Home Guide ESL How to Distinguish Foreign Students of English from Native Speakers by the Style of Their Writing

How to Distinguish Foreign Students of English from Native Speakers by the Style of Their Writing

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You just read something that was a painful abuse of the English language. Should you rant about semiliterates who never learned their native language and the failing schools that created them, or praise the writer for attempting to learn yours? Both butcher the language, but typically in different ways. The internet makes it easier than ever to communicate with people worldwide and you can't assume that the person emailing you is doing so in his native language. This article intends to list some common errors made more frequently by people fluent in their native language but learning English than by native English speakers.

Recognize the following errors that are more common in writers not natively fluent in English:

  • Wrong adjective order
    • Look at that doubledecker green big bus"
  • Using the wrong preposition
    •    Prepositions are hard to translate. We aren't even consistent. Compare "passengers on the plane" to "ice on the plane"
  • Missing, wrong or extraneous articles
    • Some things need "the" others "a(n)" sometimes nothing.
  • Unusual word order (Yoda speak)
    • "In the woods, a walk take."
    • "Is it what time?"
  • Mixing different flavors of English
    • A Frenchman might have learned UK English in school, but looks up strange words in dictionary that uses US English.
  • Unusual word choice
    • "We missed the turn because it wasn't on the chart."
    • Using the earlier sense of words like "gay" that have been deprecated by their slang meanings.
  • Conjugating an irregular verb as if it were regular.

Compare the above errors, with errors commonly made by native speakers of English:

  • Homonym errors

          o Usually made by people who learned the spoken language before the written language. ESL students usually learn both simultaneously.
          o Why would a Korean learning English from books who has never heard it pronounced confuse the number "two" with the adverb "too?"

  • Run-on sentences, comma splices.



  • The above tips are generalized. Certain constructions might be more common by Russians than by Italians. A more advanced linguistic expert might be able to use a much more sophisticated test to not only identify EFL students, but also identify their native language.
  • Misspellings and other various typos can be made by anyone and don't necessarily indicate anything other than fast typing or poor editing.