Sunday, November 11

5 Common Mistakes Made by Non-Native Speakers

image courtesy of stock.xchng

Here in Cool Elf, I always give tips to help you avoid big mistakes in English. Many of my posts are about this topic. 

Here are some of them:

Today, I’m going to talk about 5 more common mistakes made by learners:

  1. Doubt

  2. Challenge

  3. Play

  4. Promise

  5. The lunch

Mistake # 1: Doubt

I have heard this word used incorrectly most often by my Spanish-speaking friends. All of them I’ve only met online, but it seems to be a common thing shared by people from Spain with others from Latin America.

(Please correct me if I’m mistaken.)

I’m talking about the use of the word “doubt” instead of “question.” This way:

I have some doubts. = X

Can I ask you a doubt that I have? = X

Like most of what we’re going to discuss today, these examples demonstrate that, when a speaker translates from his native language into English, the English “fusion” often becomes awkward if not incorrect.

In English, it's true that the word “doubt” means a feeling of being uncertain or unsure about something. So it might work in the situation of when you need to ask something.

But the way this word is used by native speakers is in completely different situations.

For example:

There’s no doubt in my mind that he will win.

I have doubts about his character.

I am filled with doubts about my future.

So, next time there’s a point you want to clarify, simply use the word “question.” It’s easy and accurate.


I have a question. 

Or better yet:

Can I ask you something? 

Mistake #2. Challenge

I have often heard this mistake among my Japanese friends. It’s their habit of using the word “challenge” as a Verb. Similar to “dare” or “try.”

As you can see here on the cover of a book teaching common mistakes in English made by Japanese speakers, inside the sentence:

Eric challenged sashimi for the first time. =

challenge” is being used as a Verb.

*Note: I haven't read the entire book shown above, as I can't understand Japanese. So I can't say anything definite about its contents. 

It’s in fact better for Japanese speakers to practice the word “try.”


Try this! = (Kore) tabete mite.

I’ve never tried… = …tabeta kotonai.

Or, even simpler:

Can you eat natto*? = Natto taberareru?

Sorry, I can’t eat that. = Sumimasen, sore taberenai.

*Note: Nato is an exotic Japanese treat of fermented soybeans, which are stringy and foul-smelling (to foreigners).

This photo by Shades0404 is available at <a ref="">under a <a href=""> Creative Commons Attribution License 3.0 

There are many other ways Japanese use the word “challenge” as a Verb, not only when talking about unique foods.  

In English, yes, “challenge” can be used as a Verb. But again, it’s in perfectly different situations:

Challenge ( + Object) =

  1. To say or show that something may not be true, correct or legal

  2. To question the power or authority of someone

  3. Be difficult enough to be interesting 

    Ex. My job doesn’t challenge me anymore. 

  4. To invite someone to compete in a game, fight etc.

image courtesy of stock.xchng

Mistake #3. Play

Be careful, guys! This word is often misused by non-native speakers this way:

Q: What did you do last weekend?

A: I played with my friends. = X

The problem here is that the word “play” is most often used for children; ex. “Children play.” 

Yes, adults can also “play,” but you need to add an Object after the Verb.

Like so:

I played soccer/ the guitar etc. = Ok

If you don’t add any Object after the Verb, you would in fact sound childish to the listener. Worse, you might express a strange meaning that’s related to sex (!)

This example is especially bad:  

Yesterday I stayed home and played with myself. = X


Mistake #4. Promise

I have often heard this next mistake from Korean speakers.


I made a promise with my friend. = X

Do you have any promise tomorrow? = X

But making a promise usually implies doing something in particular. It’s better to say:


I have a dinner date with… = Ok

I have another appointment/ other plans. = Ok

The Lunch

This last one is simple and easy enough to correct. But I've still heard it plenty of times among learners regardless of nationality.

It’s the habit of putting Articles before names of meals.


I had the lunch. = X

Let’s have the dinner. = X


In English, we don’t put Articles in front of names of meals.  So it’s correct to just say:

I had lunch. = Ok

Let’s have dinner. = Ok

An exception to this rule is when we describe the meal using an Adjective:

I had a very nice breakfast. = Ok

We usually have a big lunch. = Ok

Hope you learned something!

Keep on learning !


  1. Just to be completely sure, can you tell me a little more about "I have some doubts", I understand from what I read that it might not sound very "natural" but, still I wonder why, I must confess I am a native Spanish speaker who has trouble with this, I use the other recommended forms to ask, but still I sometimes slip this one into my conversations. I totally relate. I have heard classmates not being corrected by professors regarding this particular thing -it might come all the way down from misunderstandings with, you know, natives and non-natives. Anyway I learned a lot from this post, Thanks Cool ELF!

  2. Hi Esteban!

    You're welcome ;-) I guess the confusion stems largely from the fact that there are overlapping meanings and contexts.

    But when we use the word "doubt," there's usually a particular object that we are referring to (whether previously mentioned or in the same sentence)

    For example,

    (1) There seems to be some doubts AS TO WHETHER THIS IS LEGAL.
    (2) The accident raises doubts ABOUT THE SAFETY OF THE AIRCRAFT.
    (3) Nagging doubts ABOUT HER STORY do remain.
    (4) I have serious doubts ABOUT WHETHER THIS SYSTEM WILL WORK.

    (All examples gathered from Macmillan Dictionary; emphases mine)

    On the other hand, with the word "question," you can use it without any specific object.

    Without needing any clear target in your sentence, you can always start with: "Excuse me. I have a question."

    I guess in the end, the best example to remember how to use the word "doubt" is this:

    Cool Elf might be telling the truth, but I have my doubts.



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