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Friday, June 1, 2012

4 Common ESL Errors to Proofread for

Every time you proofread and edit careless mistakes in your writing, you are demonstrating that you care about your writing, take it seriously and are not expecting someone else ( a teacher) to do all the work for you.

In addition, if you are preparing to work in an English setting, you are learning and practicing an essential skill you will use every day of your life in the  "real world." 

Once you begin working for an English employer, you will be expected to write notes, memos and even reports that are error free. At no time will you be able to rely on a teacher  to point out where you have made mistakes. You will have to know how to proofread and correct errors on your own.  This is why you need to start taking responsibility for learning how to proofread as well as you can NOW, not at some later imaginary time.  

If you never practice proofreading  under pressure while you are studying and can get the help of an instructor, you will never learn this essential skill that could make the difference of whether you get and keep a good job or not.   

Here is a list of five of the most common errors ESL writers tend to make in their writing, and some specific strategies on how to look for, find and correct each one of them .

Verb Tense Errors

Most of what we write fits into a specific time frame:past, present or future.  For example, if you are writing a report, or a narrative, you will mainly be using the past time frame because the situation occurred in the past. You may introduce it in the present, especially if you are making generalizations or discussing the situation as an event with past and present implications. You may write a conclusions once again making generalizations, recommendations or discussing how the past still has an effect on the present, but the main body of your writing will be in the past time frame. This means you will mainly be using simple past, past continuous, past perfect and past perfect continuous verb tenses. The major verb tense you use will be the simple past.  The other tenses will be used for emphasis or to clarify that you are focusing on a continuous action, or an action that occurred before the one you are writing about. 

Tense consistency is important in English writing, so even if something is still true about what you are writing about, we often continue to use the past tense because we are referring to "that" time in the past, and the situation was true at that time. Using a present tense verb would interrupt the flow of the story and confuse the reader. 

Of course, we CAN and DO switch time frames if we have a good reason to do so, but we need to signal that we are shifting time frames by using an appropriate transition, or adverb of time. For example if we want to contrast the past to the present, we should indicate that we are changing time frames by using  words like " n ow", "today", "these days." 

Introductions and conclusions which often include generalizations about things that are always true, references to something in the past and which still continues, or recommendations often use present, present perfect or even a future tense. 

We frequently use the present time frame,which includes the simple present, present continuous, present perfect and present perfect continuous, to write about facts, opinions ideas, truths, generalizations etc, especially as they refer to all the time, not just at one time in the past. Although we generally use the simple present more than the other tenses, we do use them to focus on whether what we are discussing is ongoing, had a relationship with the past or started in the past and is strongly continuing - at least temporarily.  We also shift to a past time frame when we want to refer to past incidents as they apply to what we are writing about, or a future time frame when we want to make predictions. 

Still, although we may use different tenses in a piece of writing, we use them in a consistent and logical way. Using the wrong verb tenses, especially present for past, affects meaning and therefore affects communication. Verb Tense mistakes are serious errors. Students MUST make an effort to  understand time relationships in writing, and to proofread for verb tense errors.  

To Proofread for verb tense errors 
  • Underline EVERY  real verb in your writing.
  • Ask yourself what major time frame you are working in. Is it present? past? future? 
  • Determine whether each verb accurately represents the time frame. Are you being consistent with using past time verb tenses in a narrative, or are you throwing in some present and present continuous tenses when you shouldn't?
  • Determine whether a specific verb should focus on a continuous action, or whether it is referring to a past event.
  • If you are using direct (quoted) speech, do the verb tenses reflect the exact  tenses the speaker used?
  • If you are using reported speech, have you shifted your verb tenses back?
  • If you are using conditional sentences, remind yourself of the verb tenses for both halves of the sentence for 1st, 2nd and third conditional.
  • If you are writing in the present time frame, ask yourself if  you need to use simple present, continuous or a perfect tense. For example if you are talking about change, or about something that started in the past and still continuing are you using a perfect, or a perfect continuous tense? 
  • Double check the verb tenses in your introduction and conclusion. Are you referring to ongoing situations, making recommendations. Use the appropriate verb tense. 

Errors in Verb Form 

English verbs have many different verb forms . ESL Students frequently make verb form errors when they omit present or past participles, add extra participles, add the verb TO BE in front of an active verb, use the wrong auxiliary or helper verb, use inappropriate modals, use ING on simple forms, or use incorrect verb forms.

 A verb Form error is NOT a verb tense error.  An ESL writer may be using the correct verb tense, but omitting one part of the verb tense phrase. For example, if a student wants to write something using the present perfect continuous, the verb must contain both HAVE + BE+ a present participle.  I have been working. Companies have been polluting.  If the student writes I have working or companies have been polluted, he or she is making a verb form mistake. ESL writers commonly make many different kind of verb form errors, depending on what their original language is. As such, they must specifically look for this type of mistake. 

Here are a few more examples of VERB  FORM errors

Incorrect:   I usually am arrive  at school on time.  

Correct:      I usually arrive at school on time.  We do not put "be" in front of an active verb 

Incorrect:    Soldiers have fighting in Iran for a long time.  

Correct:       Soldiers have been fighting in Iran for a long time. This is the present 
                    perfect continuous, so you must use the participle as part of the verb phrase. 
Incorrect      She said she could waited for me.

Correct:       She said she could wait for me      

To Proofread for Verb Form Errors 
  • Check each underlined verb completely . 
  •  Have you used passive voice when you should be using active voice? Are you using an active verb when you should be using a passive verb? Are you missing the "be" on your active voice verb? For  active vs passive, look for active/passive on the GRAMMAR PAGE.
  • Have you used the whole verb phrase, or are you missing an auxiliary.  For example,  have you used "be" with all continuous  verbs?  Add it.
  •  Are you using the correct auxiliary, should you be using "have" instead of "be"?
  • Are you putting a "be" in front of an active verb? Remove it. Remember active verbs NEVER  take "be" unless they are continuous verbs.
  • Check your irregular past tense verbs.  Are you using the correct past or past participle version?  
  • Check all MODALS (can, could, would, should, will,etc.)  Are you using "ed", or an irregular form on the verb? Are you using "ING " or TO ? Get rid of it.  Replace it with the  simple form of the verb.
  • Check all your gerunds (ING) and infinitives.(TO). Read them out loud. Do they sound right? Remember, most verbs  that refer to the future .
  • Have you used the simple form instead of a gerund as a subject? Add the ING.
  • Have you forgotten to add the "TO"   when you need an infinitive, for example in expressions like I need to go vs I need go. 
  • For more information and practice on verb form errors go the following link:EDITING  VERB FORMS  , or go to the   PROOFREADING and EDITING PAGE. 

Run On Sentences and Comma Splices

In English every sentence must start with a capital letter and finish with a period, NOT  a COMMA as it can in some languages. A run on sentence occurs when you join two independent clauses without a joining word or punctuation. A comma splice occurs when you join two independent clauses only with a comma.  

Remember, a comma IS NOT a period, nor is it a semi-colon (;)  You cannot use a comma in front of a new sentence that starts with a transition such as therefore or however. You must use a semi-colon or a period  (.) As well, a comma has NO MEANING by itself. It will never mean, and, but., so, when, or because.

If you have two independent clauses that don't have a relationship with each other, simply end the first sentence with a period and start the next sentence with a capital letter

If you  have two independent clauses that do have a relationship with each other, join them with a coordinate conjunction, (and, but, so), a transition (as well, therefore, however), or a subordinating conjunction ( when, because, although, if)


Run On  ( no punctuation)
I want to return to my nursing profession  I need to improve my English skills  

Comma Splice ( only a comma)
I want to return to my nursing profession, I need to improve my English skills .

Corrections: There are many ways to correct the problem 

I want to return to my nursing profession, so I need to improve my English skills. 
I want to return to my nursing profession; therefore, I need to improve my English skills   
If I want to return to my nursing profession, I need to improve my English skills. 
I need to improve my English skills so that I can return to my nursing profession.

How to Find Sentence Fragments or Comma Splices 
  • Circle every comma and period in your writing.
  • Ask yourself if the comma should really be a comma, or whether you should be using a joining word or a period. If you have joined two ideas that are not related to each other, use a period and start the next sentence with a capital letter. 
  • If there is a relationship between the ideas, ask yourself what kind of relationship it is. DO NOT simply add "and'.'  The conjunction "and" does not mean result, time, or contrast. You need to think about the "real" relationship between idea. 
  • If there is a time relationship use a time subordinating conjunction such as: when, after, before etc.
  • If there is a cause and effect relationship use because or so, or therefore with a semi colon to separate the ideas. 
  • If there is an unexpected difference or result, use although.
  • If there is a conditional relationship use "if" 
  • Look at the ideas between your capital letter and your period. Do you seem to have two different separate ideas without a joining word?  Either put in a period, or join them with a connecting word.  
Sentence Fragments 

All sentences must have a subject and a real verb. They must also include a complete idea that makes sense in English. If you have a sentence that is missing a subject, or a real verb, you have a sentence fragment, an incomplete idea.  If you have a subordinate clause that starts with when, if, because, although etc that is NOT connected to a main idea, you have a sentence fragment. Once again, these are incomplete ideas, or half finished ideas because they only answer when or why questions. 

One of the most common type of sentence fragment errors ESL students tend to make is forgetting to use the verb "TO BE" ( is, are, were)  in sentences, especially in front of adjectives. 


Incorrect:     Although I admire my supervisor, he always late for work. 
Correct        Although I admire my supervisor. he is  always late for work 

Incorrect      Most of the people in Canada very kind and friendly to strangers.  
Correct        Most of the people in Canada are very kind and friendly to strangers. 

Another very common ESL mistake is forgetting to add a subject, especially "it", or "who" in adjective clauses. 


Incorrect   Most people know that is important to study if you want to get good grades 
Correct     Most people know that it important to study if you want to get good grades. 

Incorrect   The teacher gave me such good marks said I had a lot of potential. 
Correct     The teacher who (subject) gave me such good marks said I had a lot of 

How to Proofread for Sentence Fragments
  • Read every sentence and clause carefully out loud. Listen for missing subjects and verbs.
  • Make sure that every sentence and clause has both a SUBJECT and a real VERB, a verb that takes verb tense, and is not a gerund ING, or a participle or an adjective.  
  • Check every adjective in your writing to make sure it has a "BE" verb in front of it.
  • Check all clauses that begin with the word that. Make sure there is a subject such as "it" in the second half of the sentence. Many students think the word "that"  is a subject.  It isn't. You still need a a subject in the next clause. 
  • Make sure all subordinate clauses with before, after, because, even though, if etc. are attached to a main idea clause and not just hanging all alone.
  • Make sure that all long sentences  with adjective clauses contain two parts, a main idea AND a clause. 
  • Check any sentence that starts with the words here, or there. Both of  these words are adverbs, not nouns or pronouns. They cannot be subjects. Add a real subject. 

One way to practice proofreading  and editing errors is to do practice exercises using other people's writing. The more you begin to use strategies to find errors, and are able  to correct them, the better you will become at proofreading and editing your own errors. For practice in proofreading and editing, go to the  PROOFREADING and EDITING PAGE,  or  the  COMMON ESL PROBLEMS page 

Stay tuned for part 2 of Common  ESL errors when I will discuss subject verb agreement,  plural nouns, articles and misuse  of "and." 


If you have any suggestions, comments or questions, please write them in the comment box below. You do not have to be a registered member of this site to comment.


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. So happy you found it helpful.



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