Editing for English as a Second Language (ESL)

Today, a potential client named John Smith asked if I had written on ESL topics (English as a Second Language), and I replied that he’d just given me a great blogpost idea. You may regret the inspiration Mr. Smith, but it’s too late now!

Most Common Advantages of ESL Writers

Most ESL writers are worried about their grasp of the English written language; some of them should be (worried). While there is quite a range of skill and ability, there are a few advantages of ESL writers over native writers:

  1. New Ideas: Most writers get used to the same illustrations and the same quotes rehashed in different ways. ESL writers bring their own cultural, philosophical outlook to the table, which means that the parables can be quite funny or piquant.
  2. New Phrases: One of my all-time favorite re-mixes of an English idiom went something like this: “You can bring the horse to the water but you cannot stick his head in.” Well, that is the general idea – horse waterboarding – but this is the more recognizable idiom: “You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make him drink.” Personally, I think that the first version adds more flavor to such a timeworn phrase.
  3. New Problems: After editing many pages, sometimes your eye tends to skim over a problem before it recognizes an issue in reverse. One of my ESL clients had a habit of adding articles (a, an, the) in inappropriate places, and removing them where they would make sense. (Example: “Jason ran quickly and fast to the well in a park of the green mermaid.”) I usually found these sorts of issues on the second round of edits.

Most Commonly Asked ESL Questions:

  1. Am I allowed to say this? (Usually, no, or not in that way. Example – it might be a bad idea to use the word “flash” to describe someone’s clothing, especially in a business document. People might get the wrong idea.)
  2. Does this really matter if I say X or Y? (Usually, yes. Despite the fact that English allows its users to say similar-sounding phrases in multiple ways, there are varying degrees of accuracy depending on context.)
  3. But I say this all the time and no one says ‘bad’. (Implied question – why can’t I write it the way I say it? Because written and spoken English are different, especially in non-fiction.)
  4. Are you a native speaker? (Yes I am. I have lived in the Grand Canyon state since I was two years old.)
  5. I cannot afford much, so….can you discount? (It depends on what you mean by ‘discount’, which is a culturally defined term. If you mean paying me less than $1 per page, no.)

Most Common ESL Issues

  1. Capitalization (over or under)
  2. Punctuation
  3. Really garbled phrases
  4. Subject-verb agreement
  5. Really really long fragments or run-on sentences

That’s all I can think of for now, Mr. John Smith – assuming that this is your real name.

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