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The Oxbridge Editing Blog 16th November 2020

Academic writing tips for ESL and non-native English speaking students

16th November 2020

Overview

This article is going to be helpful for you if English is not your first language and you fall into any of these categories:

  • You struggle with knowing how to write a paragraph in English
  • You are confused by different parts of English grammar
  • You are looking for some ESL writing exercises to improve your English writing skills

Below, we are going to look at how to improve your English writing as an ESL student, and we will give you some tips and tricks to identify your errors and make the corrections you need to get better at writing in English.

There tend to be three areas where ESL writers lose marks when writing academic essays – these include formatting errors, grammatical errors, and spelling errors. Producing excellent error-free writing is not going to happen overnight, but with practice and dedication, you are certain to improve!

Essay Headings

One of the common writing difficulties for ESL students is the inclusion of headings and subheadings. Students often make these headings too long. An example of a long heading would be:

An introduction to the functions of English as the standard language for the aviation industry

This heading spans multiple lines and is generally too detailed, so you might instead revise this to:

English as the standard language in aviation

This heading is short and concise. It is your job as the student to find a balance between too long and too short (so, we wouldn’t want to shorten the heading to simply “Aviation” because that would not provide enough description).

Definite and indefinite articles

Articles are used to define a noun, and they are either definite i.e. ‘the’ or indefinite i.e. ‘a’ or ‘an’.

Typically, we use ‘the’ when it is a noun that the reader already knows about. An example of this might be:

The author suggests that the primary theme of the poem is sadness.

In this case, we are talking about a specific author, one specific theme, and one specific poem. This sentence would only be useful if the above three things had already been identified in earlier sentences written in the paper (this is because we use ‘the’ with known nouns, if we don’t know the nouns, the sentence doesn’t make sense).

We use indefinite articles ‘a’ or ‘an’ when we are referring to a noun that the reader doesn’t know about or when it refers to a general idea. Note that in English, we use ‘an’ when the word before it starts with a vowel. For example, if we take the above sentence and change it to use indefinite articles, we get:

An author suggests that a primary theme of a poem is sadness.

In this case, the reader can assume that we don’t know the author or the poem specifically. We can also assume that there is more than one ‘primary’ theme because ‘a’ is used instead of ‘the’.

There are a lot of additional rules about articles, which is what makes them so tricky for ESL writers in the first place. If your instructor mentions that you struggle with using articles, we would suggest that you get some extra help from a grammar or writing tutor who can address your specific issues.

Capitalisation

It can sometimes be difficult to know what to capitalise and what to keep in lower case. There are some obvious one, like always capitalise the first word in a sentence, and capitalise proper names, but some rules are more difficult to remember.

In general, you should;

  • Capitalise months, days, and holidays (e.g. January, Monday, Christmas)
  • Capitalise cities, countries, nationalities, and languages (e.g. London, England, British, English)
  • Capitalise events and time periods (e.g. World War II, Middle Ages)
  • Capitalise major words in a title (e.g. Beauty and the Beast) – note that short words and prepositions do not get a capital letter
  • Capitalise the first word of a quote, when the quote is a complete sentence (e.g. Smith and Taylor (2012) suggest, “The best way to check your spelling is to proofread carefully”.

In terms of other capitalisation strategies, it is important to review the citation styles that your discipline uses. This will help you to determine formatting, such as for headings and subheadings. You need to be consistent when you choose to capitalise just the first letter of the heading/subheading, or to capitalise every major word. The same rules apply for your reference list or bibliography.

Contractions

Contractions are condensed words using an apostrophe. Examples would include words like can’t, shouldn’t, wouldn’t, don’t, and doesn’t. While it may be common to use these words in verbal communication, when you write an academic paper, it is good practice to avoid these words and instead write out both words separately (e.g. cannot, should not, would not, do not, and does not).

Run-on sentences

A run-on sentence is a sentence that has two or more independent clauses within one sentence. In other words, where you combine two (or three) sentences into one, without using proper punctuation to break up the sentence. An example of a run-on sentence might be:

The author suggests that the primary theme of the poem is sadness this is confirmed by the actions of the main character.

To fix this sentence, you could insert a semi-colon, like this:

The author suggests that the primary theme of the poem is sadness; this is confirmed by the actions of the main character.

Semi-colons separate two sentences that are closely related to one another, but that could also work as standalone sentences. You can think of them quite literally as half-full stop, half-comma!

Since the two clauses in this sentence could work as standalone sentences, you could use a full stop instead:

The author suggests that the primary theme of the poem is sadness. This is confirmed by the actions of the main character.

You could also modify the second clause, so that it is a dependent clause (rather than a whole sentence), like:

The author suggests that the primary theme of the poem is sadness, which is confirmed by the actions of the main character.

What you couldn’t do, is use a comma, like this:

The author suggests that the primary theme of the poem is sadness, this is confirmed by the actions of the main character.

In English, we call this a comma splice. Two independent clauses separated only by a comma is not grammatically correct, so you should avoid it in your writing.

Tense

When you are writing an academic essay, it is helpful to avoid the future tense and try to stick to present and past tenses. This just makes it easier to read. One common example of this is with thesis statements. Many students write “This essay will argue…” when a stronger approach would be “This essay argues”.

In addition to maintaining consistency throughout your paper, it is important to try and keep this consistency within your paragraph. For example:

The primary theme of the poem is sadness, which was confirmed by the actions of the main character.

In this example, we see the present and the simple past being used in the same sentence. To correct this error, it would be necessary to change the tense to either present or past.

Synonyms

Let’s say you have the following sentence in your essay:

Smith and Taylor (2012) suggest sadness as the main theme and suggest that the main character most commonly displays this emotion.

In this sentence, we can see that the words ‘suggest’ and ‘main’ appear twice. We want to use synonyms so that we can vary our language. For example:

Smith and Taylor (2012) identify sadness as the primary theme and suggest that the main character most commonly displays this emotion.

By using the synonyms ‘identify’ and ‘primary’, the sentence has a better flow. A word of caution however… do not use the thesaurus without fully understanding the definition of the synonym because this can lead to more confusion, which is the last thing you want in your academic essay!

Punctuation

Punctuation may just be small dots and lines on a page, but punctuation really helps the reader to interpret your work. Proofreading for punctuation errors is an important step in the process and something you should always do before submitting your essay.

Commas

When we write, we often think faster than we can type and so, when we put the words on the page, we forget all about punctuation. The comma is one that is often forgotten, making sentences long and difficult to read.

The most common places for commas are in lists, with conjunctions, and to separate out dependent clauses. Examples include:

  • A list, e.g. “The themes include sadness, fatigue, and depression.”
  • A conjunction, e.g. “The authors discussed sadness, and they used the main character to portray this.”
  • A dependent clause, e.g. “The theme, represented through the main character, was sadness.”

The easiest way to identify if you have a sentence that is in need of a comma is to read it aloud to yourself. If you feel a need to pause, then add a comma. Through this method, you will be able to hear the long sentences (or you might just run out of breath – in either case, put in a comma!).

Semi-colons

How do I use a semi-colon? As we mentioned above, the most common way to use a semi-colon is to join two independent clauses together, i.e. to join 2 sentences together, without the use of a conjunction like ‘and’. When using a semi-colon, you are attempting to join two related sentences. A correct example of semi-colon use would be:

Smith and Taylor (2012) identify sadness as the primary theme; they suggest that the main character most commonly displays this emotion.

It is important to remember that a semi-colon is not interchangeable with a comma or a full stop; it is stronger than a comma but not as strong as a full stop.

En dash and em dash

Try to avoid using en dashes (–) and em dashes (—) in your academic writing when you are creating sentences. Instead, use commas or semi-colons. For example:­­

A theme of sadness was identified in the text – this was portrayed by the main character.

Replace this with:

A theme of sadness was identified in the text; this was portrayed by the main character.

En and em dashes are not to be confused with hyphens, which you’ll find in words like well-being, two-week, long-term, etc.

Spelling

Using your computer’s ‘spell check’ is one way to make sure that you are not submitting an essay with spelling errors, but a careful proofread before you turn your essay in is always recommended. This is because there are some words that ‘spell check’ doesn’t identify. This includes words like ‘form’ instead of ‘from’, such as:

A study form Smith and Taylor (2012) suggests that…

‘Spell check’ cannot identify this error because ‘form’ is a word too. These types of errors are also common with author’s names, for example:

A study from Smith and Tayler (2012) suggests that…

This means that you have to re-read your paper line-by-line to make sure that your spelling is accurate, making special note of errors that are common to your style of writing.

Final thoughts

This post has looked at ESL essay writing tips and academic writing for non-native English speakers. By taking the time to carefully review your formatting, grammar, and spelling, you are well on your way to getting those extra marks on your written assignment!

While we know that learning to write in English can be a challenging (and sometimes tedious) task, by learning about common ESL errors and how to improve your writing in English, you are taking the right steps toward success.