Monday, December 14, 2020

Non-native speakers writing in English


A non-native English speaker runs into problems that may not be that obvious to a native speaker. To a native speaker, some of these mistakes may look funny, or stupid, but then I would like to invite the English speaker to try his or her hand at Dutch or Chinese.


This page is a bit unorganized, even more than usual 😅 for which my apologies. I need to restructure this a bit...

On this page I'll try to address a few common problems, as well as those I personally suffer from... It's different for everyone. 

I. English

If you're writing in English, and that's not your native language, then first make sure you speak English 😌... at least a bit 😉


If you often struggle with the same problem, you may want to print one or more 'cheat cards' and keep them at hand. The website EnglishStudyHere has lots of interesting stuff, especially for non-native writers. Many of those hints and tips are 'summarized / condensed' onto a single sheet, which you could save and print, to create your own 'cheat book'.


Grammar Monster 

If you're struggling with English in general, why not teach yourself?


II. Basics first!

Here's what I do, and I'm not a 100% successful!

A typical piece of advice is to first finish the book, don't bother about spelling, then clean it up. As a non-native writer, this is harder for us. We would end up with an enormous amount of text to edit, and wouldn't have learned much on the way.

So, I do things differently, out of necessity.

1. Try to think in English. That's the hardest part. What helps a bit is to read a lot, and listen to English audiobooks etc. Focus on either American or British English. I must say I found audiobooks to be very helpful.

The rest applies to most writers I guess... Still...

2. Stay away from complex words and prose until you got the basics down.

3. Understand tense and POV. That's another problem you don't want to deal with. No other problems gives more space to focus on the non-native language issues.

4. Same goes for paragraphing and dialogue tags. Get these right, and it's going to be much easier to focus on other issues. Especially paragraphing helps to avoid 'walls of text' that would confuse our brains.

5. Write your chapter, then load it into Grammarly or something similar. Don't blindly accept the suggestions / corrections, but try to understand them. Besides, Grammarly and other tools do make mistakes.

6. Speak sentences out loud, or use a TTS tool like Balabolka. As a writer, you get used to your own work and this may not recognize your most common mistakes.

7. Create a list of your most common mistakes and try to turn them into phrases you can search for. These are words you don't need, phrases you often misspell, things like that. After every chapter, search your whole text for at least one or two of these mistakes, to train your brain.

8. Recheck. Until we are good enough I'd suggest, after completing your current chapter, to go back one or two chapters and do an edit, and keep doing so on every new chapter. Not to improve our writing but to apply all the English-related things we learned.

I think none of the above is entirely surprising, is it?

The dual-pass method

Let's zoom in a bit on step 8 above, which is contrary to the typical advice. It's probably best to write the whole book / chapter first before doing a (re)edit. However non-native speakers with serious language problems (like me :-)) may have to put in a little more effort.

8.1 Write a chapter the way you want it. Try to avoid repetition and mistakes, but accept there will be some.

8.2 Now go back to the start (of that chapter, or perhaps go back two or three chapters) and look for your typical mistakes, and fix them. (I call this 'screening', see below, we're not even really revisioning, we're just fixing our biggest blunders.)

The goal is to avoid repeating those same (English)  mistakes time and time again. Of course, in the end, you still may have to do a complete edit / rewrite, just like every other writer (bare the few that get it right the first time).

Again, it's not about doing a perfect rewrite / edit right now, but to screen for stupid, common mistakes.

8.3 Once you're filtered out everything you can by yourself, you might want to ask for help from another reader / writer. Do 'read for reads' or 'critique for critiques'. Pay attention to what other people say: learn from their remarks. (But stay alert, some advice might be simply wrong, just like mine 😁)

Some people will say: finish the whole book first, then look for errors. I think that's a personal choice, but as a non-native writer the act of writing is the same as learning a new language. Addressing the mistakes early, i.e. learning from them, makes life a lot easier down the line. And after a while you no longer make them, so writing and revisioning simply gets easier (never a bad thing). 

III. What to screen for

That depends on you, and differs from person to person, to some mistakes we all make. Make a note of your most obvious mistakes, those that slip through even though you know they are wrong. Check that list now and again, just to remind yourself.

Special expressions

Hard to translate, and always a lot of fun. Try to translate 'it's raining cats and dogs' into your own language, then translate it back into English. Have fun 😉

If you're not entirely sure what an expression means, then don't use it!

False friends

Words in your native language MAY sound like their counterpart in English, but they might mean something completely different. For example, the Spanish word for 'factory' is 'fabrica'. A Spanish writer might use the word 'fabric' assuming it means factory. Nope.

When in doubt, use a dictionary.  Dictionaries are your best friends.


Friendly neighbor to the false friend, these are words that sound the same but mean something completely different.

Lie versus ly

Lying versus laying

You lie down. You lay something down. 

You lie. You are lying.

Lose versus loose

Word order

Subject + verb + object, followed by references to where, then when.


Complex tenses in your native language may differ from their counterpart in English. Solution: keep things simple!

Special note for Chinese speakers: there is a very important difference between 'I am interesting' and 'I am interested'.


At, from, to, of, in, on, with... add them where you need them, leave them out where you don't. But... if you leave too many out you might mess up the meaning of your sentence. Pay attention.

In some languages prepositions might be part of their verbs, thus once a sentence gets translated it suddenly inherits a preposition which wasn't there before.

Multiples / plural forms

In English the apostrophe isn't used for multiples / plurals. All the Dutch people make that mistake...

Contractions and possessive

Use them, or don't use them. But if you use them, use them in the right way.

It is - It's

I have - I've

The car had its brakes repaired.

All the big cars had broken windows - All the big cars' windows were broken

Person and tense

It probably makes little difference to write in past-tense or present-tense when It comes to avoiding mistakes. Most popular stories are written in past-tense, so that might make more sense. Just make sure you don't mix up present and past tense (many people do).

The same applies to first-person or third-person. There may be stylistic reasons to pick one over the other, but I wouldn't say any of these is easier to work on than the other.

So, pick the one you feel most comfortable with, and stick to it. Don't switch.

My personal screening list

This list includes some items which all writers suffer from, not just the non-native ones 😁, it may include some items not listed above. See if there's anything you run into as well, but have not noticed yet...

(Some of this is a rehash of other pages. There's bound to be a lot of overlap.)

- Zpelling Erruers. Always a bad thing. Some errors are allowed, but the amount of mistakes should never detract from reading. There's Grammarly. There are spell checkers. Use them.

- Tense shifts. I hate those. Pick past or present-tense, pick first or third-person, and stick to it!

- Logical mistakes. For me, after spelling and tense shifts, this is major let down in many stories. Keep asking yourself: why would it happen? Why would a person do something? What would be the consequences? (Not a non-native writing problem, but important enough to end up in my personal to-screen-for list.) More here.

- Repetition of words and sentence constructions. Every time I find such a problem I look for synonyms. Expand your vocabulary.

- Stupid Dunglish / Dutchisms (yeah, I'm dutch), where my brain failed to spot something which made sense in Dutch, but not in English

- Punctuation. English punctuation is a bit of a mess, as the commas are placed following 20-odd rules, and you're allowed to deviate for clarity or style. They don't always reflect the pauses in spoken English. Grammarly spots quite a few, but don't rely entirely on it. More on commas.

- Show don't tell. This is a mistake all writers make, not just the non-native ones. I added it to the list because this is a check I have to make consciously, every time.

- Phonetic writing. I tend to do this when I am getting tired, for example using 'bag' where I should write 'back'. My breen / brain seems to fuzz out now and again.

IV. TTS (Text to Speech)

One trick that helps me is the use of a TTS tool (I use Voice Aloud on my Android phone, and Balabolka on Windows). That works best whilst doing some household chores, so you can take notes when doing the laundry. Microsoft Word has a TTS component build-in.

You may spot mistakes you'd never find when 'reading your own work', simply because you're too familiar with it to spot the mistakes.


V. Personal notes

You can safely ignore this section :-)

Chose / choose

To choose - verb, making a decision

Choose - present tense

Chose - past tense

Loose / lose

Loose - adjective, not tight

To lose - verb, losing something

I lose

I lost


Lay / lie

To lie - verb, to assume a horizontal position, takes a direct object

I lie down on the floor - present tense

I felt sick so I lay down - past tense

I had lain there for some time before getting up - past participle 

You'd better lie down

To lie - verb, not telling the truth

I lie to him - present tense

I lied to him - past tense

You'd better not lie! 

To lay - put or set something down, does not take a direct object

Lay the blanket on the floor - present tense

She laid the blanket on the floor - past tense

She had laid the blanket down before she left - past participle 

You'd better not lie in your bed all day! 

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