Writing in English as a Foreign Language
By Inger Marie Hognestad
So, what am I doing giving people advise on writing in English for foreign speakers? I'm not a linguistic and I'm certainly not an expert on English. The best I can offer is some familiarity with languages and the processes of learning them, as I've learned, counting English, five foreign languages in my life, discounting my miserable attempt at French. Even if that gives me plenty of material for comparison, English is the only language beside my own (Norwegian) that I know well enough to write something in. So my angle is practical experience, not academic knowledge.
Why would anybody want to write in a language other than his or her native language in the first place? Well, the obvious answer is; writing in English will probably give you a greater audience. When writing genre-fiction like fantasy, science fiction and horror, your potential audience becomes a lot smaller than that of mainstream fiction. If you, like me, speak a 'small' language, chances are that there won't be a market to speak of at all in your native language. If you want to publish on-line, English is a good choice as it is the prevalent language on the Internet.
Ready to go
The first you'll need to do when you've decided to write in English is to decide which regional variety of English you want to use. They vary slightly in spelling, idiomatic expressions and slang, and mixing them up will make your writing seem unprofessional. When you've decided this, it's time to turn your attention to how English differs from the language that you normally speak and write. I'm not going to concern myself with the finer philosophical points, lets get down to the dirty work!
Different language structure
The way many of us learn English is through a good mix of lessons at school from an (more or less) early age, exposure through books, movies, and other media. Grammar tends to take the back seat. Depending on your natural aptitude for languages this can take you quite some way, but if you really want to develop your English writing skills, it's not enough. Why is that? Well, if you want to improve on your weak areas you need to know them. Your knowledge of your weak points must be specific enough for you to know what to hunt for when you edit, and a little conscious reflection on differing language structure is a good place to start.
Order of Words
Different languages have different grammatical structures. In German, the case of a noun determines its function in a sentence, whether it's a subject or an object, i.e. whether it's doing something, or something is being done to it. In English the order of the words in the sentence serve this function, as English doesn't have cases. Norwegian is close to English as it doesn't have cases, but instead it tends to use prepositions to determine the role of a word in the sentence.
Sentence with German wording:
900 years old I am, but still defeat you I can. (Quote: Yoda from Star Wars)
As a general rule the verb comes at the end of the sentence while the reader has to rely on the case form of the noun to determine which one is the subject and the object.
Same sentence with English wording (Norwegian wording would be identical with the English in this example):
I am 900 years old, but I can still defeat you.
The general rule is: the subject comes first, then the verb, and the object at the end of the sentence
Now, English and German (and Norwegian) are closely related languages, but still with a different approach to how to construct a sentence. The further removed your native language is from English, the greater the differences will be. If you develop a sense of where/how the grammatical structure of English differs from your own, you'll also develop an eye for likely errors in your own writing. If you stay oblivious it will be harder to spot your own mistakes.
Different Grammatical Concepts
Depending on how far removed your language is from English, the grammatical concepts will vary. I already mentioned that English does not use case, which is prevalent in many European languages. From your own language you probably have an idea about the difference between a noun and a verb, an adjective and an adverb. Hopefully you know what a preposition is, what a relative sentence is, and what a run-on sentence is. However, to weed out your own errors you would find it very useful to know more advanced grammatical terminology as well. Why? So you can apply the rules that govern English. You will have to look up the grammar rules somewhere, to address the errors you are most prone to repeat.
What good is it to know a grammar rule like: 'Commas are used to enclose expressions that interrupt the sentence: appositives and appositive phrases, words of direct address, and parenthetical expressions that interrupt the sentence,' if you don't know what appositives and appositive phrases are? (Elfwood writer Alice 'Muffin Girl' Smith provided this particular phrasing of the rule to me. See enclosed comma rule-summary.) In case you wonder, an apposition is the placing of a word next to another, esp. the addition of one noun to another in order to qualify or explain the first.
The scope of this essay isn't wide enough to cover all the grammatical concepts of English. That's what grammar books are for. I will, however, in the following tip you on a few issues.
Different Use of Punctuation and Capitalization
The rules for the use of punctuation like comma, colon and semicolon may vary from your own language, as well as the rules for the use of Capitalization. Thanks to Alice 'Muffin Girl' Smith I've enclosed a comma rule-summary (APPENDIX 1) at the end of this essay. If you are unfamiliar with the grammatical terms it uses and punctuation is a problem in your own writing, look up the grammatical terms and learn them. Then go back to the comma rules and apply them. This is the only way I know to improve on your writing when you have worked yourself into a corner of bad habits and ignorance.
The use of capitalization may also differ from your own language. Nouns in headlines are capitalized. Names of days and months are capitalized. Titles when they are used as part of a name are capitalized. There may be more rules too, but for a complete list you better find a book on English grammar for reference.
Different Idiomatic Expressions
Every language has them. They are phrases with specific meanings that exceed the meaning of the words, and are not to be taken literally. You do want to use these phrases because they liven up the language and give the story flavor and juice, but you definitely want to use them correctly.
A bed of roses.
This does not mean a bed that has been crafted out of roses. It means 'a state of great comfort or luxury' (The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language), or the more mundane meaning: 'A flower bed in which roses are growing.' (WordNet ® 1.6, ©1997 Princeton University.)
Needless to say, you'll get into big trouble if you start taking such phrases at face value and use them wrong. Many idiomatic expressions can be looked up in Dictionaries. This is only useful when you encounter a phrase that you suspect is an idiom and therefore need to look up. When you write your own stories it's more difficult. The most effective way I know to learn them is to learn by reading. Read English books, preferably of the genre type that you want to write, look up all the unfamiliar phrases you encounter and take note of them for future reference. It may seem like a daunting task, but with time their number will dwindle and your writing will be enriched.
The flip side of this coin (yes, that was an idiomatic expression) is the problem of recognizing your own idioms. You can make some funny mistakes by assuming the idiomatic expressions from your native language will translate into English. They might do, again this depends on how closely related the languages are, but never assume. An example from my own writing:
"As it were, the room looked like somebody had sprayed a crowd on the walls, ceiling and floor, without giving thought to up and down, any logic, or sense of order. Which, when all came to all, was a good description of how null gravity played havoc with your directional senses, Sara thought."
My error is the phrase 'when all came to all'. This is not a translation as much as a transliteration, i.e. a direct transition of a phrase into another language (or a direct transition of the letters of a word into a different alphabet). Elfwood writer Stephen Doyle pointed out to me that an American would say, 'When all was said and done.' As English and Norwegian are closely related, the phrase 'when all came to all' could perhaps be used in English without attracting too much attention, but others can't.
Another variety of the problem with idiomatic expressions is the use of proverbs. Proverbs are not exactly the same as idiomatic expressions as they are recognized as old 'phrases of wisdom' embedded in the language, and can be used to flavor the writing one way or another. Quite often proverbs will have corresponding expressions in many languages, but you can't translate them directly. Some examples of Norwegian proverbs with a corresponding expression in English would be:
English 'transliteration' of Norwegian proverbs, then the corresponding English proverb:
- Don't sell the fur before the bear is shot. -> Don't count your chickens before they are hatched.
- Better beware ahead, than hurry after. -> One stitch in time saves nine, or Better safe than sorry.
- The more cooks, the more mess. -> Too many cooks spoil the broth.
Again, the only way to avoid making these mistakes while still using proverbs in your writing is to take special note of proverbs when you encounter them in your readings. Usually you won't find them in dictionaries, and sometimes you won't even recognize them as proverbs if your native language doesn't have any corresponding expressions. They can be quite elusive. A nice place for references (and some entertaining guesswork) is http://www.bookbrowse.com/wordplay/archives.cfm. This site has a fairly extensive list of proverbs, common wordplays and sayings for you to peruse at your leisure.
I'm not touching the subject of typos in this article. With todays word processors with built-in spell-checks it should be possible to avoid most of them. However, there are other problems related to choice of words and to some extent, their spelling, worth mentioning.
'False friends' more commonly occurs in languages close to English than languages that are far removed. They are words that look like, and sound so similar to, words in your own language that you assume they mean the same thing. As English is a bastard language it has basically two kinds of word roots, Germanic and Romanic. This means that 'false friends' are particularly prone to appear in languages where Germanic and Romanic roots abound.
Example (picked from Norwegian):
The chairman's orientation was surprising.
Now, much confusion and amusement may rise from this. The intended meaning is 'the chairman's statement/report', which in Norwegian is called 'orientering'. 'Orientation' in English tends to be understood as 'sexual orientation'. Ouchie! Suffice to say 'false friends' are something to watch out for. A little paranoia may be a good thing in this case. It's better to check too often than rarely, and if you're in even a tiny bit of doubt, look up the word in a Dictionary.
This is not identical with the 'false friends' above. Sometimes you'll find words whose spelling are so similar that you'll get their meaning confused. The funniest example of this that I've been made aware of in my own writing, was pointed out to me by Elfwood writer Che Monro:
What I wrote:
'To see the beauty and knowing its significance, installed a feeling of unreality paired with considerable worry from the American delegation.'
How Che Monro pointed out the error:
'How are you feeling right now?'
'Oh, um, OK.'
'No feelings of unreality paired with considerable worry?'
'Um, nope, those are being installed next Tuesday.'
Instilled. The word you want is instilled. 'Nuff said.
Suffice to say, I'll never forget the difference between install and instill again. Besides confusing instill with install, the sentence above has an inconsistent use of the verbal tense, (see vs. knowing) which makes it a very bad sentence. Don't do this. Know the meaning of your words, be careful with your verbal tense, and you'll be much better off.
Connotations are that which is implied by a word or a phrase in addition to its literal or primary meaning. For natural English speakers these come naturally as they grow into their language. For foreign speakers connotations are a veritable minefield of potential disasters.
Again, the funniest example in my own writing that I've been made aware of, was pointed out to me by Che Monro:
What I wrote:
'The cylinder at the hub served as fixation point for an extensive net of beams, bars and more of the transparent passages stretching from the core cylinder to the outer wall.'
What Che Monro commented:
Ah, a cylinder fixation, Dr Freud. Very significant! I believe the patient may require an extensive course of rhomboids and dodecahedron therapy...
Fixation is technically correct but it makes it sound like your space station has some kind of a fetish.
Ops! How was I to know that fixation carries a sexual connotation when I wrote about a perfectly innocent manufactured construct? Especially since this connotation is non-existent in my own language. The result was unintentionally funny. All native English readers might not have noticed the connotation, but for those who do notice these things the effect of the paragraph would probably become comical rather than the intended visual. Or, God forbid, both.
So how do we cope with this little problem? Besides using dictionaries and thesauruses, my best suggestion is to recruit a number of native English speaking people you can use for reference. Ask them what connotations they have to the word you're wondering about, but be conscious about regional varieties and local uses. Sometimes the person you ask will be aware of how common his or her connotations are, and sometimes not. Therefore it's good to have more than one person as reference, and preferable someone not living in the same neighborhood, or country, for that matter.
Contractions, genitives and common irregular verbs
The confusion between contraction and genitive is so common that I mention it here, although it's not unique to foreign users. However, if you want to write well in English, you should try to get this issue under control. It's is a contraction of it is, while its is the genitive form of it. That little apostrophe makes a lot of difference. The more common irregular verbs are important too. A quick example would be my one of my own nemeses: to confuse was and were, which are the singular and plural past tense of to be.
Relative Sentences, the Use of Who, Which and That
Confusion in the use of relative sentences are not unique to foreign speakers either, but it is one of the areas where mistakes are common and where there are a few hard and fast rules, which it pays to learn well.
- Rule 1. Who refers to people. That and which refer to groups or things.
- Rule 2. That introduces essential clauses while which introduces nonessential clauses.
- Rule 3. If that has already been used in the sentence, use which to introduce the essential clause that follows.
- Rule 4. If the essential clause starts with this, that, these, or those, use which to connect.
Challenges in fictional writing
Now we're getting to a technique used in fictional writing that I make NO claims on mastering. It is, however, a challenge to be addressed for those of us that write dialogue for a variety of characters and personalities. It is a good idea to use the technique to make it easier for the reader to distinguish between your characters as well as express their personalities through choice of words, phrases and speech patterns. If you listen to how different characters in a movie use the language, you'll get some ideas. You can also learn from studying dialogue written by native English speakers using the technique. It will probably remain a challenge unless you have regular contact with native English speakers and can learn directly by listening to common English speech. If you master it however, you can use your dialogue as a tool for your characterization, and to portray more believable characters.
Last, but not least, the basic elements of any language are its words. I confess to being some of an anglophile simply because of the terrific, enormous plethora of words the English language has got. I am totally delighted every time I read a well-written story with thoughtful, appropriate and varied use of words. Obviously, expanding your vocabulary is an ever-ongoing process. The best way to do it is to read writers that use a rich language and are capable of educate you through their example. Another way is to use a thesaurus frequently. I even admit to, on a few occasions, to have opened the dictionary at random and read through a few pages merely to find interesting and potentially useful words. This can actually be recommended as a way to get story ideas too. Much creative energy may rise from the surprise and joy at finding a word that describes just this particular phenomenon you've been thinking of, or that amazing concept that accidentally touches upon a vague story idea you've filed away for future reference. Personally I also recommend Doctor Dictionary, a service by Dictionary.com that e-mails you one of its dictionary entries each day.
A word of warning though. Don't get carried away by your vocabulary. It should be functional, with each word having a purpose in the context. In other words: keep it simple, don't choose words by their syllable- or rarity-factor, but show judgment in picking the appropriate words for the story, scene and sentence.
As you read, research and write, you'll discover that once in a while you'll use a word that you have to check up the meaning of, only to find that you've used it appropriately. Your conscious mind has been mugged by your unconscious. This is a good sign. It means that your active vocabulary is expanding, and your brain is becoming so familiar with words in your passive vocabulary that it bestows the new status on them, completely on its own accord.
I've already touched upon several. This is a list in no particular order, I suggest you look them up and decide their usefulness for yourself.
- Dictionaries. Look up several before you decide, as they can be quite different regarding what kind of information they provide. Nothing stops you from using more than one though.
- Thesauruses. The same goes as for Dictionaries. Some word processors include Thesauruses in their programs and this is also useful for quick references, but can be somewhat limited.
- Books teaching English grammar for students with your own native language. Note that you should try to find a grammar that is written especially for students with your own native language. Chances are that it will help you identify problems that are particular for English users with your native language.
- Dictionary.com. I can't recommend this web site enough. It has an extensive set of articles that covers many aspects of English, as well as providing you with a good Dictionary and Thesaurus.
- Doctor Dictionary. This is a service you can subscribe to through Dictionary.com. Subscriptions can be turned on and off from the Web at: http://dictionary.reference.com/wordoftheday/list/
- BookBrowse.com. The site contains a good many things related to fiction, but I find their archives on wordplays particularly valuable.
- English novels/texts, English movies (not dubbed), English radio programs, English friends. These resources are rather self-explanatory. They key to learning any language is to be exposed to its use. Don't be satisfied until you think in English whenever you start thinking of the story you are writing on. I can tell you right away that thinking in your native language while writing in English is going to get you in trouble. Don't worry if you start to dream in English either. It happened to me, and I'm still sane. Arguably.
- Volunteering editors and Elfwood should be mentioned in the same sentence. Elfwood is abound with helpful writers with and without English as their native language, and their opinions are free, usually helpful, and you get a good chance of making new friends. Although I must add that it helps if you reciprocate, offering critique and opinions on other people's writing. An added bonus to this is that it also enhances your eye for what makes a good story, get a chance to expand on your vocabulary, and sharpens your eye for errors and bad language to look up for in your own writing.
These friendly and observant editors have provided me with the examples on the (unintentionally) funny writing, which I've used in the article:
(With leave from Alice 'Muffin Girl' Smith)
----'Commas in Conventional Situations'---
Use a comma 1) to separate items in dates and addresses; 2) after the salutation of a friendly letter and following the closing of any letter, and 3) after a name followed by Jr., Sr., Ph. D., or a similar title.
- Pete's address is 101 Waycross Drive, Pittsfield, Massachusetts 01201.
- The play was first performed on Wednesday, May 23, 1979.
- Her letter began, 'Dear Anita, Please forgive me for the comment I made.'
- George Bernard Shaws was born in Dublin, Ireland, on July 26, 1856.
- Tomorrow we shall drive on to the Shenandoah National Park in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia.
---'Commas with Items in a Series'---
Use commas to separate items in a series unless they are connected by conjunctions.
- December is the last month of the year, the most religiously significant, and the one during which the shortest day occurs.
- The Roman feast of Saturnalia, the Christian celebration of Christmas, the Jewish observance of Chanukah, and the ancient Druid winter festival have all occurred during December.
- On December 15, 1651, Cromwell was declared Lord Protector of the Commonwealth of England, Scotland, and Ireland.
- On various December days the Pilgrims landed at Plymouth in 1620, the Monroe Doctrine was signed in 1823, and Christiaan Barnard performed the first human heart transplant in 1967.
- Poets John Milton, Emily Dickinson, and Edwin Arlington Robinson were born in December.
---'Commas Between Adjectives'---
Use a comma to separate two or more adjectives preceding a noun. Do not use a comma before the final adjective in a series if the adjective is thought of as a part of the noun. If one of the words in a series modifies another word in the series, do not separate them with a comma.
- John Wayne was one of America's most famous movie stars.
- The azure, cloudless sky looked beautiful over the gently lapping sea.
- Ernest Hemingway was noted for his terse, pithy style, while William Faulkner wrote long and detailed sentences.
---'Section that Got Its Title Cut Off at The Copier Machine'---
Commas are used to enclose expressions that interrupt the sentence: appositives and appositive phrases, words of direct address, and parenthetical expressions that interrupt the sentence.
- Sir Horace Walpole, the youngest son of the first British Prime Minister, was a prolific letter writer.
- His correspondence, in fact, includes at least 7,000 letters.
---'Commas in Compound Sentences'---
Use a comma before and, but, or, not, for, yet, so when they join independent clauses, unless the clauses are very short.
- Dragons were usually pictured as fire-breathing monsters that could swallow ships and humans with a single gulp.
- Dragons were believed to inhabit unknown regions of the ancient world, and they were said to destroy all intruders.
- Dragons never really existed, but most ancient peoples believed in them.
---'Commas After Introductory Elements'---
Use a comma after the following introductory elements: words such as well, yes, no, why; a succession of prepositional phrases; adverb clauses; and participial phrases.
- Located on Salisbury Plain in England, Stonehenge is an intriguing ancient monument.
- While it is difficult to calculate exactly how long it has been there, scientists believe Stonehenge may date as far back as 3,500 years.
- Searching for clues to its origin and purpose, archeologists discovered two underground pits in 1950.
---'Commas with Clauses and Phrases'---
A nonessential clause is a subordinate clause that is not essential to the meaning of the sentence but merely offers additional ideas or information. Use commas to set off nonessential clauses and phrases.
- Francis Gamble, who lives across the street, wrote a best seller.
- Evelyn, whom we met on the street, is a former neighbor of mine.
- Janice, who sits across from me in biology class, is a smart dresser.
- When I go to the movies, I try to sit behind people who are shorter than I am.
FARP Article Guestbook
|11 Jul 2010|| Cora|
Huhm.. not bad your article
But i have to correct you.. I’m original German. And if you would translate "900 years old I am, but still defeat you I can." word by word, you would get a completely nonsense.
One way would be: "900 years old am I, but I can you still defeat."
Or another example: "I am 900 years old, but I can you still defeat."
hope it helps
|27 Feb 2011|| Anon.|
This is great! I happen to be a native English speaker, but my friend’s first language is Portuguese. She’s really interested in writing but is unsure of her ability to write in English. Your tutorial will help her a lot!
|11 Apr 2011|| Anon.|
|16 Oct 2011|| Anon.|
|16 Oct 2011|| Anon.|
I just want to practice my english
|19 Apr 2012|| Anon.|
Asian EFL jourals on writing on writing problems of english language leaner
|29 Apr 2012|| Andreas|
Got to your article/thread after reading my own 15-year-old texts. The silly thing is, I love my texts, but after graduating as a phd in acoustics, I find my english of yorn lacking some serious grammar. Aint an expert now, true, but I realize a page like yours could’ve helped me a lot 15 years ago. Teens like me, or like I was, have a loving heart, but sure as hell aint got the know-how. Reading up on things like your post here would’ve helped a lot for a swede like me. Keep the good job up! Sincerely
|17 May 2012|| Rimmy|
i cant found it more interesting because i was expecting other other things from u that i want speech on "English as a foreign language"
cant found good
|31 May 2012|| Anon.|
I was lived in busan.
|20 Mar 2013|| Anon.|
Some people say that writing is more difficult because it is your responsibility to choose the correct words, punctuation, sentence structure, .......http://ogibogi.com/node/2424 for details.
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