The 5 Most Common English Mistakes of Singaporean Students

We’re going to be frank with you: English is one of the hardest languages to learn. It’s grammatical rules are quite arbitrary, there are long debates on what constitutes a “real” word, and the word “debt” only has a “b” in it for obscure Latin reasons. Even the experts thing it’s a mess. But address these issues, and a good grade should still be possible:

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1. Not Understand When to Use A, An, and The

In Singapore, this is a leading cause of hypertension among English teachers. Just to be clear:

A or an refers to something unspecific. In compositions, it is used when referring to something that has not been previously introduced. For example, look at the two paragraphs below:

A man stood in the doorway, and I could see he was carrying a knife. He was looking around for someone.

The man then inched toward the front door, so I hurried to lock it.

In the first paragraph, we use a man because the man has not been introduced before. In the second paragraph, we use the man because he was already introduced in the first paragraph.

As for a and an, usage depends on the way the following word sounds. Words that begin with a vowel sound (AEIOU) should be indicated by an.

This may seem trivial – but because this mistake is often made repeatedly within the same composition, it can amount to a lot of lost marks.

2. Loosely Using Big Words to Impress

Students do this in an attempt to score bonus points, and it often backfires. Here’s the bad news about big, uncommon words: the more obscure  word is, the more specific its usage tends to be.


A good light bulb does not scintillate. A student excused by the disciplinary master is not extenuatingly forgiven. It’s great that the student bothered to look in a thesaurus – but it’s important to understand the precise definition of the word. Most students play loose and fast, using a word just because it seems to have the right general meaning.

It’s best not to experiment with fancy new words during an English exam. When experimenting, do so with a good tutor, or as a part of regular homework. And if you’re big on vocabulary building, LiteTutors provides tutors who can focus on it.

3. Abbreviations (That Little Apostrophe)

Some schools get around this by prohibiting abbreviations altogether, because why even bother teaching it (a clever idea, which explains the deplorable state of English in our workforce).

The little apostrophe in an abbreviation is a short form for “is”. So:

They’re = They are (not the same as “their”)

It’s = It is

So when referring to a bird, it makes no sense to write that it’s wings were broken (Translation: it is wings were broken). The correct way is to use the possessive: its wings were broken.

Deciding Which Door to Choose 2

4. Fewer versus Less

Singaporean students tend to confuse fewer and less, and often believe they are interchangeable. They are not.

Fewer refers to units of things, and countable quantities (e.g. cars, houses, chairs). Less refers to words that don’t have a plural form (e.g. money, equipment, flour), or to things that are measured rather than counted (e.g. water, air)

So we can write that there are fewer students in the classroom, but not that there are less students in the classroom. Likewise, we’d write that there is less equipment available, and not fewer equipment available.

On a related note, the plural of equipment is equipment.

5. Not Understanding the Use of Tenses

Present perfect tenses are never used with adverbs of past time. We should always default to simple past tense. For example:

The expression: I had finished my homework yesterday is wrong. It should be expressed in simple past tense: I finished my homework yesterday.

In short, remove the word had if it would add no additional meaning to the sentence. So I had made my bed should be replaced with I made my bed, I had eaten lunch should be replaced with I ate lunch, etc.

Conversely, we often fail to use the present perfect continuous. This describes something that began in the past, and is still going on. So:

Paul is failing maths for two semesters now should be expressed as Paul has been  failing maths for two semesters now.

Yes, we know it’s a confusing nightmare. That’s why you’ll want to like us on Facebook, and be updated when we write a full article on this.

What confuses you about the English language? Comment and let us know!

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