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10 Common Mistakes From Non-Native English Speakers That We Should Learn to Appreciate

United States Languages
by Elke Wakefield Apr 5, 2016

LANGUAGE IS GIVEN TO US so that we may corrupt it. Like that time we got rid of the word thou in the 18th century. Or cut off a bit of the word obviously and started saying obvs instead. Or redefined banger, so it didn’t even have anything to do with sausages anymore (though like sausages, banger probably has a shelf-life).

We use words and return them warped. Sometimes the mutation never leaves the safety of a relationship or friendship group (“Me and my mates call each other Moogs, haha”). But frequently the mutation sticks. We have selfie. We have selfie stick. Unorganised. Literally no rules for ‘literally.’ Text as a verb. Can and will instead of ought and shall. The near loss of whom. The complete loss of ye and thou. In short, we have the fact that English once looked like this: Fæder ūre þū þe eart on heofonum. And now looks like this: She was lit AF.

It’s been almost 1,000 years since English was Old English, a language that, with its grammatical gender — so the sun was feminine, the moon was masculine, and girl was neuter, obviously — and brain-twizzling declensions — so ‘the’ adopted over 10 different forms depending on what it was doing in a sentence — looked more like German than modern English.

What will English look in 100, 500 or 1,500 years? No idea. It’s not like betting on the horses. Unless you’re willing to predict the outcome of millions of fleas racing on millions of horses racing on millions of different race tracks millions of times every day.

However, given the number of second-language English speakers (510 million) far outnumbers the number of first-language speakers (340 million), it should be obvious where we look for inspiration.

Second-language English speak just as well as first-language English speakers. They are creative and resourceful, perhaps even more so than those born into English, because they have to think harder. Sometimes, they demand that English follow her own rules; other times, they bring metaphors or patterns of grammatical thought across from their first language.

They’ve already given us so much. Now, it’s time to pause, take stock and celebrate their contribution.

Here’s a short list of just some of their innovations, that some people take as mistakes, but I believe we should take as contributions.

1. “I didn’t eat nothing” and other double negatives

For example:
Camilo: Does anybody know where my Toddy biscuits are?
Frank: I didn’t eat nothing!


KW: Can you tell me something?
Gilbert: I cannot
KW: Can’t tell me nothing!

Double negatives are supposed to be a no-no (lol) in English, apparently as a result of the transposition of mathematical principles into language, so that if -1 x -1 = 1, then “not” x “no” = yes.

Firstly, basically all English speakers use double negatives. Some notable examples include: Shakespeare (“I never was, nor never will be”), Chaucer (“He nevere yet no vileynye ne sayde”), Jamaicans, Rihanna (“I wasn’t looking for nobody when you looked my way”), the Rolling Stones (“can’t get no satisfaction”), and those guys who think they have a really subtle sense of aesthetics (“she’s not not hot”), etc.

Secondly, isn’t adding a negative actually subtraction?

-1 + -1 = -2.
-yes + -yes = -2 yes


2. “I have 27 years”

English speakers have a habit of confusing themselves with the qualities they possess or feel. I am cold. I am hot. I am 20. I am tired. I am right. I am hungry. Traditionally, the correct response to this nonsense has been “Hello Hungry! I’m Dad.” However, an ESL vanguard is formulating an even better response to the tyranny of the verb “to be.”

Some non-native English speakers, particularly those from a French, Italian or Spanish background — languages that don’t rely on only one verb to express everything — have begun to say they ‘have’ X years, as opposed to they ‘are’ X.

“I have 27 years” clearly makes more sense than “I am 27.” You are not 27. 27 is 27.

Moreover, “I have 27 years” makes your years your own, and not you your years. This is empowering. You can easily imagine the years rolling around between your fingers, like little marbles, incontrovertibly there, but not definitive of who you are.


3. “Touristic”

For example:
Lakshmi: We’re going to Koh Samui. Do you want to join us?
Gerhard: Koh Samui is too touristic for me. I prefer to have a more chill and authentic experience. For me, Ko Phayam is better.

Touristic is beloved by Europeans everywhere who need a despective adjective to describe travel. Of course, English does have an adjective for ‘tourist’ — touristy, but it’s informal and unconvincing. It sounds like the kind of thing a baby would say, whereas touristic sounds scientific, almost as though it could be precisely measured or quantified.


4. “Thanks, God!”

For example:
Gupta: Did you make it to the station on time?
Ignacio: Thanks, God yes!
God: My pleasure, Ignacio.

“Thank god!,” the more traditional form of this expression, is an interjection or exclamation, and doesn’t have much to do with God. There is quite some distance between the speaker and god, so that it is more of a vaguely held wish or feeble command.

Grammatically speaking, the thank in ‘thank god’ acts as a verb, of which God is the object.

However, some second-language speakers prefer the more personal “Thanks, God!” in which God is directly addressed and thanked. “Thanks, God!” sounds like real gratitude, as though you’re standing opposite God and thanking him for the club sandwich he just gave you.


5. “Hope it helps!”

For example:
Dear all,
I’ve always wondered this —
What type of dogs do you have?

Dear Tammy
2 x Pug.
1 x Kelpie.
Hope it helps!

Dear Sami,
Hope what helps?

Hope it helps! is the sign-off of countless second-language English speakers on forums the world over. It’s a very slight innovation, but an important one. ‘It’ is an impersonal pronoun, substituting for a noun. But which noun is it substituting for in the above? We know that the writer is implicitly referring to their response as the thing they hope helps, but they haven’t actually mentioned it, so ‘it’ sounds kind of mysterious.

In the past, we would have laboured with “Hope this helps,” with ‘this’ referring to the advice just mentioned, or the more ‘complete’ “I hope this advice helps” or “This is my advice — I hope it helps.” But Hope it helps! is wonderfully self-contained and inscrutable. It is also so clearly brimming with good will and humility that you simply cannot fault it.

When I read ‘hope it helps,’ I think of a smiling friend waving at me, then turning and disappearing over the horizon. I try to call them back, but they’re already gone, and the only evidence I have they were here is this moonstone in my hand and a feeling of utter peace.


6. “Isn’t it?” as universal question tag

For example:
Maximilian: Maximilian is a powerful and great man. Isn’t it?
Francessca: They don’t really know what they’re doing promoting Maximilian. Isn’t it?

Question tags are when you make a statement and then turn your statement into a question. For example, “You’re reading this, aren’t you?” They are used to keep a conversation rolling or to prompt your interlocutor to agree or disagree with you. Ordinarily, the question tag should agree with the subject and verb in the preceding statement because that’s the statement you’re querying.

So, in the first sentence, we would normally say ‘isn’t he’, because it is Max we are referring to and ‘he’ is the pronoun used to refer something male. In the second sentence, we would normally say ‘do they’ because ‘do’ and not ‘is’ is the verb in question.

Of course, it’s easy to see how ‘isn’t it’ arose. When you speak a new language, certain phrases embed themselves in your head and mouth, becoming your ums and ahs. They’re so sayable and useful that they become more than the sum of their parts; they become words unto themselves. For the speaker, ‘isn’t it’ is a kind of catch-all “don’t you agree?” Any possible statement could precede ‘isn’t it?’

“That’s not a dog. Isn’t it?”
“I’m a bit late today. Isn’t it?”

In effect, “isn’t it” is powerful, almost existentially challenging. It makes you reflect on more than the previous statement. ‘It’ is the kind of word that seems to dissolve under close inspection. What is it, after all, if the referent is not immediately on hand? Some kind of impersonal thing, compressed and zombie-like, lurking underneath the network of signs? You find yourself lost in language, searching desperately for a way out. Eventually ‘it’ loses all meaning, and all you hear is the physicality of the word, i-t, which, at the end of the day, is nothing more than pulmonary pressure and the movement of tongue on teeth.


7. “Some gums.” Counting the uncountable.

For example:
Samantha: I want some gums. Anyone have some gums?

The reason ‘some gums’ didn’t used to fly is because gum is considered an “uncountable noun.” Uncountable nouns are abstract things like love and hate, or diffuse things like air, which apparently cannot be counted. They don’t take a plural form.

Or at least they didn’t.

Because why shouldn’t more than one gum be gums? For most of us, gum is no longer a formless mass of tree resin; rather, it’s neat little bullets of flavoured spearmint we dispense to friends on a night out, easily counted and obviously plural.

To go further, why not some golds or some sorghums? Quantifying uncountables is thrilling and something we all engage in. It makes the abstract and the timeless palpably specific and attainable.

Just look at the arrogance of the following:

And compare it with the humility and graciousness of the following: gums, rices, moneys, waters, ices, honeys.

Counting the uncountable is empowering. Counting the uncountables even more so.


8. “Explain me this”

For example:
Wendy: Please explain me why it’s like this!
Latha: Why on earth you should need to explain [something] to [somebody], and in that exact order, I have no idea.

“Explain me this” is the greatest example of linguistic austerity since everyone started abbrieving in 2010.

Explaining [something] to [somebody] is overly complicated and painful to perform, reminiscent of a hungry labrador doing an obstacle course under timed conditions.

On the other hand, “explain me this” is emotionally immediate and potent; a cry for lucidity and understanding that cannot be resisted. It is a whippet doing the 100m sprint.

Speakers of American English have done a similar thing with the verb write.

“Write me!,” as in, “don’t forget to write me!,” drops the preposition ‘to,’ giving us a marvelous blurring of object and indirect object. Of course, you’ll write to me, but in doing so, you’ll write me, capture me, sing me, shape me. And I’ll write you too, we’ll write each other, conjuring our own inky world into existence.

Similarly, with ‘explain me this,’ there is the sense in which the person being spoken to is being asked to provide an account of the speaker, or to “explain” the speaker. And how to explain a person!? What adjectives can you heap up around them that will do more than describe or define them; that will instead explain them? What facts are relevant? What words will make a person plain?


9. Continuous continuous

For example:
Waltraud: And when I was being young, I was drinking a lot of beer, I was celebrating a lot, I was going to discos with my friends. Now, I’m working a lot, I’m eating muesli, I’m calling my grandmother.

Progressive or continuous tenses, formed by adding -ing to a verb, are used when an action is ongoing or incomplete. There’s something loose and undefined about progressives; they appear to provide ‘background’ colour to the real ‘foreground’ of hard events.

Ample use of the progressive is a particularly German quirk. Germans don’t have a progressive tense in German, so they love to use it when they speak English. The effect is fantastic — nothing is ever completed or perfected as past, present and future leak out in all directions into an unbroken stream of action.


10. “Dear Sirs”

For example:
Dear Sirs,
I am most interested in joining your esteemed establishment.

Dear Joseph,
Check out our website for further details.
Warm regards,

English dropped gender for pretty much everything except ships, which are obviously ladies (on account of the prow) and dogs and cats, which are obviously male and female respectively (this being a merely scientific and not grammatical distinction).

We also don’t have properly formal modes of address. If you want to show respect, you can’t simply inflect all your verbs in a special way, as in Spanish, or draw on myriad, subtle honorifics, as in Japanese. Instead, you have to look very serious and employ words that aren’t “formally” formal, but kind of sound formal, like “I am well, thank you, and yourself? Isn’t the weather fine today? And yourself?”

Which is why ‘Sirs’ is such a fantastic innovation. Sirs originates from the fact, in many languages, when you add women to men, you get only men. So in French, for example, if you wanted to address a group of mainly women, with a couple of men, you would use the masculine plural pronoun ‘ils’ and not the feminine ‘elles’.

The Sirs phenomenon is captured below:

10,000 men = Sirs
10,000 women = Madams
5,000 men + 5,000 women = Sirs
8,000 women + 2,000 men = Sirs
9,999 women + 1 man = Sirs

“Dear Sirs” is a grammatical import from languages that do have gender, of which there are many — French, Spanish, Italian, German, Hindi.

However, in English, “sirs” is so thoroughly antiquated and denatured that it doesn’t seem to have much to do with men anymore. Rather, “sirs” should be understood as a new class of person. A Sir is a person, male, female or trans, you wish to show respect.


11. A few that probably won’t catch on but should…

From an Ecuadorian — chapters for television episodes, a direct translation of the Spanish capítulos.

From a German — It’s very cheek-in-tongue, which adds an extra layer of tongue-in-cheek to tongue-in-cheek.

From an Argentine — have you proved Fernet? (The Spanish verb probar means to try or taste…it also means to prove).

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