Major Mistakes

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Major mistakes are mistakes that matter. Where what you say (wrongly) can really lead to a misunderstanding (worst case), violates the basic structural regularity of the language, or is simply not the correct form to use or right thing to say because it has a different meaning from the one intended.

Analysing and discussing these mistakes can help understand the semantics of grammatical forms, especially verb structures. In the case of vocabulary, it can help improve your active use of words and phrases (and I find talking about words and their meanings enjoyable, but that might just be me).

There are different grades of misunderstanding, and mistakes are not all similarly ‘bad’. Some are just ‘I won’t get a good grade’ bad – like forgetting the singular -s after a third person subject. Sadly, in school these minor mistakes can have severe consequences when they indeed lead to bad grades that might ruin someone’s career prospects or at least a person’s attitude towards learning the language. (About the detrimental effect grades have on learning see Grades vs Learning or The case against grades or What if we eliminated grades completely. Interesting texts to read and discuss, recommendably alongside Ken Robinson’s TED talk on schools.)

In the following I will put together language situations where someone said or wrote something I really felt needed correcting and discussing. This will be supplemented by some exercises where we will try to describe the differences between two sentences or utterances, or two words or phrases to determine in which situation one or the other would be more appropriate.

Some examples will relate to the wrong use of a form that won’t necessarily lead to a breakdown in communication, but is just wrong and drives your teacher crazy (present perfect for past tense comes to mind).

For example compare:

My friend is living in Canada with My friend lives in Canada (1)

Speakers often overuse the continuous form without this necessarily leading to a major misunderstanding. In some contexts the difference between simple and continuous form is not so significant, in others more so. It is important to understand the core meaning of both forms and be able to choose which one fits best with what you want to express.

Discuss the following examples:

1. Someone wants to express that they have not yet recovered from an illness and says:

I do not get my health completely back

2. Someone wants to cancel a meeting and writes:

I don’t come today.

3. Someone has to leave a meeting for a little while:

I go out for some minutes

4. We didn’t went to our sports course yesterday.

5. Someone talks about their past trip

We go to Italy.

6. The theme of our meeting was ‘new ways of working

7. Last week we have been to the theater.



  1. Needs to be expressed using present perfect: I have not gotten my health back completely. Better: I have not yet recovered completely. If the intended meaning were factual, the speaker would have to use WILL: I will not get my health back completely. Better: I will not completely recover. (Which would be very bad news indeed, and, in our example, was not the intended meaning.)
  2. This mistake indirectly demonstrates the core meaning of the first simple form (‘simple present’) – factuality: As the speaker will not come, stating this in the factual form would be semantically illogical.
  3. I’ll go out for a few minutes; or: I’ll leave the meeting for a few minutes. Perhaps also: I’m leaving for a few minutes.
  4. Didn’t GOGOGOGOGOGOGO (infinitive)
  5. …went…
  6. This is a vocabulary issue. Topic would be the appropriate word.
  7. past past past past past – no ‘present perfect’

1) The -ing form in this example suggests that my friend is only staying in Canady for a limited period. The simple form of the second sentence describes a fact about my friend, no additional interpretation suggested.

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