Common Mistakes

After many years of teaching English to French people, I wil try and summarise the top ten of the mistakes I hear most frequently!

image fishwoman.jpeg (3.0MB)
Mixup! Playa Mónsul - photo Pedro

Present simple is used for permanent conditions & regular activities.
I am English.
I practice Spanish every day.

Present continuous (or progressive) is used for actions in progress now or around now.
I am working on my website.
The sea levels are rising.

The time expression defines what tense we use.
Finished time requires past simple.
I have seen that film last week. >> I saw that film last week
Unfinished time requires present perfect. The time context here is your life, which is not yet finished if you are still speaking!
I live here for 20 years. >> I have lived here for 20 years.

For + period of time
Since + point in time
During + a noun (the movie, the meeting, the dinner, the holidays...)
I have known him for 5 years.
I have known him since we graduated from university.
We met during the summer holidays.

3) Ss
English contains a lot of Ss and they all need to be pronounced!
  • Third person singular
  • Plurals
  • Possessives
If the S is written, you need to pronounce it!

4) NUMBERS, DATES etc., especially for making appointments
There's no magic answer to this one. You just need to learn the numbers.
If it helps, think of the adolescent years as the TEEN-age years.
So the numbers 13-19 all end in -teen.
While the multiples of ten end in -ty (thirty, forty, fifty...)
When saying telephone numbers over a phone, separate the digits, as the English naturally do.
(oh, six, two, four, three, zero, seven, four, eight, seven)
If it's any reassurance to you, most multi-lingual people will tell you that they still count and do maths in their native tongue, even after many years of speaking another language. It is certainly my case. I speak good French but I still count in English.
For appointments, make sure you don't mix up Tuesday and Thursday (learn how to pronounce them well, using an online dictionary).
And always confirm with an email, to make sure there is no confusion!
I recommend writing dates using the name, or its abbreviation, for the month (2 Mar 2022).
This is to avoid confusion between Americans and English people, for whom that date would be written 3/2/23 or 2/3/23, respectively.

In a similar vein, when giving contact details over the phone, it's clearly useful to know the alphabet to spell your name, and how to say an email address and an internet URL. When spelling names in English we say: "D for Denmark, E for England, E for England, P for Poland". It doesn't matter which examples you give, but countries or cities are recommended as their names are often pronounced similarly around the world and are more likely to be recognizable than generic words.

Again, no magic answers, but you'll feel more comfortable if you are assured with your natural use of all of these.
Try this: PRONOUNS
And this: MODALS
And finally this: CONDITIONALS

They are very complex! There is no simple answer. They just need practice.

French people often worry about their accent.
Accent is generally just a pleasant colour to your expression, which doesn't imprede comprehension. (Some accents can be more problematic, but in general, not very.)
What can make your expression difficult to understand is:
  • mispronunciation of vowels
  • intonation on unfamiliar syllables (to English ears)
There is no simple remedy to this.
However, it is important to understand that you cannot pronounce a sound that you cannot hear. So the first priority is to LISTEN AS MUCH AS POSSIBLE TO NATIVE ENGLISH SPEAKERS. Notice the music of English intonation and the variety of frequencies, volumes, and speeds we use to communicate 'theatrically', not just by the words. You will instinctively pick up much more than you think, just by listening and hearing a variety of people with different accents and voices.
TED talks are great for this. (see page Sites / Apps)

8) LISTENING - don't expect to hear and understand every word or syllable!
'Schwa' is the technical term that linguists use for the most common phoneme (sound) in the English language. This is the '-euh' sound at the end of the word 'computer'.
What you need to know is that every vowel sound in English which is not accentuated (every word of 2 syllables or more has a less accentuated syllable) is deformed, to become '-euh' (the 'schwa' sound).
For example:
  • We are familiar with 'ai' being pronounced as in 'train', a 1-syllable word.
  • But in a 2-syllable name like 'Britain', the emphasis is on the 1st syllable 'Brit-' and the 2nd syllable '-ain' is therefore deformed and becomes '-teuhn'.
  • So it sounds like 'BRI-teuhn'.
  • Same for 'MOUN-teuhn'.

The same principle applies in sentences, where important words are accentuated and 'auxiliary' words and other less important, 'helper' words, are not accentuated.
So in a sentence like: "I'm going to Spain." the most important words are (discutably) 'going' and 'Spain'. As I'm talking we can suppose I'm likely to talk about me (don't we all?!!) and 'to' is not important if we have grasped the concepts 'going' and 'Spain'. If we are in France when we are speaking, the idea of a movememnt TO somewhere is inherent if we talking about 'going' and 'Spain'. Therefore, these are the two words you will hear pronounced most distinctly. 'to' will sound like 'teuh' and almost disappear.
This is why, when listening to English native speakers, you may have the impression that you only understand half of what they are saying. That is natural, because they are only pronouncing distinctly half of what they are saying!
So you can trust the probability that you heard the accentuated and therefore important words, and you can deduce the general meaning from those, without needing to analyse and comprehend each individual word of every sentence.

There are many true friends between French and English, so often if you don't know a word, you can try the French word with English pronounciation and it may work! But there are a large number of false friends to be aware of. Some of the most common ones I have heard my students mixing up are presented and tested here:
Quizlet on false friends

This is no big deal, but it's useful to have a few things clear in your mind so that your written communications, presentations and web pages are as clear as possible.
The English do not put a space between the last word of a sentence and a question mark, exclamantion mark or colon.
And, we use capital letters for the pronoun 'I', for days, months, all people, animal and geographical names and every key word in a title of a book, film or song. For example: The Lord of the Rings.
We also do not separate the subject from its verb, even if the subject is very long.
For example: The child who is standing at the edge of the playground may wish to be encouraged to join in the game. (There is no comma after the word 'playground', which would separate the subject 'child' from the compound verb 'may wish').
Also, in general, particularly for efficient business writing, English speakers use shorter sentences. Your writing will probably be clearer if you stick to the simplest sentence constructions like: SUBJECT + VERB + COMPLEMENT.
For example: I want this job.
And not: Extremely gifted in communication while supporting multi-tasking teams to meet tight deadlines on important contracts, it has come to my attention that you need a competent project manager, capable of.... (your reader has already either gone to sleep or put your application in the bin and moved on to the next one!)

I hope these indications help! Don't hesitate to ask if you have questions on other points.