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Ask the editor 11: English language editing


English language editing

English is the world's lingua franca. Over two billion people speak it as a first or second language. It is the official, or everyday, language in fifty-nine countries. Perhaps two billion more have considerable experience of English via movies, gaming, pop music, or (increasingly) social media. That's half the world.

It's no surprise, then, that some authors from non-English speaking backgrounds take the leap of writing and publishing in English. There have been some illustrious examples: Joseph Conrad wrote fantastic novels in English - his third language; Joseph Brodsky wrote elegant, nuanced English poetry despite being a poor speaker.
In recent years, we have seen an increasing number of books and manuscripts from non-native speakers of English here at WritersServices. And the quality of those books has increased, impressively, year on year. It can sometimes seem as if the world is learning English by global osmosis.

Writing in a language you don't speak as a native presents a range of challenges to the author. I have occasionally written short pieces in languages other than English and I am well aware of how difficult it can be, and how easy it is to get it wrong. So I'm always impressed when I see a book written competently in a second language.

Equally, a book written in English by a non-English speaker presents specific challenges to the editor. These vary depending on the original language of the writer but they show some common traits across the board. One might say that, just as individual authors have characteristic quirks and habits, languages tend to produce characteristic habits in writers.

Some of these quirks are a consequence of what linguists call language transfer (some curmudgeons prefer ‘language interference', which sounds rather nimby to me). That is, the grammar or idiom of one language can leak into another and distort the finished product. Again, these transfers vary from language to language but one can discern common threads. Interestingly, the nature of such transfers depends as much on the vagaries of English as it does on their native counterparts. An experienced editor will often recognise the language of origin from specific elements of language transfer.

English, it is fair to say, has a few eccentricities up its grammatical sleeves. The use of articles, prepositions and word order is different from most other languages and in some cases unique. For the author writing in English, these usages can be a minefield, and this is where editing, by a native speaker, is particularly valuable.

Before I explore these linguistic oddities, I offer a word of warning. If you look online you will find any number of apps promising to ‘level up' your English; these range from simple editing apps to the ‘paraphrasing tool', which (or so it says on the label) will replace your humble attempts with superior alternatives, and last of all (I mean it really should be a last resort) the online thesaurus.

What all of these apps have in common is that they are machine based; the solutions offered are the result of statistical probability searches rather than the skill and expertise of a good speaker or writer. So they can, and often do, sacrifice accuracy for popularity and, more worryingly, they regularly produce crude, vague or plain wrong suggestions. As digital companies rely increasingly on AI, with its charming habit of ‘hallucination', the howler count is only likely to rise; a chatbot that cheerfully advises you to put glue on your pizza so the cheese doesn't fall off is unlikely to improve your English.

In my experience, the errors most likely to occur are in the use of articles and prepositions; again, this is due to the vagaries of English. In English, there are nouns that do not take an article; abstract nouns (poetry, justice, love) are the most common, and the most likely to provoke errors. English prepositions are comically variable in use and position and often defeat the most competent speakers and writers.

Word order is another bugbear; consider the following sentences:

What is the cat eating?
What is eating the cat?

Precisely the same words are used in both, and they produce entirely opposite meanings. In many languages, this is simply not a problem. They have grammatical solutions; suffixes to indicate the part of speech, for instance. But when the author comes to render such sentences in English, the grammatical safety net disappears and correct word order predominates.

Tenses can be problematic too. Native speakers can struggle with this, so it's no wonder others find it difficult. The present and past continuous are particularly tricky, and wandering into the swamp of subjunctive and hypothetical tenses is perilous.

For me, the quirkiest transfers are loan words. English contains thousands of words borrowed from elsewhere, and English words often seep into other languages. And when they do, they often change meaning. Equally, related languages often contain the same words but with different meanings. For instance, the English word ‘sensible' turns up in French and German; but in those languages it means something closer to sensitive rather than logical.

So for the editor, editing a book written by a non-native speaker is a dual exercise. The author will (because all authors do) make mistakes, and some of these will be personal quirks on the author's part. At the same time, the language of origin will intrude and present eccentric options all of its own. It is, in some respects, akin to editing and translating simultaneously.

And more to the point, it is absolutely necessary. It would be ironic, even tragic, if the majority of the world used English but the English they used was mutually incomprehensible, wouldn't it?


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When he isn't editing, Noel Rooney writes a regular column for Fortean Times magazine, and wilfully obscure poetry. He lives in South London with his family and rather too many animals.

Ask the Editor 1: What genre is my book?

Ask the Editor 2: the submission letter

Ask the Editor 3: Writing a synopsis

Ask the Editor 4: Why do I need you?

Ask the Editor 5: Non-fiction submissions

Ask the Editor 6: Writing non-fiction

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Ask the Editor 8: How I assess a manuscript

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