Editing English for non-native speakers (I’m really sorry, but…)

Some of the work I edit is written by people who are not native English speakers. And my heart goes out to them, it really does.

Sometimes,  it seems that the piece of writing in front of me must be the result of a huge effort involving several people and numerous redrafts. I feel genuinely sorry to have to change it, especially if the vocabulary, punctuation and grammar are pretty much correct.

The main problem in these cases is that the author has not written as a native English speaker would. And how could they, without spending years in an English-speaking country? English is notoriously nuanced.

What’s even more difficult is that the author might have conveyed a very precise meaning, but the wording or phrasing will come across as odd to a native English speaker. And sometimes there’s no way to get exactly the same meaning in English that ‘sounds’ right.

Here’s a typical example: while abroad on holiday, I came across a sign saying “Please cast your rubbish in the bin.” There’s nothing wrong with that sentence, except that a native speaker would say ‘throw’ rather than ‘cast’.

So, if you’re someone who has learned English as a foreign language and whose work I’ve rewritten, I’d like to offer my apologies now!

ELF vs EFL

These days most conversations and written communications in English are between non-native speakers. English as a lingua franca (ELF) dispenses with the standards and correctness required by English as a Foreign Language (EFL). 

A recent BBC radio programme on English as a lingua franca  looked at this and asked whether EFL courses should be focusing more on making oneself understood and less on correctness. The answer was that correctness was easier to test, since understanding depends on others.

According to researchers interviewed for the BBC programme, the same English ‘mistakes’ are common to people from all different parts of the world. This suggests to me that a standard for ELF might evolve in future to create a simplified, more practical language that is quite separate from the culture of English-speaking countries.

Bad English is bad for business

For now, though, correctness does matter from the point of view of making a good impression, whether or not you’re dealing with native speakers.  And if you’re planning on marketing to native speakers, standard English is essential.

Poor spelling and grammar can actually make companies look untrustworthy, according to some recent research. A BBC report on how poor English affects sales estimated that websites with bad spelling were losing millions of pounds in revenue.

These findings are quite surprising given that spelling is the easiest part of English to check and amend.

If you would like help with your communications, please contact me: debbie@deborahlamb.net

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