By Neya Abdi on Feb 23, 2021 9:50:00 AM
If you are shy or self-conscious about your accent, email offers the perfect communication method. But there are a few mistakes that quickly reveal whether you’re a non-native English speaker. These are not the same mistakes native English speakers make. Even a native English speaker with limited education knows these rules intuitively. In other words, these mistakes just sound wrong. Look out for these errors while proofreading your next email.
Mistake 1. Counting uncountable nouns
Countable nouns are people, places, or things that you can count individually. When we talk about these nouns, we make them singular or plural depending on the quantity.
- One carrot. Four carrots.
- A business trip. Several business trips.
Uncountable nouns are people, places, or things that you can’t talk about individually. This means you don’t pluralize them, which usually means adding an “-s” or “-es”.
Native English speakers almost never mix these up, but the difference is so subtle to someone learning English as a second language that it can be hard to get them right.
So how can you tell if something is a countable noun versus an uncountable noun?
It comes with practice, but there are a few rules you can commit to memory.
Substances (i.e. glass), feelings and abstractions (i.e. love), and activities (i.e. soccer) are usually uncountable nouns.
- Incorrect sentence: The price of golds went down.
- Correct sentence: The price of gold went down.
Some nouns can be used as both countable and uncountable nouns. Coffee is a popular example. If you want to talk about coffee in general, you don’t add an “-s”.
- Morning meetings need coffee.
If you are talking about specific coffees, you add an “-s”.
- May I have three small coffees, please?
Mistake 2. Forgetting the forms of irregular plural nouns
Most of the time you pluralize a word by adding “-s” or “-es”, but it isn’t always that simple.
In addition to those pesky irregular verbs, English also has irregular plural nouns. The bad news is there isn’t really a shortcut for learning these. You’ll have to memorize them, or read a lot every day to impress them upon your memory.
- Incorrect sentence: There were ten mans and only three womans at the meeting.
- Correct sentence: There were ten men and only three women at the meeting.
Mistake 3. Mixing up present simple and present continuous
It’s easy to mix up the present simple and the present continuous, but native English speakers almost never do it. We use the simple present when we talk about things like habits, routines, or provide general information.
- Incorrect sentence: He is having a meeting with the VP every Friday.
- Correct sentence: He has a meeting with the VP every Friday.
In business settings, you’ll often discuss routines and general information. In this case, it’s incorrect to use the present continuous (“is having”). Instead, the present simple (“has”) is correct.
There is an entire category of verbs you can memorize, called stative verbs, (like “to realize” or “to love”) that never use the present continuous.
Useful resource: Stative Verbs
Mistake 4. Using the wrong article or forgetting to use an article
This is a tricky one because native English speakers sometimes omit articles in emails. You may get a message that says, “Bring reports to meeting” instead of “Bring the reports to the meeting”. People write like this to save time, especially when the recipient already knows what the sender is talking about and simply continuing an earlier conversation.
For example, a VP may email her executive assistant, “Bring reports to meeting, please” if they just spent the last two weeks reviewing and printing the Annual Reports. Out of respect, you typically don’t send a curt email like that to your boss or superior, even if they do know what you’re talking about. But most of the time, leaving out articles makes your English seem less advanced than it is.
- Incorrect sentence: This is _ good summary. We are ready for _ meeting tomorrow, but we have to go over _ presentation.
- Correct sentence: This is a good summary. We are ready for the meeting tomorrow, but we have to go over the presentation.
Mistake 5. Incorrect conjugations
Check your conjugations. Using the wrong form of a verb is one of the most obvious giveaways that English is not someone’s first language. For non-native English speakers who love to learn through memorization, this is great news. For those who like to learn English experientially, watching a lot of English language TV or reading magazines helps, too.
- Incorrect sentence: I is going to call the area manager tomorrow.
- Correct sentence: I am going to call the area manager tomorrow.
Writing business emails. Sample email
|Incorrect Email||Correct Email|
I is not going to be here tomorrow, so here is the information you need.
Jonathan is meeting with the marketing team every Wednesday. This week, they are discussing healthy alternatives to coffees for the new client. Three mans from _ graphic design company we hired will be there, too, so don’t forget to print out enough agendas for them as well.
I am not going to be here tomorrow, so here is the information you need.
Jonathan meets with the marketing team every Wednesday. This week, they are discussing healthy alternatives to coffee for the new client. Three men from the graphic design company we hired will be there, too, so don’t forget to print out enough agendas for them as well.
What kind of grammar mistakes do native English speakers make?
Just because native English speakers don’t make these mistakes often, doesn’t mean they don’t often make mistakes. In fact, non-native English speakers sometimes write and speak better than native English speakers because they have a technical understanding of the language. What makes the mistakes listed above special is that native English speakers are wired to intuitively understand them. Many native English speakers have never heard the phrase “uncountable noun” or “present continuous” because they learned these concepts through experience instead of through books.
But there are common mistakes that native English speakers make, and they usually make them out of carelessness. Here are a few you should look out for, too:
- Mixing up “they’re”, “there”, and “their”
- Mixing up “your” and “you’re”
- Mixing up “than” and “then”
- Spelling errors in general!
You can master many of these rules by immersing yourself in the language or practicing with a conversation tutor.
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For any additional information or questions, you can also reach out at email@example.com.
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[Originally posted on Nov 8, 2017, and updated Feb 24, 2021]