If English is your second (or third, or fourth) language, you already know that it’s not simple to learn. The rules can seem confusing and even contradictory, and because of the malleable nature of English, new words and guidelines are added all the time.
Most people can skate by pretty well when speaking English to others because body language and context often make up for any mistakes, but ESL writing is a whole different beast. All you have going for you are the words on the page, and if something is wrong, it may even change the meaning of what you’re trying to say.
Because ESL students come from such a wide variety of backgrounds, different people have different problems with ESL writing, and some people may be more affected by certain kinds of problems than others.
There are, however, several issues with ESL writing that are fairly common across the board. Here are five:
Transitional phrases are an important part of the English language, but they are often overused in ESL writing. Ideas that logically follow what’s already been said don’t need transitions. Transitions are only necessary when ideas don’t obviously connect. “We ran out of gas. Consequently, we stopped” is an example of an unnecessary transition. However, you might want one in this situation: “We ran out of gas. Consequently, we were late to the party.”
Breaking out the thesaurus
There’s nothing inherently wrong with judiciously using a thesaurus to get a little more variety in your language. The problem is that far too often, the person using the thesaurus will not completely understand the original word’s definition and will end up using a homonym that means something completely different. For example, “That jerk lied to me!” and “That jerk reposed to me!” mean entirely different things.
Are you writing about something specific or general? Does the noun to which you are referring start with a vowel sound or a consonant? The rules on how and when to use articles like “a,” “an,” and “the” seem like they were designed to be complicated. Unfortunately for ESL writing, getting these rules wrong is something that stands out. If you are referring to a non-specific noun, you would use “a” or “an” to refer to it, depending on whether it was (for example) a tree or an ocelot. However, if you were speaking about a specific tree or ocelot, you would use “the.”
An adverb too far
In general, adverbs should be used sparingly, and in ESL writing (which is often academic writing) they should be used even more sparingly. While the purpose of an adverb is to better describe a verb, overuse often muddies up sentences. Beyond this, ESL students have a tendency to separate adverbs from the verbs they modify, which causes confusion. So where a native English writer might say, “He walked briskly,” ESL writers have been known to write, “He to briskly walk,” which is incorrect.
Adjectives seem like they should be simple, but when more than one is used to describe a single noun, even native speakers get confused. Luckily, there’s a specific rule you can refer to—one that a lot of native English speakers don’t even know! Here’s the order adjectives should go in: 1) article, 2) judgment, 3) size, 4) shape, 5) age, 6) color, 7) nationality, and 8) material. Pretty specific, no? So instead of “I like his red awesome new shoes,” you would write, “I like his awesome new red shoes.”