Top Three mistakes for students of English, with Czech examples

After about 25 years of teaching and tutoring English to native speakers and to those for whom it's a second, third or fourth language, I can say with some certainty that these are the top three tricky parts of speaking, reading and writing English. Most of my examples are for Czechs, as I currently live in the Czech Republic.

1. Positive/negative (yes/no, do/don't, and so on)
This is by far the most common mistake made--you say "yes" when you mean "no," or vice versa. Why?

For one thing, English double negatives become positives--"I don't lack money" means " I have money". But in many languages, including Czech, the more negatives, the merrier--the more negatives you include, the more you really mean what you say. In fact, Czech has a large number of negative words (ne, nic, nikdo, vůbec ne, nula, etc) and Czechs use them very frequently.

Then, since the Czech language has 6 cases, you have lots of different words from one negative word, such as žádný (none): nominativ, žádný, žádný, žádná, žádné, žádní, žádné, žádné, žádná. genitiv, žádného, žádného, žádné, žádného, žádných, žádných, žádných, žádných).

For the sake of convenience in being negative, you can also turn most any Czech word into a negative by putting "ne" at the front of it--"mam" means "I have" but "nemam" means "I don't have." Lots and lots of negative words piled up in a sentence indicate true negativity in Czech, but in English, the negative words cancel each other in pairs, making it possible to construct a  long string of negatives that end up as positive if there are an odd number of them.

For another thing, in spoken language, people often swallow the word or contraction "not." "Do" and "don't," when mumbled, sound very much alike. "Do you want to go with me?" "I do" or "I don't" are pretty well indistinguishable when said in a rush, from the next room, on a cell phone or when the speaker is staring at a computer. It's better to say, "I DO NOT," but then you sound too formal and slightly ridiculous. Often I find myself, when speaking with non-native speakers of English, e.n.u.n.c.i.a.t.i.n.g. too clearly and never using contractions, so I sound stilted and uncomfortable with my own native language.

2. Prepositions
Most prepositions have to do with relationships in time or space. Since people's ideas about these relationships are a product of culture, it's not surprising that there are some surprises in translating prepositions. In different languages, the prepositions may seem to correspond one-to-one, but it's deceiving, as they may be used differently. Americans live on a street, but Czechs live in a street; however, both may live at a street address ("I live at Luzicka 19" or "I live at 10 Main Street").

Even native speakers (especially children) may use prepositions erratically, and many regional or national dialects use them in ways that sound wrong to people who aren't from there. For example, Americans say "different from" and Brits say "different to". (As you can see from the preceding sentence, Brits also place the end punctuation outside quotation marks, not inside, as Americans do!)  After three years of living in Prague, I often find myself using prepositions as if I were a Czech learning English, saying such things as "I will take care about it" instead of "I will take care of it."

3. Verb tenses and word order
Verb tense: English has at least 12 verb tenses in common use, plus all the conditional and passive voice verb forms. Using the correct verb tense is often a result of reading them used correctly over a number of years as much as knowing the complex rules. Czech, for example, has only 4 verb tenses (present, past and two future tenses). This plethora of verb tenses in English is hard to get a grip on by simply memorization, so it's not uncommon for a person to choose the wrong tense. A common Czech mistake is to overuse of the present continuous--"I am cooking the dinner every night" instead of the correct sentence "I cook dinner every night." (Also note the awkward use of the article "the" in the preceding sentence, a famous problem for speakers of languages that don't use articles.)

Word order: Czech, for example, is a highly inflected language, which means that you add endings to words that indicate their use in the sentence. The endings can also indicate the gender of the speaker ("Mam rad" means "I like" if you are a man; if you are a woman, it's "mam rada.") So the word order in Czech is not as crucial as in English. One common Czech-ism is  "I don't know where is his house;" this no longer sounds wrong to me.

In an attempt to make my English speech understandable to non-native speakers, I have picked up some bad habits of mimicking their mistakes. I am not making fun of them; I am just trying to be sure they understand me when it's important that we end up in the same place, at the same time. As a teacher, I shudder when I do this, but as a foreigner speaking to people whose English may have been learned, imperfectly, only from books, I know that there are some tricky areas where I need to use all my wits to be sure I communicate effectively. The three top mistakes cover most of those tricky areas.


  1. Thanks for sharing this nice post. Recognize the verb in a few sentence is necessary to understand what that statement stands for.

    Learn Verbs


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