Learning a new language is exciting… and challenging! You've probably thought, “Gosh, there’s so much to learn… when will I ever feel confident using English? What can I do to get better?” 😫

Good news for new learners: By focusing on the most common English mistakes that learners make, you can speed up your learning and see real progress! Mistakes are a natural part of learning a language—think of them as opportunities to notice a new pattern and put it into practice next time. Here are the top 5 mistakes that English learners make and how to tackle them.

5 of the most common mistakes English learners make:

1. English verbs: the -s ending
2. English verbs: the -ing ending
3. English verbs: how to use "not"
4. English word order: adjectives + nouns
5. English verbs: when to use "to"

1. English verbs: the -s ending

English verbs don't change their endings quite as much as verbs in other languages, like Spanish or French, but there is one important ending that's easy to forget: the third person -s.

In English, when you are talking about something that happens on a regular basis, you use the simple present tense, for example, “I usually watch movies with my cat on Saturdays” (the dream life, right?). When the person or thing doing the activity is "he," "she, "it," or any other single thing or person, you're using the third person singular and the verb needs an -s ending:

  • Duo always reads interesting books before bed.
  • She often completes 10 Duolingo lessons a day.
  • My best friend always listens to Duolingo podcasts on his way to work.
  • It always rains on my birthday.

Here's when the verb changes—and you'll see why it's easy to forget!

Singular (one person or thing) Plural (group of people or things)
1st person I watch we watch
2nd person you watch you all watch
3rd person he/she it watches they watch

It's easy for learners to forget that pesky -s on the verb! Remember that it's always added to verbs that follow words like "he," "she," or "it," or the words they stand for (like "Mykhaylo," "the woman who ran past me on her way to the bus stop," or "our very favorite book").

2. English verbs: the -ing ending

Another challenge for learning English verbs is that there are two kinds of present tense: present simple and present progressive.

Why do English speakers need two different forms for the present? The answer is that these forms are used for different situations. A useful tip is to look for expressions that help you know when or how often the action is taking place.

Present simple
For actions that occur regularly, including habits and recurring actions
🔑 Key expressions: often, always
💡 Examples: Do you listen to jazz? Do you often listen to jazz?

Present progressive
For actions happening now
🔑 Key expressions: right now, at the moment
💡 Examples: Are you listening to me? Are you listening to me right now?

Another thing to keep in mind is that in present progressive, there are two parts to the verb: “I am practicing Hungarian on Duolingo now.” That is because in present progressive you need to use a form of “to be” (like am, is, or *are”) plus the -ing verb. It's easy to focus on the verb "to be" and leave off that -ing! To help you remember to add -ing, think of the action you are performing, like “swimming” or “cooking” or “running.”

Here are a few examples:

Subject "To be" verb -ing ending Rest of the sentence
I am practicing Hungarian right now.
She is cooking dinner
They are watching a game
You are reading this blog post

3. English verbs: how to use "not"

Another common mistake for English learners is negation, or where to put "not" in a sentence.

There are actually two rules to learn, depending on which verb you use in the sentence.

  • "To be." For sentences with the verb “to be,” the word "not" appears right after the verb:
    • “I am not a big fan of vanilla ice cream.”
    • “Duo is not as harmless as you might think.”
  • All other verbs. For all other verbs, “not” comes after “do” or “does”
    • “I do not like eggs and ham.”
    • “Duo does not live in a tree house.”

In English, try memorizing the general rule for all other verbs, and then practice the very common exception for "to be"!

These rules can be challenging because they are probably really different from other languages you know! That's because the verb "to be" follows dramatically different patterns in different languages—for example, in Ukrainian, "be" is dropped altogether so you say "I Marco" or "I not Marco"! Other languages are more consistent than English, too: For example, in Spanish you say (Yo) no soy (I am not), (Yo) no como (I do not eat), and (Yo) no duermo (I do not sleep), with the no always before the first verb.

4. English word order: adjectives + nouns

Knowing the correct adjective order is another challenging area for English learners.

A helpful tip here is that an adjective describing a noun goes before that noun, for example, “white clothes” or “expensive house.”

When you have more than one adjective before a noun, you'll need these two tips to remember where to put the adjectives:

  • Words describing size generally come before words about other qualities, like shape or age, like “a big round cake” or “a tall young woman.”
  • Words describing quality, size, or shape generally come before the color, for example, “a big green owl” or “a small black cat”

5. English verbs: when to use "to"

There are certain common phrases like “need to”, “want to,” or “have to” that are quite confusing to learners—they mean that you're using a couple of verbs in a row! It is easy to forget that when you have two verbs next to each other,they are often combined with a “to”, that is, the second verb is in its infinitive form.

Remember the simple rule: After “need," "want," and "have,” use “to” before the next verb. This will cover most of the cases you'll need as a beginner or intermediate English learner!

  • I want to speak English well.
  • I need to practice English on Duolingo now, or I will lose my streak.

If you're a bit more advanced, there is also “used to.” Use the phrase “used to” to talk about things that were true for a while at some point in the past, but aren’t anymore. “Used to” is another structure that contains “to” and gets added right in front of the verb:

  • She used to live in France. And now she lives in the US.
  • They used to watch TV a lot, and now they read books.

Remember that the verb after "to" will be in its infinitive form, so you won't have to change it!

Feel confident about your English!

With practice—and spending some time thinking about common mistakes—you'll be on your way to getting better and more confident using English! As my high school English teacher told me, “Make mistakes your allies, not enemies.” 💪🏼