People Innovation Excellence

How to Sound Un-English: Common Word-Combination Mistakes Made by English Learners


By: Asih Zunaidah, S.S., M.Li.

Let’s do a quick check, do the following utterances sound okay to you?

  • “My personality is really different from my brother’s”
  • “I’m sorry I can’t join you in the game. I must make my homework”
  • “I think this shirt is similar with the one you bought yesterday”
  • “I must say sorry because I just did a mistake”

If you think there is nothing wrong with the utterances, there is a good chance that you are one of Indonesian English-learners.

What is wrong with the utterances? Let’s talk about the first utterance: “My personality is really different with my brother’s”. Now take a good look at the combination of “different” and “with”. For Indonesian English-learners, this combination might sound just right, because the word ‘different’ (which means berbeda) can go along well with the word ‘with’ (which means dengan) – the natural combination in Indonesian would be ‘berbeda dengan’. However, this would be an entirely different case in English. “Different with” is not natural for native-English speakers. Instead, the appropriate combination should be “different from”, which might sound a bit uncommon for Indonesians (‘different from’ literally means ‘berbeda dari’). This natural combination is commonly known as ‘collocation’ in English – two or more words that usually go together and sound “right” for native English speakers who use them all the time.

There are several common word-combination mistakes made by English learners, which might sound natural as they sound similar to their mother-tongue, but sound un-english  to native English speakers. The following 10 expressions/ combinations show what to say and what not to say in English:

  1. Say ‘do homework’, don’t say ‘make homework’.

Example: “My sister is doing her homework” NOT “my sister is making her homework” (Indonesian speakers often say “bikin PR”, which literally means ‘make homework’.

  1. Say ‘make mistake’, don’t say ‘do mistake’.

Example: “students often make mistakes in grammar” NOT “students often do mistake in grammar” (Indonesian speakers often say “melakukan kesalahan”, which literally means ‘do mistake’.

  1. Say ‘similar to’, don’t say ‘similar with’.

Example: “This dress is similar to the one I bought last week” NOT “This dress is similar with the one I bought last week (Indonesian speakers often say “mirip dengan”, which literally means ‘similar with’.

  1. Say ‘get off (a vehicle)’, don’t say ‘come down (a vehicle)’.

Example: “I’ll call you once I get off the train” NOT “I’ll call you once I come down the train” (Indonesian speakers often say “turun dari kereta”, which literally means ‘come down the train’.

  1. Say ‘ask a question’, don’t say ‘make a question’.

Example: “My little brother starts to ask so many questions” NOT “My little brother starts to make so many questions” (Indonesian speakers often say “bertanya/ membuat pertanyaan” –  which literally means ‘make question’ – NOT “bertanya pertanyaan” as in the correct combination “ask question”, that might sound unnatural in Indonesian.

So, what can you do to learn and memorize the combinations? First, read a lot of English texts. Reading is a good way to recognize and learn the combination in contexts. Jot down anything you can possibly find if you have to. Second, watch English-speaking movies as often as possible. Getting used to English expressions in one’s favorite movie is a great help for those who want to make the memory stay longer in the brain. Lastly, use and repeat as much as you can. Learning a language should be made habitual – never will memorizing make you a good English speaker unless you use it on a daily basis.


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