Monday, July 18, 2011


As promised we'll have a look at mistakes made by quite a few students when writing at Intermediate level.

Intermediate students of English as a second language are used to writing simple correspondence and longer papers, four to five paragraph essays, with an introduction, body, and conclusion. These include letters, emails, book and film reviews, biographies, descriptive essays, and narratives of interesting events.

They have a clear idea of how to organise a letter, an email, and an essay.

They should by now competently use all present and past grammatical tenses. They should have sound knowledge of the basic future structures. Some of the more experienced students usually experiment with conditional sentences, and the passive voice at this level.

We'll consider common errors made by learners when writing for a class assignment or an exam. The examples provided will give you a clearer idea of how to avoid making these mistakes. When writing in class students are not usually allowed access to resource materials, and are under a certain amount of pressure. When faced with a writing assignment without resource materials on hand plan your main ideas point by point. Flesh out these points and write a first draft then go back and correct it. Underline the words, verb forms, and clauses which seem incorrect and clumsy. Hand in a clean edited draft which you're confident has as few (hopefully none) spelling, grammar, and punctuation mistakes as possible.

Here are some grammar tips, topic by topic, which you could apply when going back and editing your writing.


Articles are easily omitted and misused. However, there are rules you can follow as you practice and become more confident with the structure.

The articles are: "A, An or The".
a - is the indefinite article used with words beginning with consonants.
She has a dog.
I work in a factory.

an - is the indefinite article used with words beginning with vowels (a,e,i,o,u).
Can I have an apple?
She is an English teacher.

The indefinite article is used with countable singular nouns when referring to one of a number of the same objects, and when talking generally about an object without specifying it.

the - is the definite article used when talking about a specific object that both the person speaking and the listener know.
The car over there is fast.
The teacher is very good, isn't he?

The first time you speak of something use "a or an", the next time you repeat that object use "the".
I live in a house. The house is quite old and has four bedrooms.
I ate in a Chinese restaurant. The restaurant was very good.

These are the basics. The following are some additional rules you should stick to:

DO NOT use an article with countries, states, counties or provinces, lakes and mountains except when the country is a collection of states such as "The United States".
He lives in Washington near Mount Rainier.
They live in northern British Columbia.

Use an article with bodies of water, oceans and seas.
My country borders on the Pacific Ocean

DO NOT use an article when you are speaking about things in general.
I like Russian tea.
She likes reading books.

DO NOT use an article when you are speaking about meals, places, and transport.
He has breakfast at home.
I go to university.

When writing about people or food we readily use nouns we’re not sure whether they are countable or uncountable, and sometimes use them with the wrong quantifier and/or verb. For example, one of my students was trying to describe a family member in a composition about family relationships. Influenced by the group’s native language Bulgarian the student used the word ‘hair’ as a countable noun with an indefinite article.

Example: He has a dark hair.

This would’ve been fine if s/he meant one dark hair out of many as opposed to a full head of dark hair. The correct phrase should be, of course:

He has dark hair. (hair used as an uncountable noun without an indefinite article)

Keep in mind that the way nouns are used in sentences also depends on whether they are countable or uncountable.

What are countable nouns?
Countable nouns are individual objects, people, places, etc. which can be counted.
books, Italians, pictures, stations, men, etc.

A countable noun can be both singular - a friend, a house, etc. - or plural - a few apples, lots of trees, etc.

Use the singular form of the verb with a singular countable noun:
There is a book on the table.
That student is excellent!

Use the plural form of the verb with a countable noun in the plural:
There are some students in the classroom.
Those houses are very big, aren't they?

What are uncountable nouns?
Uncountable nouns are materials, concepts, information, etc. which are not individual objects and can not be counted.
information, water, understanding, wood, cheese, etc.

Uncountable nouns are always singular. Use the singular form of the verb with uncountable nouns:

There is some water in that pitcher.
That is the equipment we use for the project.

Adjectives with Countable and Uncountable Nouns.

Use a/an with countable nouns preceded by an adjective(s):
Tom is a very intelligent young man.
I have a beautiful grey cat.

Do not use a/an with uncountable nouns preceded by an adjective(s):
That is very useful information.
There is some cold beer in the fridge.

Countable and uncountable nouns differ in different languages, and this can prove confusing for learners. Here is a list of some of the most common, easy to confuse uncountable nouns.


















Click on the link for more examples.

Another common and very simple structure is the possessive case. It involves the apostrophe, a punctuation mark many students are not used to, as a result it tends to be left out. Remember you need to add the apostrophe " 's" to indicate possession.

Examples Peter's motorcycle
The building's structure

You can place the apostrophe directly after the 's' for words ending in "s", such as the regular plural form of the noun.

Notice that this construction can change the meaning from singular to plural.

Examples The cat's favorite food is tuna. (one cat)
The cats' favorite food is tuna. (more than one cat)

Be sure to revise the possessive words that accompany this structure.

Possessive Adjectives

Possessive adjectives are used instead of possessive nouns when the reference is understood.

For example: Tom is a dog lover. He takes his dog Spike everywhere!

In this case, it is clear that 'his' refers to Tom because of the context. Possessive adjectives are always placed in front of the noun they modify. Here is a list of possessive adjectives:

I - my dog

You - your cat

He - his book

She - her car

It - its color (NOT it's!)

We - our dog

You - your house

They - their farm


That's my dog in the picture.
Does your cat like tuna?

Possessive Pronouns

Use possessive pronouns to indicate possession when no noun is used. This is the case when the object of possession is understood from the context.


Whose book is that? It's mine. = It's my book.
Is this your pen? No, it's hers. = It's her pen.

In both cases, the possessive pronoun can be substituted for the possessive adjective because the object of possession is understood from the context.

Here is a list of possessive pronouns.

I - mine

You - yours

He - his

She - hers

We - ours

You - yours

They - theirs

Is this your car? - No, that one over there is mine.
Whose lunch is this? - It's yours.

When writing descriptive texts it‘s necessary that you have a good active vocabulary, rich in descriptive words such as adjectives. A group of adjectives commonly used are the participial adjectives ending in -ed and -ing. In order to describe different things you should know how these words are formed, and how they are used. A participial adjective modifies a noun and shows either the source of feeling or emotion or the receiver of that feeling or emotion.

The Present Participial Adjective -ing is an adjective formed from an active verb, which indicates the cause/source of the feeling or emotion.

Example: The clown was entertaining the family. (active verb)

The clown was entertaining. (present participial adjective - the source of emotion)

The Past Participial Adjective -ed is an adjective formed from a passive verb, which indicates the receiver of the feeling or emotion.

Example: The family was entertained by the clown. (passive verb)

The family was entertained. (past participial adjective - the receiver of feeling/emotion)


Intermediate students should be proficient with this structure, and yet they do tend to leave out the -s for the third person singular (present simple tense). Always go back and edit the first draft. Make sure you've added all -s where necessary. Here are some additional spelling tips for the 3rd person singular (present simple tense).

Most third person present singular verb forms add -s to the end of the verb.

For example: work, he works - think, she thinks

However, if the verb ends in -s, -z, -x, -ch or -sh the third person present singular is formed by adding -es to the verb.

For example: watch, she watches - brush, he brushes

How to spell the forms of a verb ending in -y
The third person present singular of verbs ending in -y preceded by a consonant is formed by changing the -y to -ies.

For example: query, he queries - carry, she carries

The third person present singular of verbs ending in -y preceded by a vowel does not change the -y.

For example: play, he plays - stay, she stays.

Keep in mind that when telling a story, or an anecdote in the past, or reporting on an event, it's likely that all past tenses will be incorporated. Take the time to revise verb forms in the past and past participle which you find difficult. Organise the verbs in groups which sound similar. Drill them orally. 

Click on the link for a comprehensive list of irregular verbs.

Intermediate students are using more complex sentences with more than one verb. It’s important that you are aware of the verb patterns in English, and know which form the second verb takes. Depending on the preceding verb it either takes on the infinitive (to do), the base form (do), or the gerund (doing).

Here are some examples.

Verb + Infinitive

This is one of the most common verb combination forms.

Example: I waited to begin dinner.

Verb + Verb -ing

This is one of the most common verb combination forms.

Example: They enjoyed listening to the music.

Verb +Verb -ing or Verb Infinitive (no change in meaning)

Some verbs can combine with other verbs using both forms without changing the basic meaning of the sentence.

Example: She started to eat dinner. OR She started eating dinner.

Verb +Verb -ing or Verb Infinitive (change in meaning)

Some verbs can combine with other verbs using both forms. However, with these verbs, there is a change in the basic meaning of the sentence.

Example: They stopped speaking to each other. =}; They don't speak to each other anymore.

They stopped to speak to each other. =}; They stopped walking in order to speak to each other.

Click on the link for a full list of the above verb patterns.

For further information on all of these topics click on the links:
English Topics for ESL
Participial Adjectives

No comments:

Post a Comment