Monday, September 24, 2012

Common Challenges for ESL Authors - Q & A

The purpose of this post is to solicit questions and excerpts from your writing that confound you. 

Some aspects of English writing are difficult for many native English speakers as well, e.g., choosing between its and it's or using transitions between paragraphs.  Others are more difficult for Chinese authors, e.g., the use of the articles a, an and the, which are unnecessary in Mandarin or Cantonese because context provides clarity.

As a general rule, I recommend focusing first on what is essential to convey your meaning and ignoring the rest until the penultimate pass.  (Many native English speakers don't know what "penultimate" means.) Ten years ago, I was much less flexible when editing; since that time, so many ESL authors have begun publishing in American scientific journals that I find numerous deviations in print.  I've discussed this with journal copy editors and learned that--without admitting as much--standards have relaxed.

This is not due only to their being overwhelmed by the cutbacks in staffing due to the recession, but to the nature of the English language itself.  Unlike Spanish and French, for example, there is no single guide to proper usage.

The influx of papers from scientists whose native language originated in China, India, Egypt, Italy, Kenya, Brazil or Chile affects the English of today, particularly in America, a polyglot nation. 'Twas ever thus.  We are more familiar with new words than with new structures, but both types of changes have occurred for centuries as English-speaking people migrated westward and emigrants from other countries followed.  (Just reading a dictionary transports me to exotic climes for hours.)

Nevertheless, there are some hard and fast rules--I can hear you cheering!--and some guidelines are prescriptive though not proscriptive.  So send your questions and samples and we'll have fun with them as we separate the "musts" from the "maybes". 

By the way, in case you noticed that I placed the period at the end of the preceding sentence outside the final quotation mark, I follow the logical system on that rule and you can, too--except when you're submitting a paper to a journal that follows traditional American style.  According to what I've read, the only reason Americans moved the comma and period outside was to accommodate a fragile type of printing press that is no longer in use. 

The British logically include all punctuation within the final quotation mark, and so do I!  Take that, Chicago Manual of Style!  What's up, o people of the windy city? Can't you feel the punctuation paradigm shifting? Wikipedia rules! Hip hip hooray!

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