Improve your English grammar with the BBC. It’s OK to make mistakes, but let us help you avoid some that advanced learners of English make. Watch this free online English lesson to find out how.

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Hi guys! Dan for BBC Learning English here. In this session, we’ll be taking a look at advanced learner mistakes. Are you ready? Here we go!

Number 1: Word order in WH word clauses

So, sometimes in English, we use a WH word clause as the object of a verb. For example: ‘He realised what he was doing,’ – or – ‘I can’t believe what you have done.’ Now, advanced learners generally make two mistakes here. The first is that they invert the auxiliary verb and the subject, like you would do with a normal question. Let me show you.

‘He realised what was he doing,’ – and – ‘I can’t believe what have you done.’

Remember that these whos, whats, wheres, whens and whys are not question words, but relative pronouns, and so the clause which comes after follows normal sentence order. Come and see. So: Not ‘He realised what was he doing,’ but ‘what he was doing.’ Not ‘I can’t believe what have you done,’ but ‘what you have done.’

Now, this problem is simpler with a tense which has an auxiliary and main verb form, but the second problem is that learners forget to use an affirmative verb form when talking about the present or past simple. For example: ‘I don’t know where did he go last night,’ – or – ‘They want to see what does he do.’ Now, remember these are not questions. When we make an affirmative sentence with the present or past simple, we only use one verb – and these clauses act the same. So: ‘I don’t know where did he go last night,’ becomes ‘I don’t know where he went last night.’ And ‘They want to see what does he do,’ becomes ‘They want to see what he does.’ Have you got it? Good!

Number 2: Generalisations with ‘The’

‘The life is beautiful!’
‘What makes me sad is the poverty.’

Ok guys, this one is an old one, but still a tricky one. Many advanced learners still use the definite article when talking in general about a plural or uncountable noun. Remember that in English, when we are talking in general and we mean all of a thing, we don’t use ‘the’.

‘Life is beautiful’
‘What makes me sad is poverty.’

That doesn’t mean we can’t use ‘the’. But when we do, it means we are being specific and only referring to one thing. For example: ‘I’m reading about the life of Michael Jackson.’

Having said that, if you want to generalise about a SINGULAR COUNTABLE noun, then using the as the definite article is the correct thing to do. So: ‘Life would be much less interesting without the tiger’ (or tigers…general) ‘The car is probably the most important invention in mankind’s history.’ (or cars…general) Have you got it? Good!

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