Proofreading and Editing English Written by Second-Language Speakers


English is a language seemingly composed entirely of exceptions to rules. With an extensive history of teaching ESL and editing, I can attest to the extent of the challenges faced by someone wanting to sound fluent in the language. Almost no amount of diligent study of grammar and rules will provide the particular familiarity and ease with English.

This is not to dissuade anyone from trying, of course. It is only to point out particular challenges that need to be faced. The extent of the English vocabulary compounds this problem. English has more words than any other language that has ever existed, and is growing fast. A sense of the particular appropriateness of nearly exact similes in a given context is tough to acquire. The failure to do so can result in obscurity, hilarity, or just plain nonsense. (It is here that dictionaries and thesauri tend to fail one). Knowing, for example, the subtle—and not so subtle—differences between sentences such as “She’s a real lady” and “She’s a real woman” depends entirely on a feeling for the nuances of tone and register that can only be picked up with a long familiarity with the language.

Proofreading and Editing English

The connotations of these two sentences are nearly opposed though; they read as expressing statements. “Lady,” as used here, would usually refer to someone of cultural refinement, whereas “woman,” in this sense, would refer to someone with a large natural passion. A similar difficulty arises with many adjectival terms. Take merely the number of words which, in one way or another, mean big: great, enormous, gigantic, extensive, considerable, humongous, magnificent, and so on. One can see how such a situation might present problems.

My role as a proofreader is to check the document for such problems and correct them with as much fidelity to the intentions of the writer as possible. The point is to make the piece read fluently and unobtrusively. I try and change as little as possible while still making sure that the writing is clear, correct, and idiomatic. And, if I manage to, we’re both happy.

Originally posted 1/17/2011 and happily updated 11/16/2017. Thanks for reading!

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