Common Problems for ESL Students: explanations

Adapted in part from A Writers Reference by Diana Hacker. Boston: Bedford Books of St. Martins Press, 1995. and Prentice Hall Reference Guide to Grammar and Usage by Muriel Harris. New Jersey: Prentice-Hall Inc. 1991.

 

 

1. The s ending

        The s ending is attached to many nouns in their plural form.

        If the noun is singular, there is no s ending.

o       a lot of

        Phrases such as a few indicate that the noun following it is going to be plural, so more often than not, the s ending will occur.

o       a few cookies

        One tricky exception to this rule is the phrase, one and a half. This phrase is always followed by the plural form of the noun.

o       one and a half inches

        The phrase one of the is always followed by the plural form of the noun.

o       one of the best friends, one of the girls.

        Note: The s ending goes on the noun, not the adjective.

o       one of the others, one of the other boys

 

2. Articles

        If you are talking about a specific thing, use the.

o       the book over there, the Eiffel Tower

        If you are talking about something singular that you can count, use a or an.

o       a book from the shelf, a tower in France, she was an interesting person

        If you are talking about something that you cannot count or that is abstract, there is no article, but you can use some, any, or more

o       some advice, any water, truth, English, more traffic, love, politics

        If you are talking about something when you mean all or in general, there is no article.

o       Fountains are beautiful.

o       In some parts of the world, rice is preferred to all other grains.

        There are certain idioms in English that always take either the or a/an, and others that take no article at all.

o       the story of your life, a few, at first

o       most names of cities, states and countries do not take articles

         Salt Lake City, Louisiana, Australia

         exceptions: The Netherlands, The Dominican Republic, The United States

 

3. This/that/these/those

        This and that refer to singular nouns, while these and those refer to plural nouns.

o       this bag, these bags

        Use this or these when referring to something nearby, and use that or those when referring to something far away.

        Hint: to determine which one fits, try using the words here and there to show where the item is. If you can say here, use this or these; if you can say there, use that or those.

o       this book here, those books there

4. Word order

        In English, adjectives always come before the noun.

o       the blue suede shoes, a big cat

        Adverbs usually come directly after the verb.

o       she walked quickly, they talked noisily

        When using an adverb to modify an adjective, the adverb comes before the adjective.

o       a very large dog

o       the extremely noisy girls

        When using lots of adjectives, there is a specific way to arrange them in the sentence: determiner, evaluation or opinion, physical description (size, length or shape, age, color), nationality, religion, material, noun.

o       four nice, big, round, young, brown, Vietnamese, Catholic, silk dogs

o       Obviously there is no such thing as a Vietnamese, Catholic, silk dog, and you should generally avoid using this many adjectives between a determiner and a noun, but from this you get an idea of the order in which the adjectives you have should come.

o       Note also that when using more than one adjective to describe something, commas come between all adjectives but NOT after the determiner or before the noun.

        When determining where to place parts of a sentence after the subject and verb, you should be able to answer who, then what, then where, then when, then why.

o       We gave Judy a pair of slippers at the party on Sunday because it was her birthday.

        Of course, sometimes the where, when, or why, or a combination of these, comes at the beginning of the sentence. In these cases, the rest of the sentence will behave in the usual way.

o       At the party on Sunday, we gave Judy a pair of slippers because it was her birthday.

o       Since it was her birthday, we gave Judy a pair of slippers at the party on Sunday.

        On certain occasions, you might come across a sentence that doesnt easily lend itself to these rules. In such cases, it is simply a matter of listening to the way people talk to figure out what is right. Unfortunately, this is true in many languages.

 

5. Verb forms

        In most cases, you can tell from the other words in the sentence which tense the verb(s) should be in. If the other words indicate that something took place in the past, the verb(s) should be in the past tense; if they indicate that something is still taking place, the verb(s) should be in the present perfect tense, etc.

o       I studied French all day yesterday.

o       I have been studying French for seven years.

o       I had been studying French for years until I quit last year.

 

6. Prepositions

        Preposition rules are largely idiomatic, but there are some guidelines to help you decide which one goes where.

        It is always on a certain day

o       on Friday, on November 12

        It is always in a certain month

o       in January, in October

        It is always in a certain year

o       in 1995, in the year 2000

        It is always at night, or at a certain time

o       at 9:15pm

        It is always in the morning, the afternoon, or the evening

        Something is always on the surface of something

o       on the water, on the street

 

7. No, not

  • For the most part, deciding between no and not requires knowledge of English idioms. Sometimes, either of the two would make sense in a sentence, but for the cases that dont work that way, here are some guidelines:
  • Use not when the blank is followed by a verb or an adjective.
    • I have not heard of that.
    • I did not know that.
    • That is not fair.
    • The dog is not ugly.
  • Usually, if the blank is followed by an article (or words like some, much, etc.) and a noun, you should use not, because not usually goes with singular nouns.
    • There is not a cloud in the sky.
    • My father is not a liar.
    • Theres not much time.
  • If there is just a noun with no article, use no, because no usually goes with plural or abstract nouns.
    • There are no clouds in the sky.
    • My father is no liar.
    • There is no time.
  • Some idioms include:
    • not yet
    • not so fast
    • not in a million years

 

8. Interrogative words

        Who replaces words and phrases referring to people

o       The girl with the flowered hat wrote the poem Who wrote the poem?

        Whom always goes with a preposition, and replaces words and phrases referring to people.

o       She gave the flowers to John. To whom did she give the flowers?

        Whose replaces words and phrases referring to people when they are possessive (the girls, the tall mans)

o       The book is his. Whose book is this?

o       The skis belong to the woman with curly hair. Whose skis are these?

         Note: whose is often confused, by ESL students and native speakers alike, with whos. Remember that whos is a contraction of who and is, and does not fit where you should use whose.

        What replaces nouns that do not refer to people, as well as noun phrases.

o       They went to the zoo. What did they do?

o       The dog was on the bed. What was on the bed?

        Which replaces nouns when there are more than one involved.

o       Joe, Susie, and Laura went to the beach. Which of your friends went to the beach?

o       The brown cat fell out of the tree. Which cat fell out of the tree?

        When replaces words or phrases referring to time.

o       I went to bed at 3 oclock. When did you go to bed?

        Where replaces words or phrases referring to place.

o       I put it on the table. Where did you put it?

        Why replaces phrases referring to reasons.

o       I didnt do my homework because I was sick. Why didnt you do your homework?

        How replaces phrases referring to methods.

o       She rode the bus to school. How did she get to school?

 

9. Pronouns

        I, you, he, she, it, we, you, and they all replace nouns that act as the subject in the sentence.

o       The girls gave the teacher an apple. They gave the teacher an apple.

o       The caterpillar is green and wriggly. It is green and wriggly.

        Me, you, him, her, it, us, you, and them all replace nouns that act as the object in the sentence.

o       My sister gave Paula the flowers. My sister gave her the flowers.

o       Lisa distributed the papers to Luke, Maria, and Henry. Lisa distributed the papers to them.

        My, your, his, her, its, our, your, and their all indicate possession.

o       That is my book; Its hair is straight.

        Mine, yours, his, hers, its, ours, yours, and theirs all indicate possession when no noun follows the pronoun.

o       The book is hers; Theirs are the dogs with no hair.

 

10. Some, any, no, every in compound words

        Use some in addition to thing, body, one, etc. to form a compound word when you are referring to something indefinite that you know exists.

o       I dont know who, but someone took my stapler.

        Use any in addition to thing, body, one, etc. to form a compound word when you are referring to something indefinite that youre not sure exists, or that youre indifferent to.

o       Is anything left of the cake?

o       Anybody can come to my party.

        Use no in addition to thing, body, one, etc. to form a compound word when you are referring to something indefinite that you know, or you think, does not exist, or no longer exists.

o       There is nothing there.

o       Nobody has the same fingerprints as I do.

        Use every in addition to thing, body, one, etc. to form a compound word when you are referring to all things, people, etc.

o       Everything in the house was saturated during the flood.

o       That guy seems to know everybody in the school.