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Lexical Errors in Foreign Students’ Writings Research Paper

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Updated: Apr 30th, 2021


In the process of learning a second language (L2), errors are inevitable. The discipline of error analysis was developed in the 1960s, and since then, the study in the field was geared towards understanding the learning process difficulties (Zheng & Park, 2013, p. 1342). The results are being used to improve teaching practices, but it should be pointed out that the most developed area of error study is concerned with grammar. The research of lexical errors is sparse, and the study of lexical errors in the writing of EFL/ESL students is particularly underdeveloped (Shalaby, Yahya, El-Komi, 2009).

This issue is not caused by neglect or by the insignificance of the field of study. On the contrary, the importance of vocabulary for language learning is not being questioned nowadays (Hemchua & Schmitt, 2006; Llach, 2011). Vocabulary is a significant indicator of the level of learners’ proficiency since it is correlated with their communication abilities (Llach, 2006). The lack of systematic rules for lexical items makes the study in the field more difficult and complicates the acquisition of vocabulary (Kaweera, 2013). As a result, the study of lexical errors and lexical errors in writing is an essential but underdeveloped and underresearched topic.

In this paper, the scientific background for lexical error study is provided. Apart from that, the phenomenon of language interference is defined as a part of language learning and acquisition, and its impact on lexical errors is explained. Then, the notions of error, lexicon, lexical error, and lexical unit are described, and generalized taxonomies for lexical errors are presented. Finally, the issue of lexical error in writing is discussed, and the implications of lexical error studies are considered. It is concluded that the study of lexical errors in writing is capable of promoting our understanding of the theory and practice of language learning and acquisition.

Lexical Errors in Writing: Scientific Background

Lexical errors have received less coverage in scientific writing than grammar mistakes, even though the vocabulary is a crucial part of a student’s knowledge of a language (Llach, 2011, p. 70). Even less research has been carried out with respect to lexical errors in writing (Hemchua & Schmitt, 2006). The problem consists in the lack of constant rules in the area: the lexical system and its elements are much less capable of a generalization than, for example, morphology or syntax.

Consequently, the errors in this area are less generalizable as well; apart from that, they often depend on context, which makes them even more unique. The interloping of the areas of grammatical and lexical studies (for example, the issue of grammatical words) has also been a complicating factor. As a result, the topic of lexical errors in writing remains underdeveloped, which invites further research in this area.

Basic Aspects and Terminology

Llach (2011) points out the ambiguity of the terminology that is related to the issue of lexical errors. Here, several definitions and basic notions are outlined.

Language Learning and Acquisition

Usually, two types of non-native language (L2) learning are distinguished: studying a language as a foreign one and studying it as a second one. For the English language, the abbreviations of such approaches are EFL (English as a Foreign Language) and ESL (English as a Second Language). The differences between EFL and ESL teaching and studying are quite notable. Technically a foreign language is a non-native one; the person who is studying it does not encounter it in his or her everyday life since it is not used by the people of his or her country.

The second language, on the other hand, is also not the native one (L1) for a person, but in this case, L2 is used by the people who surround the learner. The key differences between the processes are twofold: on the one hand, the person who is in direct contact with the second language is more exposed to it, which is beneficial for the studies, but on the other hand, he or she is more likely to need language skills for survival, which often determines the topics that need to be covered when learning and constricts them.

Also, the process of language acquisition as opposed to the process of language learning as a more passive one can be encountered in the context of ESL, not EFL (Schmidt, 2010, pp. 206, 472). Still, it should be pointed out that the terms “language learning” and “language acquisition” are often used interchangeably as synonyms; here, they are also going to be treated as such.

In the process of language acquisition or learning, mistakes and errors (including lexical ones) are inevitable.

Language Interference and Errors

The process of learning a language is often influenced by the person’s native language, and this phenomenon is termed “language transfer.” There is a possibility of positive transfer caused by the similarities of L1 and L2. However, language interference (also termed as “negative transfer”) is a common source of mistakes and errors. This phenomenon typically consists of using the patterns of L1 that do not correspond to the norms of the L2 (Schmidt, 2010, p. 294). The interference of L1 in EFL and ESL studies has been proven to be a significant issue (Watcharapunyawong & Usaha, 2012, p. 68).

The existence of language interference accounts for the fact that people with the same L1 are more likely to make similar mistakes when learning L2. Such errors are systematic and most often can be reasonably explained by the specifics of L1 (Kaweera, 2013). As a result, it appears reasonable to study the type of mistakes that the speakers of a certain L1 make when studying an L2, for example, English. This tendency has been proven and illustrated by numerous studies: for instance, the work by Malmeer (2014) that is devoted to Iranian EFL students, that by Shalaby et al. (2009), which describes lexical errors made by Saudi students, or that by Zheng and Park (2013) who worked with Chinese and Korean students.

Interference can occur on various levels of language, and lexical interference is one of the issues met by ELF/ESL learners. An example is the direct translation of collocations from L1. For instance, the collocation “to surf the Internet” when translated directly from Thai can be phrased as “to play the Internet” by Thai EFL learners as a lexical error or mistake (Kaweera, 2013, p. 11).


Lexicon is a polysemantic word, but if described in the context of the lexical items typically used by a person, it can be termed as “a mental system that contains all the information a person knows about words” (Schmidt, 2010, p. 308). All this information incorporates several aspects, including the meaning, pronunciation, and grammatical patterns of the word’s usage. When a student fails to reproduce the norms of the second language in any of these fields, it is considered a lexical error (SattiHamad & Yassin, 2015).

The lexicon can be passive: in this case, it includes all the units that a learner is capable of understanding. It can also be active: in this case, it contains the items that can be used correctly in the L2 texts produced by the learner (Hang, 2011, p. 6). For errors in writing, it is the second type of lexicon that is relevant; it can be trained and assessed with the help of writing exercises.

Lexical Error and Lexical Item

The definition of a lexical error can be spelled as a “deviation in the learner’s production of the L2 norm with regards to the use in production and reception of lexical items” (Llach, 2011, p. 71). The term “lexical item” as it is has also caused some controversy. Here, lexical item or lexeme will be defined as “the smallest unit in the meaning system of a language that can be distinguished from other similar units” (Schmidt, 2010, p. 303). The term defines an abstract element that unites all the inflected forms of a lexeme. As a result, lexical errors can demonstrate incompetence in the field of grammar as well (Llach, 2011).


Despite the relatively meager coverage of the topic in scientific literature, some taxonomies for lexical errors have been offered throughout the previous decades. Most of them are not all-inclusive and take into account various features and aspects of language usage. The following sections provide an overview of the types of lexical errors that can be identified.

Error and Mistake

Sometimes the terms “error” and “mistake” are distinguished: errors result from the lack of knowledge while mistakes are made despite knowing the norm and demonstrate unsatisfactory performance (Watcharapunyawong & Usaha, 2012, p. 71). Errors can be systematic, repetitive: in this case, they are caused by an incorrect understanding of a rule. If no rule is known, the error can be termed as systematic. In this respect, mistakes can be only post-systematic: they appear only after the rule is learned. As a result, they are less likely to be repetitive (Malmeer, 2014).

Errors and mistakes also vary in gravity, which depends on the extent to which the sense of a message is distorted and the communication is harmed (Schmidt, 2010, p. 185). Apart from that, errors can be distinguished as interference (caused by language interference), intralingual (caused by incomplete knowledge of a language), and developmental ones (caused by a limited experience that is incorrectly generalized in the process of learning) (Malmeer, 2014). All these typologies can be used with respect to lexical errors and mistakes, but they have not been created to describe this aspect of language usage specifically.

Lexical Errors Taxonomy

The nature of the error

For a long time, the attempts at creating a taxonomy of lexical errors were focusing on the nature of the mistake (for example, overgeneralization or wrong spelling) without noticeable effort to produce a relatively all-inclusive system (Shalaby et al., 2009). Still, a more or less general taxonomy can be found in a few studies. Llach (2011) proposes singling out the form and meaning deviations. Hemchua and Schmitt (2006) use the terms “formal errors” and “semantic errors” for what appears to be the same phenomena and base their classification on the works of James and Leech.

Llach (2011) describes formal errors as orthographic and syntactical deviations (for example, incorrect preposition usage). Also, this group includes phonological errors that are not relevant with respect to writing exercises. The meaning deviations/semantic errors presuppose faulty meaning attribution and semantic restrictions violation. Hemchua and Schmitt (2006) propose a more detailed description, including the classification of formal mistakes into misselection, misformation, and distortions.

Misselection presupposes misusing parts of words because of their similarity; misformations mean creating a word that does not exist in L2, while distortions also mean coining a non-existent word but mostly through misspelling. The types of semantic errors in this taxonomy are similar to the version by Llach (2011). Magdy, Shaalan, and Fahmy (2007) use a similar taxonomy, but they also single out the errors that distort the lexical and grammar norms of L2.

Following Engber, Hang (2011) prefers to single out lexical choice errors and lexical form errors. The first type emphasizes the fact that a wrong lexical unit has been chosen; these errors can be both formal (collocations) and semantic (incorrect connotations). The second type includes erroneous derivation and spelling, that is, only formal errors and mistakes.

The number of units

Lexical errors can also be categorized depending on the number of units involved (Hemchua & Schmitt, 2006). They can be the result of the misuse of a single lexical item (particularly suitable for formal mistakes) or word combinations (more likely for semantic ones).

Error taxonomies and their value

All the mentioned classifications have the right to exist and are dwelled upon, combined, and modified to make them suitable for a certain study. For example, Hang (2011) points out that choice errors were most common for Cantonese ESL students, which explains the selection of the taxonomy for this particular research.

Apart from practical use, taxonomies have an academic value. It has been stated that error taxonomies and analysis allow a researcher to single out the individual and common difficulties of learning a particular language and create strategies to help learners (Hang, 2011). Recognition, analysis, and explanation of individual errors are useful for a particular case; simultaneously, a more generalized study promotes the understanding of language study and use (Malmeer, 2014). Apart from that, error analysis and taxonomy are the basis for creating automatic spell-checking applications and other computerized systems that assist in the processes. As the relevant evidence is accumulated, more advanced, automated error detection systems can be developed (Magdy et al., 2007).

Lexical Errors in Writing: Final Notes

While the paper constantly refers to the specifics of lexical errors in writing, several other notes should be mentioned in this respect. First of all, it is the degree of incidence of lexical errors in writing. Hemchua and Schmitt (2006) point out that lexical errors are the “most frequently occurring category of errors in written English” (p. 3). The authors also insist that this kind of error is less favorably accepted by the native speakers and are more likely to distort the message and disrupt the communication process than, for example, grammar mistakes.

The influence of lexical errors in writing on the assessment of students’ works is connected to this issue: a large number of lexical errors that distort the message will result in a lower score than the smaller number of them or an equal number of mistakes that do not change the message significantly (Llach, 2006). To achieve desirable marks and learn a language, a student needs to focus attention on vocabulary acquisition.

All of the mentioned facts demonstrate the potential academic and practical value of studying lexical errors in EFL/ESL students’ writing.


Hang, J.M. (2011). . Web.

Hemchua, S., & Schmitt, N. (2006). An analysis of lexical errors in the English compositions of Thai learners. Prospect, 21(3), 3-25.

Kaweera, C. (2013). Writing Error: A Review of Interlingual and Intralingual Interference in EFL Context. English Language Teaching, 6(7), 9-18. doi:10.5539/elt.v6n7p9

Llach, M. (2006). Interlingüística, 17, 63-73. Web.

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SattiHamad, M., & Yassin, A. (2015). Investigating Lexical Errors and Their Effect on University Students’ Written Performance in Sudan. SUST Journal of Humanities, 16(1), 1-18.

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Shalaby, N.A., Yahya, N., & El-Komi, M. (2009). Analysis of Lexical Errors in Saudi College Students’ Compositions. Ayn, 2(3), 65-93.

Watcharapunyawong, S., & Usaha, S. (2012). Thai EFL Students’ Writing Errors in Different Text Types: The Interference of the First Language. English Language Teaching, 6(1), 67-78. Web.

Zheng, C., & Park, T. (2013). An Analysis of Errors in English Writing Made by Chinese and Korean University Students. Theory and Practice in Language Studies, 3(8), 1342-1351. Web.

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