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10 most common english language errors made by chinese speakers

10 Most Common English Language Errors Made by Chinese Speakers

Many of our students speak English as a second or even third language, and feel there are some gaps in their grammar and usage. They worry language errors make them sound unprofessional so they spend a lot of time checking and re-checking communications. In fact, they often spend more time checking than actually writing – poring over the dictionary and Googling grammar points.

Does good grammar really matter?

The question is, how much does good grammar and correct usage really matter in workplace communications? In my opinion, it matters, but not as much as you might think.

Yes, we should all aim for good grammar. After all, grammar isn’t just there to annoy everyone (despite what my daughter thinks). Consistent usage supports comprehension. With a universal approach we avoid misunderstandings and make messages easier to read, understand and absorb. 

BUT, there are more powerful ways to amp up your messages than perfecting your past participles. For example, being concise by honing in on your key message and avoiding distracting detail. Being clear by keeping your sentences short and your language simple. Being persuasive by adding supporting facts or figures or by being personable.

If you’re still not sure just how much focus to give your grammar, think about it in terms of return on investment. Thirty minutes spent polishing a vital proposal that could bring in millions of dollars of investment, is probably time well spent. However, 30 minutes spent correcting an email reminding everyone of an upcoming meeting, isn’t a good use of your time.

A quick way to minimize mistakes

With day-to-day emails, I suggest you do a quick check for glaring errors and then let it go. And in the meantime, keep working on your English so that glowing grammar comes more naturally to you. For a quick language fix, you can start by ironing out the most common errors made by speakers of your first language.

These errors are often the results of mimicking structures in the mother tongue. They’re often concretized errors, i.e. errors that learners make consistently, often without even realizing they’re errors at all.

Here are the 10 most common mistakes made by native Chinese speakers.

1. Using plurals

This can be confusing for Chinese speakers because nouns don’t have singular and plural forms in Chinese. But what about in English?

In English, most nouns simply take an ‘s’ if there’s more than one.

e.g. one report, two reports, three reports

Sometimes, it’s more than adding an ‘s’. There are several ways to describe plurals.

  • Add an ‘es’ when the noun ends in ‘s’, ‘ss’, ‘sh’, ‘ch’, ‘x’ or ‘z’ (bosses, wishes, pitches, taxes, quizzes)
  • Change the ending to ‘ies’ when the noun ends in a consonant followed by a ‘y’ (queries, parties)
  • Add an ‘s’ when the noun ends in a vowel followed by a ‘y’ (bays, toys)

However, some plurals become different words (analyses, data, people), some are assumed to be plural all the time (hair, information) and some don’t change at all (aircraft)!

2. Changing ‘that’ to ‘which’

Did you know ‘that’ and ‘which’ aren’t the same thing? They can translate the same way in Chinese, but they’re used differently in English.

Generally, ‘that’ describes something specific in the same clause (We use suppliers that follow our sustainability policies).

‘Which’ adds supplementary information to something in a different clause (Further details are in the report, which I will email to you).

3. “How to form a question?”

This is quite a literal translation from Chinese, but it’s missing several parts in English.

Questions are formed like this:

Question word (how, what, where) + auxiliary verb (is, was, should) + subject (I, my brother, a question) + main verb (formed, bring, leave) + rest of the sentence

Like so:

  • How is a question formed?
  • What should I bring to the workshop?
  • Where did you leave it?

4. Putting a hyphen between words

Multi-syllable adjectives aren’t hyphenated in Chinese, but they are important in English. For example, are we talking about an extra rapid test or are we talking about an extra-rapid test?

Hyphens are usually used for compound adjectives, which are modifiers formed by two or more words, all connected with hyphens.


  • Short-sleeved shirt
  • State-of-the-art technology
  • 300-word email

5. Connecting two sentences with commas

Run-on sentences are usually fine in Chinese, but not in English.

Incorrect:          A comma shouldn’t be used to connect two separate sentences, you should use a full stop or a semi-colon.  

Incorrect:         Another way to connect two sentences is to use conjunctions like ‘and’ and ‘but’ or conjunctive adverbs like ‘likewise’ or ‘therefore’ but you need to be careful how many separate ideas you put into a single sentence.

Correct:            Try to keep your sentences concise and simple. Writing is about communicating clearly!

6. ‘The’ or no ‘the’?

Articles like ‘the’, ‘a’ and ‘an’ aren’t used with nouns in Chinese, so they often cause confusion. In English, ‘the’ is used when there is something specific, or when we’re talking about a single thing.


  • Please call the client that I met with last Monday (a specific client that is described)
  • This restaurant is the best in this neighbourhood (only one restaurant can be the best)

Generally, ‘the’ shouldn’t be used for:

  • Something that isn’t specific (I’m meeting a client)
  • Non-specific uncountable or abstract nouns (Sales were down last quarter)
  • Non-specific plural countable nouns (Our agents all carry iPads)
  • Countries, cities, streets, islands, mountains, lakes (I’m flying to Singapore next week)
  • Non-specific meals (I brought lunch from home)
  • Languages (French is a beautiful language)
  • Non-specific school, hospital, etc. (She just graduated from university)

7. Subject doesn’t agree with the verb

Unlike in Chinese, English verbs take a different form depending on how many people, places or things we’re talking about.

The basic rule of thumb is that a singular subject takes a singular verb.

Correct:            She (singular subject) practices (singular verb) every day.

A plural subject takes a plural verb.

Correct:            They (plural subject) practice (plural verb) every day.

They cannot be mixed up!

Incorrect:          She practice every day.

There is an exception though. ‘I’ takes the plural verb.

Correct:            I practice every day.

8. Getting the word order wrong for direct and indirect objects

A direct object is something that the verb acts on.

e.g., I sent an email to HR.

An indirect object is something that the direct object acts on.

e.g., I sent an email to HR.

When a sentence has a direct object and an indirect object, the indirect object follows the direct object in English. The exact opposite is true in Chinese!

Correct:            I booked a meeting room for you

Incorrect:         I booked for you a meeting room

9. Using the wrong verb tense

There are no such things as verb tenses in Chinese, but in English, using the wrong verb tense can change the meaning of your sentence.


  • We write to inform you… (this is the first letter)
  • We wrote to inform you… (this is not the first letter)

In fact, there are 12 tenses in English!

When you’re talking about something that’s related to the present, you might use:

  • Present simple (I write)
  • Present continuous (I am writing)
  • Present perfect (I have written)
  • Present perfect continuous (I have been writing)

When you’re talking about something that’s related to the past, you might use:

  • Past simple (I wrote)
  • Past continuous (I was writing)
  • Past perfect (I had written)
  • Past perfect continuous (I had been writing)

when you’re talking about something that’s related to the future, you might use:

  • Future simple (I will write)
  • Future continuous (I will be writing)
  • Future perfect (I will have written)
  • Future perfect continuous (I will have been writing)

10. The best out of what?

In English, we can’t just say that “my supplier offers the best prices”. We also need to mention what it’s being compared to, e.g., “my supplier offers the best prices in Hong Kong”, or even “my supplier offers the best prices in the world”(!). The same thing goes for words like smartest, largest, you name it.

How many of these mistakes do you make?

Concretized errors like this can be surprisingly hard to iron out. It may help you to print this list out and stick it up on your desk as a constant reminder. Have a quick look before doing your final proofread. Then let that email go!