couple of rules:

Rules of error-free speaking and writing

  1. Use simple language. Some beginners try to build very complicated sentences with things like the present perfect tense or conditionals. They make horrible mistakes. Don’t do this! If you’ve just started to speak or write in English, you should say what you can say (simple sentences that you have seen many times) — not what you want to say (complicated sentences). You may feel you’re talking like a child or that you are not expressing your thoughts, but don’t worry about that. Right now, your task is not to express your thoughts freely; your task is to learn the language.
  2. Be slow and careful. In the beginning, you should write very slowly. If you need 2 hours to write an e-mail message with 10 correct sentences, that’s okay. That’s how long it should take if you’re just starting to write.

    Why should it take so long? Because you should read your sentences many times, looking for mistakes. You should correct your own sentences frequently. You should check if your sentences are correct by using a dictionary and the Web. And you should look for example sentences to imitate.

    When you’re speaking, it’s okay to build a sentence for some time in your head before you open your mouth.

  3. If you’re not sure how to say something, don’t say it. (This applies to both grammar and pronunciation.) If you can’t say something correctly, it’s almost always better not to say it. You don’t want to teach yourself the wrong way to say it. You can try to look for the correct sentence in a dictionary or on the Web (see next point), but when speaking, usually you don’t have time for that. So it’s a good idea to say something else — something that you know is correct. It can even be something on a different subject.
  4. When writing, always look things up. Whenever you’re not sure how to use a word, look it up in a good dictionary to find example sentences with it. When you’ve written something, and you are not sure if it’s correct, search for it on the Web with Google. If the phrase is found on many pages, then it is probably correct. Dictionaries and Google should be your everyday tools, and you should use them even many times in one sentence (especially if you’ve just begun writing in English). More information on using Google when writing
  5. Know where you can screw up. Sometimes learners don’t even realize how different English is from their native language. When speaking, they translate word for word from their native language, and they think their sentences are okay.

    When reading or listening to English, use the “pause and think” technique: Pay close attention to things like word order, articles, prepositions, and tenses. Compare sentences in English with equivalent sentences in your native language. Notice the differences in words and in word order. This will make you more careful when speaking in English, because you will realize which parts of your sentences can be wrong and should be double-checked.

“Will I ever be fluent if I speak so slowly and carefully?”

Don’t worry about fluency. Fluency is easy to achieve by simply talking. If you practice speaking, you will be able to speak faster and faster. In high school, I achieved pretty good fluency in a month by talking to my English teacher (a native speaker) about two hours a week. That’s only 8 hours of talking.

It is much better to be slow and correct than be fluent and make a lot of mistakes. Why? Because if you are slow and correct, you can easily improve your speed and become fluent and correct. But if you are fluent and make a lot of mistakes, it is much harder to fix your mistakes and become fluent and correct.

My experience with error-free writing

When I was in college, I started learning German with the Antimoon Method. I wanted to start writing e-mails in German as soon as possible, but I didn’t want to make mistakes and teach myself bad habits. I wrote my first e-mails in German after reading just one short (40-page) book for learners written in simple German, a few e-mail messages from a German friend, and after using my very small SuperMemo collection for a few months. And guess what? My e-mails in German had almost no mistakes.

How was that possible — writing correct sentences after getting so little input? First, my e-mails contained very simple sentences. But the most important thing was my research: I looked for example sentences on the Web and in dictionaries.

For example, I knew that the German word for use was benutzen, but I didn’t know how to use it in a sentence like “Which program do you use to copy CDs?”. Often, I had an idea how something might be done in German, but I wasn’t sure if my idea was correct. In such situations, I looked for the answer on the Web or in my dictionaries.

I spent a lot of time on each sentence. It took me more than an hour to write my first message, which contained only a few German sentences.

The writing process was long and it took a lot of effort, but it was fun. The experience was very motivating and it made me even more interested in German. Perhaps one of the reasons why it was so enjoyable was that I knew I was building correct sentences.

Don’t speak or write too early

If you follow the above rules and still make a lot of mistakes when speaking (= more than 1 mistake every 3 sentences), you should probably switch to writing for a while. It is easier to produce correct sentences when writing because:

  • you don’t need to have good pronunciation
  • you can write very slowly and nobody will mind
  • you can use dictionaries, the Web, etc. to look things up

If you make a lot of mistakes when writing, consider a “silent period”: stop speaking and writing, and spend a month or two getting input only.

Remember that you should first get lots of English sentences into your head, then build your own sentences. Your main activity should be reading and listening to English — and the reason is that you need good examples to follow before you can build your own sentences. The more sentences your brain absorbs, the more you can express in English. If you don’t see/hear enough correct, natural English sentences, you will not know how to say things in English. So you will be inventing your own language. And you will be making mistakes.

What happens in English classes

The recommended order in the Antimoon learning method is: Pronunciation - Input (reading and listening) - Writing - Speaking. Unfortunately, something completely different happens in English classes. Almost no courses teach you pronunciation at the beginning. Few teachers give you enough “input”. Instead, they force you to speak and write — asking you questions, telling you to do grammar exercises or writing assignments. In a way, they force you to make mistakes and create bad habits.