For some time now I have been proofreading for international students; usually essays, dissertations, and theses, but sometimes other documents such as CVs, covering letters, assignments, proposals, and personal assessments. From this I have found some common difficulties international students experience with the use of English grammar in their writing.
Difficulties students experience with the English language – some examples
For international students studying in the UK where English is a second language, expressing themselves in written words can be daunting. They may have difficulty in various language grammar areas, such as:
Tense: knowing which tense to use. Sometimes past and present tenses are confused.
Definite and indefinite articles: when and where to use “the” or “a” / “an” before a noun, and when they are not required. There can also be problems in knowing whether to use “a” or “an” before words beginning with a vowel.
Word order: being unsure of the correct word order in a sentence.
Verb agreement: the verb should agree with the subject of the sentence; for instance, “They travel to their destination by train” (not “travels”).
Lists: using sentences that are basically lists, rather than using linking words such as because, however, and since to join phrases together. This can result in some long, unwieldy, and confusing sentences. Sometimes it is better to split up sentences into bullet points.
In addition to language problems above, a common fault for students is repeating arguments or points that have already been made. Sometimes this is a conscious fault as the writer is trying to “pad out” the document to achieve a minimum word count. Sometimes it is just lack of planning or disjointed writing due to breaks taken.
Other common problems
When other authors’ works are referred to in text they should be cited in full in a references section. Some can either be missed out, or if they are present there may be discrepancies between the text and the references in the spelling of authors’ names or the year of publication.
A theme common to many students of all nationalities is lack of time planning. Writing is not started early enough, leaving insufficient time to arrange proper proofreading and to deal with the proofreader’s queries and corrections. I have known occasions when a student approaches me late on a Friday with something that needs urgently proofreading for submission on the following Monday. It is insufficient time to allow the job to be done properly and discourteous to expect a proofreader to drop weekend plans to fit in a large document at short notice.
Then there is the question of budget. A quality proofread needs adequate time and consequently budget, especially if an international student’s language is opaque and tortuous to read! You cannot buy champagne with beer money!
Although Word’s in-built spellchecker and grammar checker are not to be totally relied upon as substitute proofreading tools – sometimes they do not consider the context in which words and phrases are used – they are nevertheless useful tools for the writer and should not be cast aside. Given adequate time and budget, the proofreader can then help the student to tidy up their work (subject to university guidelines) and achieve a higher mark.