Common Errors With Verbs

Indirect questions

Incorrect: I asked had she any letters for me.
Correct: I asked if she had any letters for me.
Correct: I asked whether she had any letters for me.

Indirect yes/no questions are introduced by if or whether.

Incorrect: I asked if had they taken their food.
Correct: I asked if they had taken their food.

In an indirect question, the subject comes before the verb. In a direct question, the verb comes before the subject.

Relative adverbs

Incorrect: He asked that what was my name.
Correct: He asked what my name was.

Incorrect: He enquired that where was the office.
Correct: He enquired where the office was.

The interrogative words what, where, when, whether and why can join a clause to another clause, rather like conjunctions. Since one conjunction is enough to join two clauses, it is incorrect to use that before these words.

Say and tell

Incorrect: John said can he go home.
Correct: John asked if he can go home.

Incorrect: Peter told whether I had finished my work.
Correct: Peter asked whether I had finished my work.

Indirect questions cannot be introduced by say or tell. Instead we use a verb like asked.

Past perfect

Incorrect: He said that his father died last year.
Correct: He said that his father had died last year.

Incorrect: I could not meet him because he went out before I arrived.
Correct: I could not meet him because he had gone out before I arrived.

Incorrect: He got angry even before I said a word.
Correct: He got angry even before I had said a word.

These are examples of the common failure to use the past perfect when the time of one past tense verb is more past than that of another. When two past actions are mentioned in the same sentence, use the past perfect tense for the earlier action and the simple past tense for the later action.

If clauses

Incorrect: If I will do this, I will be wrong.
Correct: If I do this, I will be wrong.

Incorrect: When I will go to New York, I will meet him.
Correct: When I go to New York, I will meet him.

In subordinate clauses introduced by conjunctions like when, before, after and if, we use a present tense to refer to future time.

Incorrect: If I would have done this, I would have been wrong.
Correct: If I had done this, I would have been wrong.

Incorrect: If you would have worked hard, you would have succeeded.
Correct: If you had worked hard, you would have succeeded.

Incorrect: If you asked him, he would have helped.
Correct: If you had asked him, he would have helped.

When we talk about past situations that did not happen, we use had + past participle in the if-clause and would have + past participle in the main clause. Sentences of this kind are often called Type 3 Conditional sentences.

Leave and quit

Incorrect: He has left smoking.
Correct: He has given up smoking.
Correct: He has quit smoking.

Incorrect: He left playing.
Correct: He stopped playing.

Incorrect: He had to leave his rights.
Correct: He had to abandon his rights.

Incorrect: He left the horse’s reins.
Correct: He let go the horse’s reins.

The verb leave is often misused. You can leave a place or you can leave something at a place. You can also leave someone to do something. Leave cannot be used with other meanings.

I left my umbrella in train.
He left home at 6 am.
She left the door open.
They left him to fend for himself.

Know and learn

Incorrect: She went to England to know English.
Correct: She went to England to learn English.

We learn before we know. Know is used when learning is finished.

Incorrect: She knows to swim.
Correct: She knows how to swim.

Know cannot be followed directly by an infinitive. We use the structure know how to.


Incorrect: Charles I’s head was cut.
Correct: Charles I’s head was cut off.

When the cutting divides something into pieces, use cut off, cut up or cut into.

Say and tell

Say is usually used without a personal object. After tell, we usually say who is told. That means tell is always followed by a personal object. Note that if we want to put a personal object after say, we use to.

Incorrect: I said to him to go.
Correct: I told him to go.

Incorrect: He said to go.
Correct: He told me to go.

Tell and ask

Use tell when you are talking to a person you have a right to give an order to. Use ask when you are talking to a person you can only make a request to.

I told my servant to get me a cup of coffee. (More natural than I asked my servant to get me a cup of coffee.)
I asked the principal to excuse me. (NOT I told the principal to excuse me.)


That-clauses are not normally used after want. Instead, we use an infinitive with to. An object + infinitive structure is also possible.

Incorrect: I wanted that he should get leave.
Correct: I wanted him to get leave.

Incorrect: I want that I should get leave.
Correct: I want to get leave.

Incorrect: Do you want that I make you some coffee?
Correct: Do you want me to make you some coffee?

Pain, ache etc

The verb pain should be used transitively. That is it must have an expressed object. If there is no object, we use other words with similar meanings.

Incorrect: My foot is paining.
Correct: My foot is hurting.
Correct: I have a pain in my foot.

Incorrect: My tooth is paining.
Correct: My tooth is aching.

Into, out of, onto, off

We get into and out of a car, taxi or small boat.
We get onto and off a train, plane, bus, ship, bike or horse.

Incorrect: When I got onto my car, I found the stereo had been stolen.
Correct: When I got into my car, I found the stereo had been stolen.

Incorrect: He got down from his bicycle.
Correct: He got off his bicycle.

Off can indicate separation. Out and down are not used with this meaning.

Incorrect: He took out his shoes.
Correct: He took off his shoes.

Incorrect: Take down your coat.
Correct: Take off your coat.

Hear and listen

Hear is the ordinary word to say that something comes to our ears. Listen (to) is used to talk about paying attention to sounds that one hears. Note that you can hear something without wanting to, but you can only listen to something deliberately.

Incorrect: He would not hear me.
Correct: He would not listen to me.

Incorrect: Suddenly I listened to a strange noise.
Correct: Suddenly I heard a strange noise.

See also

Common writing mistakes
Six common mistakes found in ESL writing
Common errors with adjectives - part 1

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