Having taught English in Spain for almost 10 years now, I think I’m pretty well placed to compile a list of my own personal top 10 mistakes that native Spanish speakers make in English. Before we begin, however, I would like to give an honourable mention to ‘Double Negatives‘ and ‘I Want That‘. I could easily have included them in the list, but nobody reads a ‘Top 12’, do they? If 10 mistakes just aren’t enough for you, though, please do check out the links.
I’ve ranked them from the least annoying (number 10) to the most annoying (number 1). If you happen to detect a note of annoyance in my words, I would like to politely remind you that it’s been 10 years. I’ve been correcting these selfsame mistakes for 10 bloody years…
10. I’m Agree
Example: I’m not agree with my teacher.
Correction: I don’t agree with my teacher.
‘Agree’ is not an adjective and it’s most certainly not a noun. So why do you guys keep saying ‘I’m agree’? ‘Agree’ is a verb. Got it? It’s just a normal, regular, common-or-garden verb.
So please, can we all just
be agree never to use the verb ‘to be’ before we say ‘agree’? The world will be a more beautiful place if you can all just let go of ‘estoy de acuerdo’.
‘I’m agree’ makes your teacher’s ear bleed. Got it?
9. Misuse of the Present Perfect Tense
Example: I’ve heard this mistake in my last class.
Correction: I’ve heard this mistake.
I almost used ‘abuse’ rather than ‘misuse’ in the title but, out of kindness, decided not to. Maybe I’m being too hard on you all. I know you’re trying your best.
As a second act of kindness, I’ve also produced an entire blog post on exactly this topic. It’s great. Have a look. It’s called The English Present Perfect for Spanish Speakers.
To summarise, if it’s Monday morning, don’t talk about the weekend using the present perfect tense. ‘Cómo ha ido el finde?’ is not acceptable in English unless it’s still the weekend when you say it. It sounds wrong. It confuses us and we’re already confused enough because it’s Monday morning and we haven’t had any coffee yet.
‘How was your weekend?’ sounds just fine. Past simple. The weekend is over. Leave our poor ears alone. Haven’t they suffered enough?
8. The Saxon Genitive
Example: I’m testing the patience of my teacher.
Correction: I’m testing my teacher’s patience.
The Saxon what now? Don’t worry about the name; I’m talking about expressing possession using an apostrophe and an ’s’ at the end of words. ‘Patrick’s bleeding ears’ or ‘your poor teacher’s patience’, for example.
Of course, anyone able to read this post in English must already be at least vaguely aware of this form. Many of you, however, still won’t be using it enough.
Phrases like ‘the boyfriend of my friend’ sound really awkward in English and should definitely be replaced with some version of ‘my friend’s boyfriend’.
In fact, every time someone says something like ‘the friend of my boyfriend’, a little Saxon genitive fairy dies. Are you a fairy killer? Do you want fairy blood on your hands?
So say it out loud; absorb the sound. Isn’t it lovely? Say it again; my friend’sssssss boyfriend. Really accentuate that ‘s’. Close your eyes, say it one more time, and think about those lovely little Saxon genitive fairies fluttering merrily about. We native speaking folk love the Saxon genitive and you should too.
7. English is a ‘Subject + Verb + Object’ Language
Example: The teacher wipes away with a tissue his tears.
Correction: The teacher wipes away his tears with a tissue.
Regarding the S+V+O thing, if you’re thinking something like “so is Spanish”, you’ll be pleased to know you’re right! The difference is that in English we actually maintain that order (inversions aside) when we form phrases. Listen, syntax is a huge topic and I’m not going to go into it too deeply here, but please do try to remember the basics. Here’s a good, if massively simplified, way to think about it.
To be clear, ‘bla bla bla’ covers things like prepositional phrases and times; ‘on the beach’, ‘last week’, and other such phrases. It doesn’t cover adverbs. Words such as ‘normally’ and ‘quickly’ are not considered ‘bla bla bla’ under my definition.
So the simplest advice I can give you is this:
just put the ‘bla bla bla’ at the end of the sentence.
If you insist on complicating things, I’ll even let you do this:
put the time at the beginning sometimes (if you promise to use a comma).
But you have to promise me that you won’t put it between the verb and the object.
‘I eat with a spoon soup’ is a really ugly, awkward phrase. It’s even a bit difficult to understand.
While we’re on the topic of syntax, don’t say ‘It’s hotter Spain than Wales’. Make ‘Spain’ the subject of the sentence, for heaven’s sake. Just say ‘Spain is hotter than Wales.’ Spain is the subject of the phrase. It’s as simple as that.
6. Not a Single Schwa to be Heard
Example and Correction:
What’s the most common vowel sound in English? Is it the ‘a’ in ‘apple’? Is it the ‘e’ in ‘effort’ or the ‘o’ in ‘hotter’?
No, it’s none of those, but if you just said those three words out loud, you should just have used it… three times.
The second syllable of each of those words contains a schwa. It’s often called a neutral vowel. Listen below and practice pronouncing it. It’ll transform your spoken English, I promise you. It’s a thing of beauty and the inspiration for the name of this blog.
I know, I know, Spanish, once you’ve learnt a few simple rules, is more or less a ‘say what you see’ language in terms of pronunciation. English isn’t. Deal with it. Work on it. Listen well. Imitate. I know you can do it. Channel the schwa and save our ears from those harsh open vowels.
5. Every Phrase Needs a Subject
Example: Is sad when a sentence lacks a subject.
Correction: It’s sad when a sentence lacks a subject.
English verbs don’t have many conjugations. You guys are so lucky in that respect. If you don’t fully appreciate your luck, may I suggest you try translating the following phrases into Spanish and see how many verb conjugations you use?
I went, you went, we went, they went, she went
Did you have fun? So, when you say ‘Fuimos al supermercado’ without saying ‘nosotros’, it doesn’t matter because ‘fuimos’ can only refer to ‘nosotros’. You don’t need to say it. It’s completely unnecessary.
If you say ‘Went to the supermarket’ in English, however, everyone is going to give you a confused look and say, possibly in a slightly annoyed tone, ‘Who?’
Now I’m sure you all knew that already so why do I keep hearing things like ‘Is good’ or ‘Is raining a lot’ or ‘is important to begin a phrase with a subject’?
What is good? What is raining? You’re not giving me the information I need to understand the sentence.
It’s important to begin a phrase with a subject
If you remember one thing from this blog entry, let it be that.
4. For To
Example: I’m only doing this for to help you.
Correction: I’m only doing this to help you.
If I had a penny for every time I’ve heard some version of this mistake, I’d be living on a private yacht somewhere in the Bahamas. Fantastic for me but bad news for you guys. Who would point out all your mistakes after I was gone? Think of all those innocent ears that would just have to go on bleeding…
‘Para’ in Spanish creates all kinds of problems in English. One of its main functions is to express purpose. Look at the following example and see how ‘para’ explains why you are visiting this blog, thus expressing purpose.
Please, please, please, for the love of all that is good in the world, don’t translate this phrase using ‘for’ in place of ‘para’. As a teacher, I hear various versions of this mistake:
‘For improve’, ‘for to improve’, ‘for improving’…
Guess what… they’re all wrong. None of them makes any sense.
Just forget about ‘para’. Banish it from your mind.
In English, we usually use infinitives to explain purpose and infinitives always begin with ‘to’. All you have to say is:
If you want to be really fancy and formal, you can even say:
But promise me you will never say ‘for to improve my English’. You know what happens when you say it…
3. Depend Of
Example: This mistake probably depend of your native language.
Correction: This mistake probably depends on your native language.
A classic case of mother-tongue-interference, this frustratingly common mistake comes from ‘depende de’ in Spanish. When you guys speak English, it often comes out as ‘depend of’, which is just wrong wrong wrong.
First of all, the phrase needs a subject: ‘it’. You remember that, right? Every phrase needs a subject.
Then the verb needs to be conjugated in the third person: ‘depends’. You really have no excuse for this one because ‘depende’ is in the third person singular too.
Then we need to use the right preposition: ‘on’.
Now we can put it all together and say:
There are cases where ‘on’ isn’t necessary. We can omit it when we use ‘if / whether’ or question words such as ‘how’, where’, ‘when’, ‘how many’, ‘why’ and so on.
But remember we can never ever say ‘depend of’. It hurts me even to type it just now. I can feel the blood collecting in my ear canal…
2. Used To
Example: I’m used to make horrible mistakes in English.
Correction: I usually make horrible mistakes in English.
I’ve asked myself many times where exactly this annoyingly common mistake comes from and I can only assume it’s some weird mix of ‘estar acostumbrado’ and ‘soler’. So let’s have a look at one of these weird sentences that you guys form sometimes:
I’m used to go to the gym at about 9am.
Is that something you might say? Be honest with yourself. The first step towards fixing a problem is accepting that you have one. I promise not to shout…
‘I’m used to go to the gym’ is just totally wrong. It’s like ‘soler’ and ‘estar acostumbrado’ had a regrettable night of sex, made a bastard son, and sent him away to be raised by the English. It doesn’t make any sense and it’s grammatically impossible.
There are two possible (and correct) things you could be trying to say:
I’m used to going to the gym at 9am. (Notice the ‘ing’ verb after the preposition ‘to’)
I usually go to the gym at 9am. (Notice we removed ‘am used to’ and replaced it with ‘usually’)
These two phrases express slightly different ideas and, from my experience as a teacher, you guys usually mean the second one.
Remember, ‘used to’ can refer to past habits, but never present ones. You can express the idea of ‘solía, soliamos…’ but never ‘suelo, solemos…’
I have a joke for you: Did you hear the one about the native Spanish speaker who said ‘I’m used to go to the gym’?
He died in a pool of ear blood.
1. The People Is
Example: Why is the people so insistent on making this mistake?
Correction: Why are people so insistent on making this mistake?
There’s a very good reason this mistake is my personal number one and it’s not just because people say it all the bloody time. No, this little error tops the list because it’s actually two mistakes all rolled up into one. It makes both ears bleed at the same time. A lot.
The first problem, of course, comes from ‘gente’, which is singular. The English word, ‘people’, however, is plural.
If ‘the people is’ still sounds okay to you, please please please read the previous sentence again and then repeat after me:
I’m sorry for shouting but this one is really hard on my ears. People is a plural noun. The verb has to be in the third person plural. Please, if only for your teacher’s sake, remember that saying ‘people’ is like saying ‘they’ and stop putting an ‘s’ on the end of present verbs.
People GO, people EAT, people SLEEP, people SHOUT SOMETIMES WHEN THEY GET ANGRY
As you may have noticed from my previous examples, the second part of our problem is the article. You see, in English, we don’t tend to use articles when we generalise.
If you want to say something like ‘La gente no presta suficiente atención a los articulos’, promise me that you won’t just translate each word and say ‘The people doesn’t pay enough attention to the articles’.
It sounds horrible. It’s wrong! You’re talking about people in general and people is a plural noun. You’ve just made two mistakes. Take a deep breath and repeat after me:
People don’t pay enough attention to articles.
People don’t pay enough attention to articles.
That brings us to the end of my top ten Spanish mistakes and me personally to a moment of quiet reflection.
I’m sorry I was so cruel to you all. I just get angry sometimes and say things I don’t really mean. You know I love you really, don’t you? Now, just before you leave, a quick note:
I produce all these posts for free and in my own time. It’s a lot of work. All I ask of you in return is this:
If you found this article helpful, useful, annoying compelling or even, dare I say it, educational, please share it using social media; Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Instagram and so on. Let the karma both go and come around. ¡Hasta luego!