Native English speakers are not perfect. We all make mistakes occasionally, even British people like me. However, certain mistakes are particularly common among Americans, which means they are common on American TV. This is a problem for English learners because the USA produces some very popular shows.
In this article you will learn about five bad habits that are common among Americans so that you will be aware of them when you watch American TV.
1. “If you would’ve…”
The first mistake on my list concerns conditional constructions. Here’s an example:
✓ If I won the lottery I would quit my job.
Now here’s how an American might phrase it:
☓ If I would win the lottery I would quit my job.
Can you see the mistake? In the second example ‘would’ is used in both clauses. This mistake is common among English learners – even advanced students – but any native English speaker should know better.
Here’s another example:
✓ If you had woken up earlier you wouldn’t have been late for work.
☓ If you would’ve woken up earlier you wouldn’t have been late for work.
Here you can see the same mistake: ’would have’ is used in the ‘if’ clause.
2. “I already did”
Americans often incorrectly use ‘already’ with the past tense instead of using the present perfect. Here’s an example:
✓ I’ve done my homework already.
☓ I did my homework already.
Whenever you want to say that something has already happened you should use the present perfect not the past simple. This is because you are not describing past events, but are describing present circumstances. Read this article about the perfect tenses for more detail.
Here's another example:
a. ✓ I’ve already seen that movie.
b. ☓ I already saw that movie.
c. ✓ I saw that movie last week.
In sentences a and b you should use the perfect tense as you want to describe your present state, which is that you have seen the movie. You are not describing a past event. In sentence c it is correct to use the past simple because you are describing a past event. Note that sentence c does not use 'already'.
Whenever you want to say that something has already happened you should use the present perfect not the past simple.
3. “As far as…”
There are two phrases in English that are very useful:
- As for [topic], …
- As far as [topic] is concerned, …
✓ As for the environment, I think personal responsibility is very important.
✓ As far as the environment is concerned, I think personal responsibility is very important.
The mistake that Americans often make is to confuse these two expressions. For example:
☓ As far as the environment, I think it is very important.
Here we should have 'is concerned' after 'the environment'. Alternatively, we could use 'as for', not 'as far as'.
4. “I forgot it at home”
Here is another mistake that is common among English learners, but which natives should know better than to make. The mistake is to confuse the words ‘forget’ and ‘leave’. For example:
✓ I forgot my umbrella.
✓ I left my umbrella at home.
☓ I forgot my umbrella at home.
The word 'forget' means 'fail to remember', so the sentence 'I forgot my umbrella at home' tells us that while you were at home you experienced a failure in memory concerning your umbrella. Compare this sentence to the following two examples.
a. I forgot my boss’ name in the meeting.
b. I forgot to leave a tip at the restaurant.
These two sentences are correct because we want to say where we were when our memory failed. The sentence 'I forgot my umbrella at home' uses the same structure, but is intended to communicate something quite different, so it is confusing. What you actually want to communicate is that you don't have your umbrella with you. Therefore you should say 'I left my umbrella at home' as this tells us where your umbrella is (i.e. not with you), or 'I forgot my umbrella' as this also communicates that you do not have your umbrella, but does not have a misleading structure.
5. "Not too bad"
Americans habitually misuse the word 'too'. Unfortunately this is one bad habit that is becoming common in the UK as well. To understand the mistake, take a second to think about what 'too' actually means.
Consider these examples
a. The fridge is too warm for storing ice.
b. The kitten was too big to fit in my pocket.
Notice that we are not saying that the fridge is very warm, and we're not saying the kitten is very large. In fact, the fridge may be very cold, and the kitten may be very small. However, the fridge is not cold enough for storing ice and the kitten is not small enough to fit in my pocket.
Now consider this dialogue:
Mother: You read too much. You should go outside and play.
Son: I don't read too much.
What does the son mean when he says that he doesn't read too much? Does he mean that he only reads a little? No. It may be that he reads a great deal. He is simply saying that the amount he reads is not excessive. Apparently, he and his mother disagree about the correct amount of reading he should be doing.
Here's another example:
Guest: There are loads of people at this party!
Host: Yes, I'm glad that not too many people came.
The host agrees with the guest that many people came to the party. When he says 'not too many people came' he simply means that the quantity is not excessive. Perhaps 50 people came. That's a lot of people for a house party, but if 200 people had come, that would have been too many.
The mistake that Americans often make is to use 'too' just like 'very'. For example:
Host: Would you like some coffee?
Guest: ☓ No thanks. I don't like coffee too much.
Here the guest should say 'I don't like coffee much' or 'I don't like coffee very much' or 'I don't like coffee that much'. 'Too much' is totally wrong. If you say that you don't like coffee 'too much' that really means that you do like coffee, but that you are not excessively fond of it. For example:
Friend 1: You drink so much coffee that I think you like it too much.
Friend 2: ✓ I really like coffee, but I don't like it too much. It's not damaging my health.
This is correct. Friend 2 agrees that he likes coffee a lot; he simply disagrees that he likes it excessively.
The mistake that Americans often make is to use 'too' just like 'very'.
A particularly common expression among Americans is 'too bad'. This is now quite common in the UK too, but it doesn't make sense. If something can be too bad then it can also be the right amount of bad, which is a contradiction in terms. Americans also say 'not too bad'. If something is not too bad then it must be the correct level of bad, which, again, is a contradiction in terms.
☓ The film wasn't too bad.
✓ The film wasn't bad
I hope you’ve enjoyed this post. Be careful when watching American TV: it’s a great resource but you don’t want to pick up any bad habits.
Take care, John