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Three academic writing mistakes foreign students make

Common mistakes non-native English speakers make with academic writing

Below are what I believe to be the three most common mistakes ESL students make. If you look out for these errors you will dramatically improve your writing.

Phrasal adjectives


Subject- Verb agreement

Again this is something that should come easily to you as a native speaker but is harder if English is not your first language. Examples:

-People is happy – (incorrect) A VERY common error by Spanish speakers and one easily spotted.

-People are happy. (correct)

What you need to watch out for is long sentences where the verb tends to get “lost” and this error creeps in. Take the below for example:

Made up example –“People around the world, but especially in Canada (according to Trump (2003)), is happy about the peace process”. (incorrect)

Correction -“People around the world, but especially in Canada (according to Trump (2003)), are happy about the peace process”. (correct)

The above is easy to miss as you may associate the verb “is” with Trump and NOT people (the subject of the sentence). As academic documents are comprised of long sentences please be particularly attentive to this type of error.

Real example from a thesis – “Giese (2009) states that the knowledge and attitudes regarding ethics in German nursing differs widely and that there has been an inability in nursing to face the catastrophes of the past”.

Correction -“Giese (2009) states that the knowledge and attitudes regarding ethics in German nursing differ widely and that there has been an inability in nursing to face the catastrophes of the past”.

‘Knowledge and attitudes’ takes ‘differ’ as it it plural. This is a tricky sentence but a very good example.

**Pay extra careful attention to sentences beginning “someone” states for example, Smith states/argues/explains – as this is mainly where these types of errors occur.

Use of indefinite/definite article

They often leave out the definite (“the”) and indefinite (“a/an”) article. If they make this mistake they are likely to repeat it throughout the document. Pay extra attention in that case. When to use this should be common sense.

Particular attention needs to be paid if you are a Chinese and Indian student – you will tend to leave the articles out very frequently. I know it is tedious to insert them all – but it has to be done!

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