Eager to make a good impression, with your boss, in an interview or with a new client? Then stay right here, this article is for you. Here is a checklist of some of the main mistakes made by English learners. Don’t get me wrong, mistakes are good as we learn from them but the most important thing is that we don’t make the SAME mistakes consistently. They become a habit and, as we all know, certain habits are hard to break. So read through this list to see if these typical mistakes are taking the shine off your English by creating misunderstandings and making you lose confidence.
1. Avoiding the present perfect tense
Are you one of the numerous English learners who cross their fingers behind their back when they use the present perfect tense or do you avoid it like the plague? It’s a tense that puzzles many non-native speakers and I often hear sentences similar to I have my own business ten years when it should be I have had my own business for ten years.
Remember: the present perfect tense connects the past with the present, either due to continuity (I started my business 10 years ago and I still have my own business today) or due to a past event creating a result in the present (The product has sold out. We aren’t able to deliver your order).
In contrast with the past simple tense with which we often use a finished time word/phrase like yesterday, last week, 3 years ago, in 1998, with the present perfect tense, we either 1) don’t specify a time or 2) we use a «non-specific» or «unfinished» time word such as this year, many times, once, just, recently. Why? Mainly because when we use the present perfect tense, our emphasis is on the experience that we’re talking about or the result, not when it occurred, e.g. I’ve been on business trips to Moscow three times this year. I’ve got 5 new clients. I’ve finished the report. Sales figures have increased over the last quarter (but: sales figures increased last year).
2. Forgetting the auxiliary « do, does, did etc.» in questions
Which question is correctly formed: Have you some contacts in the industry? or Do you have some contacts in the industry? (Clue: it’s the second one!). Many non-native speakers forget the auxiliary in question forms or just raise their intonation at the end to make it a question you have some contacts? Admittedly, it is unlikely that you’ll be misunderstood but it DOES make your message less effective.
3. Confusing «do» and «make»
Some typical mistakes: To make exercises. To do a call. To make a presentation. To do a delivery. To make a deal.….
The key to avoiding this type of mistake is learning the set phrases (called « collocations ») with do and make. That said, a handy tip when you’re not sure is as follows: in general, make means to create or cause something to happen or produce a result. You make friends, make noise, or make lunch. Do, on the other hand, usually implies just carrying out an action without alluding to the results. You do your job, do business or do exercises and you can do better or do worse, it’s up to you!
4. Confusing « don’t have to » with « mustn’t »
How many of you thought the above two expressions meant the same thing? Well, I’m here to let you into a little secret: they actually mean the exact opposite.
If I say to you that you don’t have to attend the meeting, I mean that it’s not necessary for you to attend (but you can if you want).
However, if I say you mustn’t sign that contract, it means that it is necessary for you not to sign it (no negotiation or options possible).
Being aware of this important difference could be the key to avoiding a faux-pas in work or being correctly understand by your team.
5. Not knowing your business idioms
If I say to you:
• you need to lay your cards on the table if you want the new role or
• after that conference call fiasco, you don’t have a leg to stand on or
• you need to pull your weight more around here,
Would you know what I meant? If not, look them up in an online idioms dictionary such as this one https://idioms.thefreedictionary.com. You may well see that certain expressions are similar to your native language and so it’s easier for you to retain them. If not, don’t worry, it is possible to learn the main ones, little by little. To make things easier for you, my tip is this:
• learn idioms by business theme (negotiations, time, success etc.) – I can help you with this;
• write out each one in a relevant personal example of your own and try to associate an image with them to help you remember them;
• keep track of when you could use them (disagreements in meetings, complaints with suppliers, performance appraisals etc.) so that for each business scenario, you have a list of idioms available to you and that you will understand if someone else uses them.
6. Not understanding phrasal verbs in business
To shoot up, to put off, to come across, to do away with, to look over, to run into…. Once again, the list is long but if you follow my advice for the business idioms, you’ll come up trumps (you will be successful)!
7. Forgetting to pronounce the « s » on the 3rd person singular or plural « s »
« I’ve got ten client. How many contract have you signed recently ? He say that we have to call him. She never pay on time. » I’m sure that you would never make these mistakes in your business correspondence but do you sometimes make them when you’re talking by forgetting to pronounce the s? You are not alone! Try to slow down slightly when you speak in order to help you become more precise and become aware of errors such as these. Awareness is half the battle.
8. Forgetting your irregular verbs
Arrgghhh! Irregular verbs. I know, I know, say no more. But I have some advice for you. Whilst the best way is obviously to learn as many of them as possible, I would also recommend that you have a « plan B »: for each verb, think of a different way of describing it so that you have an escape plan if you forget.
Two examples: you are talking about a business trip and forget how to say « to fly » in the past simple tense. Instead of saying I flew from London to Paris (as you’ve forgotten the word), you could say I took a flight from London to Paris.
9. Confusing Say and Tell – A little reminder
• We use say when we talk in general about what someone said:
The CEO said, « We cannot authorize bonuses this year »
My colleagues say that I talk too much.
• We also use say for other forms of communication:
The report says that we should exercise more / the newspapers say that the world’s economy is improving.
Remember: we cannot follow say with a direct personal object like him or you so we can’t say somebody something but we can say something to someone: They said goodbye to us.
We use tell when we talk about what someone said to us or another person:
The client told me that her flight was on time.
We also use tell followed by an object + infinitive with advice, instructions, order and requests:
My Manager told me to stay calm during the meeting.
They told us not to collaborate with that client.
Remember: we cannot tell something, we can only tell someone something
10. Not expressing large figures correctly
When we describe large numbers in British English, we use and after the hundred and we never add an « s » on the word million, thousand, hundred.
• 465 is four hundred and sixty-five (not four hundreds sixty-five)
• 1,079,324 is one million, seventy-nine thousand, three hundred and twenty-four.
The exception is when we want to indicate where a number lies in general, we can say it is in the… For example, 465 is in the hundreds. For tens and hundreds of larger numbers (thousands, millions), we say in the tens (or hundreds) of… So: hundreds of thousands and tens of millions.
When we use the size of a number to describe a noun (such as a salary or price), i.e. as an adjective, we use number + figure + noun. For example, a six-figure salary, a four-figure bonus.