Written by Laryssa Brooks


Every student has been there—hunched in a dark room, surrounded by empty coffee cups, staring at a computer screen, and wondering not only what to write but also how to write it. Whether you're writing a college admissions essay or a paper for a class, it can be difficult to find the right words. It's even more difficult if English is your second language.

English: A Patchwork Language

English is a language that acquired the scraps and threads of other languages over time. But instead of sewing those scraps together neatly, English joined them haphazardly with tape, glue, and staples. This is why it's correct to say, for example, "Eight angry geese stole my college essay" but incorrect to say, "And they ate it for dinner with four meese." The plural of "goose" is "geese," but the plural of "moose" is "moose," because "goose" and "geese" are Germanic, but "moose" is Algonquian.

These nuances can be very confusing when your first language is completely different from English. For example, Chinese is a logographic system, which means that it uses symbols to represent words. English is an alphabetic system, which means that it uses letters to represent the sounds that form words. In English, most information is communicated with auxiliary verbs and verb inflections, such as "is," "are," "were," "eat," and "eats." In Chinese, most information is communicated with different word orders or contexts. Because of this, spelling words and constructing phrases in English can be very challenging for native Chinese speakers.

It can become even more challenging when Chinese students need to construct research questions for their college essays. In English questions, subjects and verbs are inverted, and many different rules dictate the placement of adverbs. In Chinese, intonation conveys meaning, and adverbs precede verbs. For example, in English, you can ask, "Can geese eat college admission essays quickly?" But in Chinese, you have to ask, "Can geese quickly eat college admission essays?"

In some instances, a language may not even have an equivalent for something used in English. For example, in English, short verbs and participles are used to form expressions like "I will never take on a hungry moose," where "take on" means "to confront." Chinese certainly has words that mean "confront," but they are not formed by adding a preposition to the verb "take."

Unfortunately, professors and college admissions committees aren't very forgiving when it comes to these challenges. Fighting procrastination (geese won't write your essay for you!) and meticulously citing every source to avoid plagiarism aren't enough. You also need to ensure that your college essay is clear, consistent, and free of errors. Otherwise, your reader won't take your argument seriously because you won't seem professional. This can undermine all your hard work. But don't give up! Here are some common ESL errors and ways to avoid them.

Incorrect capitalization

In English, smaller words, such as articles, conjunctions, and prepositions, are usually not capitalized in headings.

Example

                The Effects Of College Essays On Geese

Fix

                The Effects of College Essays on Geese

Inconsistent headings and capitalization

Similarly, it is important that the capitalization and formatting of your headings are consistent.

Example

1.1      Why do Geese eat College essays?        

1.2.                        The financial burden of treating geese

1.2      Chemicals In Ink

Fix

1.1      Why Do Geese Eat College Essays?        

1.2      The Financial Burden of Treating Geese

1.3      Chemicals in Ink

Missing and incorrect articles

English has two articles: "a" (or "an" before a vowel sound) for non-specific nouns and "the" for particular nouns.

Example

Students often use an excuse "dog ate my homework" when their work is incomplete.

Fix

Students often use the excuse "a dog ate my homework" when their work is incomplete.

Too many transitions

While transitions are helpful to ensure your writing flows logically and clearly, their overuse is distracting and actually hinders flow.

Example

However, every year, 1,234 students lose their homework to vicious geese. Furthermore, the majority of these students are in college; moreover, they often lose their essays to these geese. Additionally, college essays are often printed in various colors of ink.

Fix

However, every year, 1,234 students lose their homework to vicious geese. The majority of these students are in college, and they often lose their essays to these geese. The college essays are often printed in various colors of ink.

Incorrect synonyms

Be careful choosing synonyms; some suggested terms will not be appropriate depending on the context.

Example

Ink chemicals can be harmful to geese, and treating geese who have ingested them can be a financial cargo for many communities.

Fix

Ink chemicals can be harmful to geese, and treating geese who have ingested them can be a financial burden for many communities.

Incorrect parentheses

Parentheses enclose afterthoughts or asides and occur in pairs.

Example

In fact, the average community spends CAD $123,456.00 ((USD $99,270.97] treating geese who have ingested ink.

Fix

In fact, the average community spends CAD $123,456.00 (USD $99,270.97) treating geese who have ingested ink.

Inconsistent fonts

Consistency is important in all elements of writing, including fonts. Ensure the font size, type, and color are consistent throughout.

Example

Thus, this study examined the effects of college essays on geese. Specifically, it examined whether different colors of ink affect the health of geese.

Fix

Thus, this study examined the effects of college essays on geese. Specifically, it examined whether different colors of ink affect the health of geese.

Incorrect word order

Most English sentences conform to the "subject, verb, object" word order.

Example

This study was guided by one primary research hypothesis: the chemicals in specific colors of ink to geese are harmful.

Fix

This study was guided by one primary research hypothesis: the chemicals in specific colors of ink are harmful to geese.

Incorrect prepositions

English has a lot of prepositions; it can be difficult to determine which is appropriate, but a dictionary can help!

Example

The study ran to two weeks, between January 7th to January 21st, 2018.

Fix

The study ran for two weeks, from January 7th to January 21st, 2018.

Inconsistent voice

In English, the voice can be active or passive. In general, it is best to use the active voice, in which the subject performs the action in the sentence.

Example

Five geese were fed college admission essays printed in different colors for seven days, and we fed one control goose blank paper.

Fix

We fed five geese college admission essays printed in different colors for seven days, and we fed one control goose blank paper.

Inconsistent units of measurement

Units of measurement should be spelled out or abbreviated consistently.

Example

Subsequently, the health of each goose was examined every 6 hours for 14 d.

Fix

Subsequently, the health of each goose was examined every 6 h for 14 d.

Comma splices

Comma splices occur when independent clauses are joined with commas; this is incorrect. Splices can be avoided by writing two separate sentences or using a semicolon.

Example

All geese involved in the study gave written informed consent, additionally, all geese were given the opportunity to opt out of the study at any time.

Fix

All geese involved in the study gave written informed consent; additionally, all geese were given the opportunity to opt out of the study at any time.

Unclear pronouns

The subject you are referring to should always be clear.

Example

Goose A and Goose B experienced colored tongues from the ink; his tongue turned blue, and her tongue turned green.

Fix

Goose A and Goose B experienced colored tongues from the ink; Goose A's tongue turned blue, and Goose B's tongue turned green.

Unclear antecedents

An antecedent can be unclear if a subject has not been specified. Be sure to be as specific as possible so readers can follow along.

Example

On day four, Goose C was given a college essay and a glass of water but felt dizzy and dropped it on the floor.

Fix

On day four, Goose C was given a college essay and a glass of water but felt dizzy and dropped the essay on the floor.

Scare quotes

Scare quotes refer to the use of quotation marks around words or phrases when they are not required; this can elicit reader doubt and should thus be avoided.

Example

Goose C complained that he suffered from "headaches."

Fix

Goose C complained that he suffered from headaches.

Incorrect commas, spaces, and colons

Be sure to review your writing to eliminate any extra spaces or random punctuation.

Example

Notably , Geese D to F experienced two benefits, improved mood,   and decreased hunger.

Fix

Notably, Geese D to F experienced two benefits: improved mood and decreased hunger.

Inconsistent punctuation and spelling

Ensure consistency in the use or omission of the Oxford comma (that is, the comma that is placed or omitted between the last two items in a list).

Example

It was found that some ink colors (i.e., blue, purple, and orange) are detrimental to the health of geese, while other ink colors (i.e., black, red, yellow and green) are not.

Fix

It was found that some ink colors (i.e., blue, purple, and orange) are detrimental to the health of geese, while other ink colors (i.e., black, red, yellow, and green) are not.

Excessively long and short sentences

In general, your sentences should be similar in length. Sentences that are too long (as in Example 1 below) can confuse your readers, and sentences that are too short (as in Example 2 below) can harm the flow of your writing.

Examples

1. As black ink is not harmful to geese and the color students use the most when printing college admission essays is black, students should be required to print their essays in only black ink to protect the health of geese, and cities should run programs to educate students about the dangerous food preferences of geese, as vicious geese often attack students if they smell college admission essays.

2. Black ink is not harmful to geese. The color students use the most when printing college admission essays is black. Students should be required to print their essays in only black ink. This will protect the health of geese. Cities should run programs to educate students. The programs should be about food preferences of geese. Such animals often attack students. They do this if they smell college admission essays.

Fix

As black ink is not harmful to geese and it is the color students use the most when printing essays, students should be required to print their essays in only black ink. This will protect the health of geese. Additionally, cities should run programs to educate students about the food preferences of geese, as geese often attack students if they smell college admission essays.

Incorrect and inconsistent tenses

Use the past tense for events that already occurred, the present tense for existing states or current actions, and the future tense for events that have not happened yet.

Example

Geese were common in Canada, particularly around large bodies of water. Future research should focus on changing the college essay requirements of Canadian schools that have been located near the Great Lakes.

Fix

Geese are common in Canada, particularly around large bodies of water. Future research should focus on changing the college essay guidelines of Canadian schools that are located near the Great Lakes.

Fragmented sentences

To avoid sentence fragments, ensure that each sentence contains both a subject and a verb.

Example

Additionally, future research. Should study the effects. Of ink on moose, as moose often eat. Lost college admission essays.

Fix

Additionally, future research should study the effects of ink on moose, as moose often eat lost college admission essays.

Incorrect number agreements

In English grammar, number agreement means ensuring that noun, pronoun, and verb forms match the subject number, be it singular or plural.

Example

However, a moose prefer to eat lecture note, especially during exam season.

Fix

However, moose prefer to eat lecture notes, especially during exam season.      

Conclusion

With patience, perseverance, and practice, you can avoid these common ESL errors and focus on what really matters—what you want to say—instead of how to say it. However, if these tips are too daunting, having others edit your work can help you catch what you missed and ensure that every detail of your essay is perfect.


Image source: Daria Nepriakhina/Unsplash.com


Improve your English writing with professional editing.



About the Author

 

Laryssa is an in-house editor at Scribendi with two degrees in literature and writing and a certificate in publishing. She usually spends her spare time writing poetry and prose and filling the pages of her favorite books with notes. When she's not reading or writing, she enjoys adventuring with her friends and family.

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