Don't Get Desperate! Native Speakers Have Problems with English Too

Non-native English speakers often think of native-like English as the end goal of their studies, when all aspects of their English from pronunciation to punctuation will be perfect. However, there are common grammatical problems even native speakers face, and that ESL students taking classes online or in any formal program should be aware of as well. Here, several common problems of native English speakers are discussed, and suggestions offered for how ESL learners can avoid these pitfalls.

One problem is that of speech errors such as eggcorns, mondegreens, spoonerisms, and malapropisms.* These errors occur often in natural speech, even for native speakers. Word choice errors such as malapropisms and eggcorns are particularly common, and occur in both speaking and writing. When unsure of word choice, use a dictionary or other reference to select the most appropriate term. Asking for clarification and written examples can also help make sure that new vocabulary items and phrases have been heard accurately, and used appropriately later.

Many aspects of written English are particularly problematic for native English speakers, and may be for English language learners as well. One such problem is misuse of common homophones. Confusion of “to,” “two,” and “too;” “there,” “they're,” and “their;” “your” and “you’re;” and “its” and “it’s” are seen in all kinds of writing, even at the college level. To avoid these errors, become familiar with common homophones, and make sure to use the correct one when writing.

Another common writing error that native speakers often encounter is that of sentence fragments, incomplete parts of sentences that are punctuated like whole sentences. Typically, fragments fail to include all the components required in a complete sentence. To avoid sentence fragments, check each sentence carefully to make sure that it expresses a complete thought, and to make sure that each one includes a clear subject and verb.

Run-on sentences represent the opposite problem. Run-ons are created when at least two different sentences are joined together without a proper connector. One of the most common types of run-on sentence is a comma splice, where two independent sentences are joined with just a comma. Repairing this problem requires either adding a conjunction or separating the two clauses into two different sentences. To avoid problems with run-on sentences, English language learners should become familiar with proper use of commas and conjunctions. Practicing this knowledge through proofreading can greatly reduce sentential errors such as run-ons and fragments.

Native speakers of English also struggle with other nuanced grammar rules. Most college essays written by native English speakers include some misplaced modifiers, dangling participles, and stranded prepositions. As a matter of fact, many native English speakers are unaware of what these terms mean. This is because native speakers tend to rely more on intuitive knowledge of English than on rules they learned in grammar classes. For non-native speakers, paying close attention to grammar rules and thinking consciously about the grammar being used in writing assignments will help minimize these kinds of errors.

The errors outlined above are common occurrences for both native and non-native English speakers, but can be avoided by focusing on a few key techniques. First, be aware of these types of problems, and consciously focus on avoiding them when writing. Second, try to keep a dictionary and a good grammar reference handy in order to clarify any problematic areas. Finally, always proofread written work carefully, and repair errors as needed. English language learners should remember that native speakers' English isn't always the best English.

* Speech error glossary:

Eggcorn: consistently incorrect use of a similar-sounding word, like saying “elk” instead of “ilk.”

Mondegreen: mishearing the sounds of a word or phrase so they form something else, as in “also into cats” instead of “oh so intricate.” This commonly occurs with song lyrics.

Spoonerism: mixing up the sounds within a word or phrase, as in the famous example of saying “queer old dean” instead of “dear old queen.”

Malapropism: the accidental substitution of a similar-sounding word.

This is a guest post by Marina Salsbury. Marina planned on becoming a teacher since high school, but found her way instead into online writing after college. She writes around the Web about everything from education to exercise.
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