This week I’m going to look at some areas where Polish learners of English make very common mistakes. This is not a complete list; I’ve been a teacher at the British Council for fifteen years and I’ve heard hundreds of different errors in Poland. Instead, I’ve come up with five grammar areas where, in my experience, mistakes are made most often. Have a read through, look at my suggestions, and see how you can instantly improve your English.
- Can you count those nouns? Countable versus uncountable.
A number of nouns are countable in Polish, but uncountable in English, which leads to this mistake. Three important ones (and ones my Polish students often get wrong) are: advice, information and research. One way to get around this problem is to make them countable by adding an ‘of’ expression, such as “a word of advice”, “some items of information” or using a countable synonym like “a project”.
Also, be careful with some nouns which can be either countable or uncountable, depending on the situation. If you say “I had a chicken for lunch” it would mean you ate a whole chicken, rather than just part of it!
- If there is one grammar point my students often get wrong, it is conditionals.
So many students try and start a sentence with “If I will”, “If I would”, or “If I won’t” because that’s how it translates from Polish. Unfortunately, learning a language isn’t as simple as doing an exact translation from Polish. I’m also not a fan of the strict rules so many coursebooks present to students: e.g. “The First Conditional is ‘if’ plus ‘present simple’ plus ‘will’”. There are actually a lot of different variations on this structure, such as “If you’ve finished, wait quietly”.
What I’m suggesting is that both direct translation and ‘grammar rules’ aren’t necessarily key to English language success. If you agree with me, raise your hand!
- A/ an/ – / awful articles .
There are so many errors with articles that I could write an entire post about them! Instead, I’ll focus on a couple of areas where confusion is common and you can quickly apply corrections. Firstly, there is a significant difference between “few/little” and “a few/ a little”. Saying “I went on holiday and made few friends” means you didn’t make many friends, whereas “I made a few friends” means you made some friends.
The second area concerns places such as school, prison, and hospital. People who “go to prison” are criminals, but people who “go to the prison” are just visiting. A few small words can make a whole world of difference in meaning!
One final point: “a” means “one” so don’t say “I bought a books”. The correct version is “I bought some books” or simply “I bought books”.
- Which relative clauses and who can use them?
There seem to be an impossible number of rules for English relative clauses. When do we use commas? When can we remove the pronoun? When is it possible to use “that”? Yet often, people get the basics wrong so I’d like you to remember these next key points. First of all, “which” is for objects and “who” is for people. That shouldn’t be difficult to remember, but I hear “which” used for people all the time. Another key point: “what” is not a relative pronoun. It is often (wrongly) used to refer to an idea, like “I saw a wild boar on the street, what surprised me”. Use “which” in this case.
- To –ing or not –ing – that is the question! Gerunds and Infinitives.
It can be quite boring to try and learn lists of which verbs are followed by an infinitive and which take an –ing form, but actually there are times when it’s worth the effort. For example, lots of English language tests like IELTS and the Cambridge ESOL exams often have a writing task where you have to write a proposal or report. These involve making suggestions or recommendations at the end, so it’s a good idea to remember that the verbs “suggest” and “recommend” do NOT take an infinitive! “I recommend expanding the school library” is fine. So is “I recommend that the school should expand the library” is also OK. “I recommend to expand the library” is wrong. So, go on, engage your brain and challenge yourself to 10 new verb patterns today!
There you have it, my top five Pol-English errors.
I hope now you’ve read about them, you’ll be able to fix them. I look forward to receiving your grammatically perfect thank you notes!