Three Writing Pitfalls for English Language Learners

As the grandchild of immigrants, I grew up being reminded – constantly – of how much better I had it than kids in the old country.  But of all the privileges in my comparably cushy life, the one I’m most grateful for is the privilege of NOT having to experience the ugliest and most intractable of immigrant challenges: mastering English as a second language.

 While English is no more or less complex than any other language, its irregular spelling and word-formation rules make it a tough language to master – for learners without a background in historical linguistics, for instance, it’s not at all clear why the past form of run is ran and not runned, what the “k” is doing in knit and know, and how it is possible that is, are, was, and be could possibly be forms of the same verb.

 Because America is a land of immigrants, most people, thankfully, are tolerant of foreign accents and minor errors in spoken language. In written English, however, the bar is set much higher, especially for those in business and academia.  Besides the obvious pitfalls – spelling and vocabulary choices – there are three major pitfalls non-native English speakers need to keep in mind when writing in English:

 1. Article use: Forget big words such as “antidisestablishmentarianism.” It’s little words such as a and the that can pose the biggest challenges for non-native English speakers. This is because many of the world’s languages (Chinese and Japanese, for instance) do not have equivalents for these words, and the exact contexts for their use are not easily defined – even trained linguistic theorists debate exactly what they are.

 2. Preposition use: Locational terms such as in and on can cause big headaches for second-language learners and writers. These little words can be treacherous because their usages vary greatly from language to language – French and English equivalents of on, for example, are not completely interchangeable. For this reason, English speakers are also guilty of mangling prepositional phrases when trying to speak or write in French. During my junior year abroad in France, my French instructor repeatedly warned my classmates and me that passengers there ride IN trains and not ON trains – to French ears, the latter brings to mind Jesse James crawling around on top of a train car in an old cowboy movie!

 3. Rhetorical style:  Even a mechanically perfect translation of a passage into English may still sound unnatural to English-speaking ears. This is because differing cultural and aesthetic standards result in written languages each having a distinct rhetorical flavor, and the rhetorical features of some languages don’t come off well in English. For instance, I edit a lot of scientific papers for native speakers of Japanese. Many of these are rigorously researched with carefully documented findings – but almost all skirt around their findings with expressions such as “These results appear to suggest that our hypothesis is correct.” While motivated by a commendable Japanese cultural imperative for modesty and politeness, these expressions have the unfortunate effect of making their authors sound weak and noncommittal to Anglophone ears – not the effect they want when trying to get published in a refereed American journal!

 Because my job involves bridging the linguistic and cultural gap between non-native English speakers and the intended readers of their work, I’ve grown not only more aware of their errors, but their pluck and persistence in mastering as much English as they have. While I have a functional reading and speaking knowledge of two other languages besides English (which is two more languages than the average American knows), I know I’d have a tough time writing an academic research paper in French or Spanish without a dictionary at my side and lots of help.

 In short, there’s no shame in not having perfect mastery of English – and no shame in asking a friendly native for help in getting your word across.




THAT Is Not a Problem

One of the wisest and simplest tips for effective writing is the classic three-word phrase immortalized in The Elements of Style: Omit needless words. (Besides being wise, it’s also wonderfully self-referential.)

Like many sound principles, however, this rule has inspired a number of misguided corollaries. Among these is the injunction – usually wielded by novice writers and rubric-obsessed English teachers – to avoid the word that at all costs.

The reasoning for that-avoidance goes something like this:

1. One must omit needless words.

2. That doesn’t mean a lot in and of itself.

3. Therefore, it’s a needless word.

4. Thus, every instance of it should be deleted.

Let’s break this down from a linguistic perspective: First, human languages don’t develop utterly useless words (except, perhaps, those coined by advertising agencies). Indeed, a lot of common, seemingly meaningless little words in English are actually essential for well-formed sentences. For instance, try finding a passage in English of 250 words or more that doesn’t contain the words a, the, or of – you’ll find that these little words are unavoidable.

That is another seemingly insignificant word that is also crucial in some contexts. Below, for example, is a sentence of English. (Yes, it actually IS a grammatical sentence!):

             The horse raced past the barn fell.

This is a classic example of what linguists call a “garden path sentence” – one that appears to be leading your brain to expect one meaning while actually building up towards another. (If you’ve ever taken an intro linguistics course, you’ve no doubt seen this example before.) Now consider the following very slight revision of the same sentence:

           The horse that raced past the barn fell.

Isn’t this a LOT easier to read and understand? That makes all the difference here.

So why is this the case? That serves two primary purposes in English – as a demonstrative marker indicating something relatively far from the speaker (“that penguin”) and as a complementizer (an element that introduces a clause). Complementizer that serves specifically to introduce tensed clauses in English (including relative clauses such as the horse racing examples above). Thus, it serves as a mental cue to facilitate the mental processing of complex, embedded sentences. Put simply, that lets listeners know what to expect next: Think of it as a mental signpost reading “Prepare for tensed clause ahead.” Linguist John Hawkins confirmed this: In his book Efficiency and Complexity in Grammars, he reported that listeners could more quickly process sentences containing optional instances of that (such as “I remembered (that) you returned the book”) than the equivalent sentences without it.

Of course, there are often good reasons to ax that extra that – it’s possible to have too much of a good thing.  But while traditional grammarians don’t care what linguistic theorists think (and vice-versa), more practical-minded grammarians have been known to rise up in defense of that, as the following examples (compiled by legal writing authority Bryan Garner) demonstrate:

“It is obvious that when the omission of that gives a false lead, it must be restored.”   — Wilson Follet, Modern American Usage: A Guide (1966)

“The omission of conjunctive that sometimes causes a momentary confusion.”                                 — Eric Partridge, Usage and Abusage (1982)

Or, as Garner concludes the essay containing the citations above, “If you’re even moderately sophisticated as a writer, you’ll never declare an overt bigotry against the poor little word, that.”

Amen to that!

So You Want to Write an Ebook

The rise of the e-book offers both unparalleled opportunities and new challenges for aspiring authors. Over the past few years, many of my clients have turned to e-book and print-on-demand publishing as alternatives to the time-consuming and difficult process of finding a traditional publisher.

One reason for this is that much of the stigma attached to self-publishing has softened. No longer is publishing your own book an instant sign that you’re a hack not worthy of serious consideration.  Indeed, several established authors  have opted for the self-publishing route.  Self-publishing can also work for up-and-coming authors: Cassie Dandridge Selleck, a terrific writer I know, not only earned critical notice for her self-published debut novel, The Pecan Man   (it earned her first place in the CNW/FFWA Florida State Writing Competition), she also earned enough from sales of the book to finally go back to school and finish her degree!

So what’s the catch?

The advent of e-book and print-on-demand publishing does indeed mean anyone can publish a book and potentially make money from it: The Wall Street Journal noted that some have projected e-book sales to surpass $1 billion  in 2013.

The key word here, however, is “potentially”: In order to make sure your book stands out in the crowded e-book field, you should keep in mind the following:

1. Quality counts. Because a lot of would-be readers do judge a book by its cover, be sure to find a qualified designer to create a polished, professional-looking cover for you.  Also, while it’s true that you’re no longer required to get your book past a picky editor or proofreader to get it published, you should ensure it’s of professional quality if you want it to be taken seriously. Mistakes can be costly and embarrassing, as this post by fellow editor Leslie Lang points out. Consider professional design and editing services an investment in your credibility: In his book APE: Author, Publisher, Entrepreneur,  Guy Kawasaki recommends budgeting about $2000 for developmental editing and copy editing services for a 60,000-word book.

2. E-books should look like real books… Readers expect e-books to look and read like books, not Word documents. In APE, Kawasaki recommends using fonts other than the standard Word defaults such as Times New Roman and Helvetica. (But don’t choose something too crazy looking, either. Also, be mindful that not all e-book readers support all fonts, so be sure to choose something your readers compatible with whatever platform you choose to work in.)  Kawasaki also recommends that authors familiarize themselves with the traditional ordering and formatting of front matter (such as copyright pages, acknowledgments, etc.)

 3…But they shouldn’t behave like real books.  E-books allow different reader experiences than physical books, and your e-book should be structured and formatted to take advantage of this. For instance, one typically doesn’t need a table of contents in a hardcover novel, because it’s presumed that the reader would just read it from beginning to end and flip back and forth if looking for a particular detail. In an e-book, however,  a clickable table of contents will allow your readers to navigate the book quickly – the electronic equivalent to flipping back and forth.

4. Be a good (and visible) literary citizen.  Just putting your book out there isn’t enough to get it sold, especially given the huge volume of new books now being published. At her website, The Future of Ink, Nina Amir says “successful promotion of any e-book begins long before the book’s release date.” This  promotion means telling potential readers about your book and subject matter and engaging actively in communities (both online and in the real world) favoring your intended audience. Amir recommends blogging as a way to build potential readers’ trust and interest. Cassie Selleck recommends becoming an active reviewer and commenter on sites such as Goodreads  and Shelfari (’s social media site). Play nice and don’t use these platforms just to talk about yourself – reach out to other writers and readers, and the favor will be returned. Also, be aware that not everyone will love your work – so when you do encounter bad reviews or other unpleasantness online, avoid the temptation to react the way this author did!

Three Things You Need to Know About Your Readers

If you’re in business and use written materials to educate your potential clients, you need to reach out to them in language they can understand. You may be the best in the world in what you do, but if your message doesn’t give them the information they need to hear – or worse, goes over their heads – then you haven’t done yourself, or those who can benefit from your products or services, any favors.

 In order to capture the attention of your potential customers, you need to know three basic things about them:

 1. Who is your intended audience?  For instance, what is age and gender range of your likely customers, and what kind of lifestyle do they enjoy? An effective pitch to an audience of recent college graduates will look and sound very different from an effective pitch to an audience of retirees or older professionals.

 2. What can you do for them?  As many business gurus have noted, your best strategy is focusing your message on benefits, not features.  You may be justifiably proud of your team’s coding skills or the new technical improvements you’ve just made to your product, but your customers’ only concern will be this: What good does it do me? Give them concrete examples of how all your cool innovations will make their lives easier and better, and they’ll pay attention. Again, the benefits may vary according to which audience you’re addressing.

3. How much do they know about what you do?  Remember that your customers are not likely to have the same technical knowledge, skills, and assumptions about your field that you do – they’re potential customers precisely because you have skills and knowledge they don’t.  Pay attention to your client base and be aware of how much relevant technical terminology they typically know or don’t know – and tailor your written message accordingly. For instance, a medical supply company selling to physicians and hospital administrators can and should use proper medical terminology to gain credibility with this audience. The same company, however, will need a completely different approach and choice of language when selling to home consumers.

In short, there’s no single style or method for an effective commercial message. The style that’s best is always that which respects and needs and knowledge of the audience.

Three Ways to Spot Plagiarism

Personal integrity is crucial in academic writing. While academic prose may appear dry and impersonal to outsiders, its quality still relies on the character of its creators: A beautiful theory or analysis means nothing if the data behind it has been falsified, or if its ideas were cribbed from someone else.

 For this reason, instructors in higher education are mindful to teach students the need for academic integrity. Seasoned instructors know to look for the following three signs that a student has, ahem, taken a few liberties in appropriating others’ materials in the creation of his or her work:

 1. Specialized vocabulary not appropriate for the project or for the author’s level of expertise:  This is generally an easy red flag to spot: If you’re teaching a freshman composition class and have assigned a 500-word essay on something that happened over summer vacation, be wary if words like “hermeneutic” regularly pop up.

 2. Radically varying writing styles and writing quality in a single work: Most people have fairly consistent writing styles – so much so that forensic linguists are regularly called upon in court to identify authorship of documents based on how they are written. But if you encounter a work that contains typical developing-writing errors in some paragraphs and flawlessly structured and worded prose in others, take a closer look – you’ll likely find some kind of misappropriation or inappropriate collaboration has taken place.

 3. Convoluted or odd grammatical structure and wording: While many cases of plagiarism result from honest mistakes – not knowing how to cite others’ material, for instance – others, unfortunately, stem from a willful desire to deceive. Seasoned cheaters know that instructors will check their work for plagiarism, often using specialized search software such as TurnItIn – and they also know they can sometimes get around these checks by slightly rewording the cribbed material.  For instance, I once received a paper from a student that contained a mysteriously large number of passive constructions, none of which sounded or looked natural. I switched a couple of them back to active voice and ran them through a search engine – voila, they matched prose from a journal article in a tangentially related field.

So what should you do if you spot these suspicious traits in an academic work?  If you’re an instructor, you should be aware of your department’s and your institution’s policies – both the official and the unofficial ones (which in some cases, may end up being more important). And while you have every right to be outraged by instances of willful dishonesty, you should also be mindful to distinguish cases of deception from simple errors of sloth (like forgetting to include a reference or a closed-quotation mark) or differing academic expectations (in some East Asian cultures, for instance, memorizing and quoting authoritative works verbatim is the standard way to students learn to answer questions in school). In the latter cases, education and retraining are probably more in order than a trip to the dean’s office.

Two Grammar Rules You Can Ignore (and Why)

Most editors, I imagine, get the same reaction I do when they tell people what they do for a living: “Ooh, an editor! I’d better watch my grammar around you!”

Relax, everyone. I can’t speak for my entire profession, but I certainly don’t go around at parties with a mental red pen in my head, waiting gleefully for innocent people to dangle a modifier before me. First, it’s rude. Second, with the exception of pro-bono work I do for a couple of great groups, I don’t pick on people’s grammar for free. Third, and most importantly, a lot of the grammar rules people worry about are usually not worth following.

Surprised? Read on for two examples of such rules:

1. Don’t end sentences with prepositions.  This rule is widely violated in writing, and almost universally violated in casual speech (just try imagining a natural situation involving the sentence “At whom are you throwing that snowball?”). Winston Churchill, no slouch with the English language, famously mocked the rule by saying “That’s something up with which I will not put!” More recently – yesterday, as a matter of fact – The New York Times included the following “ungrammatical” sentence:

“Around noon, Ms. Hill went to catch up with a frail woman she gossiped with.”

If both Churchill and The New York Times can break this rule, there’s no reason why you can’t.

2. Don’t split infinitives. “Infinitives,” for those whose grammar knowledge is rusty, are non-tensed verb forms preceded by “to” (for instance, “to go”). Split infinitives are those in which another word appears between “to” and the verb – such as the famed tag line to Star Trek: “To boldly go where no man has gone before.”  Sticklers for traditional grammar argue that this should be corrected to “To go boldly where no man has gone before.”

Ask any room full of Trekkies what they think of this “improvement.”

So if these rules are so pointless, why do we have them at all? The answer actually provides yet another reason these rules can safely be ignored: they are based on rules for Latin, not English. Back in the 18th century, classically trained scholars in England developed a bit of an inferiority complex about their native tongue, deciding that it needed to be “improved” by being made more like Latin. Since Latin didn’t allow prepositions to be stranded sentence finally, their reasoning went, neither should English. The same reasoning motivated the prohibition against split infinitives: Latin didn’t have them; thus, neither should English.

This reasoning, of course, is spurious. Latin also had markers for seven different cases and allowed fairly free word order within sentences, unlike English. Following the reasoning of 18th-century grammarians, we should thus start adding suffixes to all our nouns indicating subjecthood/objecthood and start allowing subjects to be placed freely at the end of sentences.

Even more insidious than the bad linguistic motivation behind these rules was their inherent snobbery: when they became current, they were only known and used by those with classical educations. In short, they became a bit of a secret password to keep “undesirables” out of exclusive social circles. Were you an unschooled but ambitious 18th-century English merchant planning to boldly go where no one in your family had gone before? Too bad, your English wasn’t good enough.

And that’s something up with which I will not put.