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I hear a lot of Japanese people say "I want to improve my English ability" but I can't explain why this sentence is wrong.

Could anyone tell me why you shouldn't say I want to improve my English ability" instead of "I want to improve my English"?

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    @Josh61 But we would say I want to improve my speaking ability wouldn't we? So I think the OP poses a valid question; why not English ability? I think the simple answer is that it is not idiomatic (which I realise is a cop out). You could of course say I want to improve my ability in English - that would be idiomatic.
    – WS2
    Commented Mar 26, 2015 at 21:38
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    @WS2 - your speaking ability is your ability to speak. Your English ability is your ability to..??? English ability is just wrong, makes no sense!!
    – user66974
    Commented Mar 26, 2015 at 21:42
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    @Josh61 Your English ability = Your ability in English.
    – WS2
    Commented Mar 26, 2015 at 21:46
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    Yes @ Josh61 doesn't agree with me, but I think English is a perfectly good adjective that can describe ability. It is just our idiomatic tradition which rules it out.
    – WS2
    Commented Mar 26, 2015 at 22:02
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    @Edwin Ashworth Had logic prevailed in the evolution of English we would probably be talking about Englishing ability, and chessing ability together with footballing ability.
    – WS2
    Commented Mar 27, 2015 at 0:50

3 Answers 3

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I can give you the Chinese-language explanation :-)

365 Common Chinese Errors in English Katia Santome

Don't say: I want to improve my English ability.

Say: I want to improve my English.

One explanation:

"my English ability" can be read as "my ability at [doing] things English, whatever they/that may be" (??) :-)

I'd suggest that even:

"my English-language ability"

is better than "my English ability."

BTW, "to improve one's ability in" is idiomatic:

The Adult Learner Malcolm S Knowles, ‎Elwood F Holton III, ‎Richard A Swanson - 2012

Closely related to meta-cognition or cognitive strategies (Weinstein and Mayer, 1986), a key element of reason's role in thinking is learning to improve one's ability in perceiving, analyzing, proposing, imagining, and reflecting.

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    It doesn't matter what it may be read as. Context and speaker's intention are more important than possible readings Commented Jun 12, 2017 at 11:24
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I want to improve my English.

does all the work of

I want to improve my English ability.

so the latter sounds unnaturally wordy.

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The reason saying it in that order is not quite right is because both "English" and "ability are nouns so it has to do with the order of the nouns. That's why you should say: "improve my ability with/in/at English," or simply "improve my English." Also because the word "improve" suggests one has already established a level of "ability."

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    So saying football manager is not quite right because you should say 'manager of [a] football [team]'? Commented Mar 27, 2015 at 11:50

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