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Common mistakes in English writing

by: Marilyn Owen (8 January 2009)

Itís so easy to repeat yourself with a favourite word or expression when writing an important document and maybe at times we may all be guilty of this misdemeanour! Often of course phrases and words are repeated for effect and emphasis, which is fine. But on the whole English is a language that does not take kindly to repetition of words and phrases and in fact offers a rich choice of synonyms (alternative words with similar meanings). A few are offered in the thesaurus facility in MS Word and usually there is something that can help you out, but otherwise dictionary.com is a complete resource for tracking down those too often elusive synonyms.

If you find that you do occasionally overuse a favourite word or expression itís a good idea to read aloud to yourself what you have written Ė youíll soon notice any repetitions and be able to replace them with alternatives. Itís also a good way to increase your vocabulary and this is especially true if English is not your first language. If this is the case avoiding repetition can sometimes be a challenge. In my work proofreading and editing student theses I have often noticed repeated nouns and phrases in either the same sentence or in nearby text. For example, the personís name may be repeated a number of times when it could be replaced with the correct pronoun such as he, she, her, him or it, and sometimes relative pronouns such as who, what and which. However, this is more easily said than done.

There is such a thing as Ďnative speaker competenceí - as I learned when training as an English language teacher (ESOL) - which is the natural way we speak our own language without having to stop and think why we speak and write the way we do; we donít have to wonder why we use a certain word or construction. It is very difficult to achieve this level of linguistic competence with a second or subsequent language simply because years of familiarity with the thought patterns of the language are missing from the second language userís experience. The fact is that no one achieves fluency by learning a heap of rules, but only by regularly using the language - listening to it being spoken and reading a variety of books, newspapers and magazines.

Grammatical rules have their place of course Ė but they are not the way to achieve a natural fluency in a second language. Indeed, the most common problem with foreign studentsí work is the use of the definite and indefinite articles Ė the and a before a noun. This is extremely difficult to get right if English is not your first language and the rules donít always help. Iím sure no other language has such a complicated set of rules for knowing whether to put the before a noun!

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