Writing in English is hard, even when it’s your first language. It’s full of peculiar quirks and exceptions that will often trip up even the wariest of native speakers. Therefore, I have huge admiration and respect for people who write using English as a second language (ESL) – after all and like many English people, my skills in a second language are virtually non-existent.

Much of my work comes from academics around the world who have written a research paper, article or book using ESL. As a result, I’ve seen how this language can cause many problems for these authors. This blog features a selection of some of the most common errors, with the aim of hopefully trying to help others avoid the same mistakes.

I’ve posted a previous blog about proofreading tips for students (and others) that briefly touches on some of the issues discussed here. However, I’m focusing in more detail now on the English language problems in particular, rather than the style, formatting and layout aspects.

Terms in English grammar

There are obviously lots of fantastic resources on the internet for learning English – this blog is certainly not intended to sit alongside these. Instead, if you find yourself questioning whether you’re making some of the mistakes listed below, I’d recommend you start looking into the other resources that are available.

And so, here’s what I find many ESL authors getting wrong.

  1. The use of “a” and “the” – the biggest problem of all without a doubt. This is a minefield and I often find yet another scenario where I’ve changed “a” or “the” and when I ask myself why I’ve done this, the answer is often: “Erm … well, just because that’s how I’d say it.” Admittedly, there probably is an underlying grammatical rule behind my decision, but I can fully understand why ESL authors struggle with definite and indefinite articles.
  1. Commas scattered, about seemingly at, random. Deciding whether to use a comma can be difficult, but Larry Trask does a great job of explaining the four uses of commas (Disclaimer: Other people say there are more than four uses …).

Wrong way signpost

  1. Not making it clear what you’re talking about, or also sometimes known as dangling participles. For example: “In tiny fragments, I examined the rocks” – this sounds like it was me who was in tiny fragments, not the rocks. This could be reworded as: “I examined the rocks, which were in tiny fragments.” Similarly, the use of “it” can cause confusion: “This problem affects England and France. It has a population of …”. Is this talking about England or France?
  1. The tenses of verbs often go on a long and winding journey, inadvertently taking in the past, present and future all within the same sentence. A bit like jet lag, this form of tense time travel can be very disorientating.
  1. The use of “… not only … but also …”. If you’re writing “not only” somewhere in a sentence, then you’ll need a “but also” later on to tie things up nicely. Also, make sure that the grammar is parallel. For example, if a verb follows “not only”, then a verb should also follow “but also” – e.g. “The bike not only looks good but also is very fast” and without a following verb: “The bike is not only eye-catching but also very fast”. If the text from “not only” to “but also” is deleted, the sentence should still make sense.

Who, what, when, where, why, how?

  1. Writing nonsense. Understandably, constructing a complex yet meaningful sentence in English can be difficult. But it should often be possible for an author to spot a sentence that doesn’t make any sort of sense at all simply by re-reading it themselves. Check your own work, ideally after you’ve had a break away from it so that you come back with a fresh pair of eyes.
  1. Long and rambling sentences that roll on and on with several uses of “which” and “that” – not to mention en (–) or em (—) dashes being used to set off parenthetical information (especially if brackets have been used too) – all loosely tied together by more instances of the word “and” than you’d care to count, and by the end of the sentence you’re not really sure what the point of it is. A bit like that one. Not necessarily an error as such, but it is usually much clearer to split something like this up into shorter and more reader-friendly units.
  1. Using “however” to join two parts of a sentence. Many words such as “and”, “but” and “or” can be used to do this; however, the word “however” in this scenario should be preceded by a semi-colon. This is, however, not the case for all uses of the word.

IDK acronym (I don't know)

  1. Failing to define acronyms at their first mention. This is not so much an English language problem as such, but it’s so common that I wanted to include it here. The following text shows how it should be done: “The British Geological Survey (BGS) has investigated this issue … A study produced by the BGS showed …”. Also, defining an acronym that is not used anywhere else in the paper is generally not needed, unless it is considered useful for linking the current paper to other external material, or to a wider context, for example.
  1. References not formatted correctly or consistently. Again, this is straying into the territory of not being about English language, but I wanted to include it because it is another very common problem. Are all entries in the references section mentioned in the main text? Are the full details of all the citations given in the references section? Are all of the references and citations formatted consistently? I would estimate that 95% of the papers that I see need major work on their references. There are lots of great resources available out there for citation and referencing styles, such as Harvard and APA.

But why bother doing all this if your editor can do it for you?

By improving the text yourself, you might find that not only is it cheaper to have it professionally proofread/edited (due to requiring less work to complete the task) but also your editor is now able to spot any wider and more fundamental problems. For example, if I’m correcting minor but regular typos and grammar mistakes every few words, it’s more likely that I might miss an underlying flaw in your logic or argument. This is why a manuscript will usually go through several different rounds of editing and then proofreading prior to publication.

By making your paper the best that it can be right from the start, you’re giving yourself the best chance of achieving a great end result.


Want more information?

Please contact me if you’d like help with polishing up the English in your paper or manuscript.