Postgraduate study is hard. Students face new challenges and have expectations that go far beyond what was required at undergraduate level. For international students there are additional hurdles. Studying in a new country requires adjusting to a new system and for some, it means studying in English for the first time. Students are required to broaden their knowledge of ‘conversational English’ into the field of ‘academic English’.
Mastering fluent writing in any language requires practice and perseverance and does not happen overnight. But, in my experience, there are some mistakes that repeatedly crop up and can be readily corrected. I’ve summarised here the most common comments I find myself making when reading work written by students whose first language is not English. It is worth noting that some of the points are just as relevant for native English speaking scientists, so don’t be disheartened!
1. Some words are always singular, never plural.
‘Research’. The noun ‘research’ is very rarely written in the plural ‘researches’. This use is not technically wrong, but it is considered old-fashioned and will be rejected by most native English speakers. So…
✓ ‘research suggests…’
✗ ‘researches suggest…’
Note that the verb must agree with the noun, so ‘suggests’, not ‘suggest’ (see point 2).
‘Evidence’. Same idea here: use ‘evidence’ whether you are referring to one source of evidence or several sources of evidence:
✓ ‘evidence indicates…’
✗ ‘evidences indicate…’
Other words that behave like this, never with the plural ‘s’ (and therefore the verb is always singular too), are ‘knowledge‘ and ‘information‘.
Similarly, you would not use these words as ‘countable nouns’. This means you would not say ‘a research’ or ‘an evidence’.
2. Agreement between nouns and verbs.
English verb conjugation is relatively straightforward – we don’t make a lot of changes to regular verbs depending on who is doing the action (I change, you change, he/she/it changes…), but there are small differences and if they are written incorrectly it jumps out at a native speaker. So check the agreement!
3. Those two little words: ‘A’ and ‘The’.
This is difficult, but worth mastering because when used incorrectly it can be confusing and it is awkward to read.
✓Use ‘a’ (or ‘an’) if referring to something that has not yet been specified.
✓Use ‘the’ if referring to something specific that you have already identified.
For example, ‘A study found that…’ would be appropriate if you have not yet stated which study so you are referring to. You could also use ‘One study found that…’, but ‘The study…’ would be wrong.
If you have already introduced the object then you would use ‘the’. For example, ‘Jones and Smith (2012) conducted an experiment… The experiment …’
To help decide whether to use ‘a X’ or ‘the X’, ask yourself, ‘which X? If you can answer that question based on the information already provided, then you can use ‘the’. If you cannot answer that question then you are not referring to a particular object, so you must use ‘a’.
4. Avoid using ‘chunk phrases’ repetitively.
This is tricky because usually these phrases do not translate literally, so you have no choice but to learn them as ‘set pieces’. There is a tendency to learn one, and then use it again and again and again… which is repetitive and tiresome to read.
A few examples are: ‘On the one hand… on the other hand’; ‘at the end of the day’; ‘first of all’; ‘at the moment’.
Some phrases are more appropriate than others for formal writing. Perhaps try taking note of phrases and connecting words in science articles and using these in your own writing. (Also, ask yourself if you really need the phrase at all – in many cases your message would be just as clear if these phrases were left out – see point 5!)
5. Keep your language simple and to the point.
If you can’t follow exactly what you are saying, then I can assure you that the reader won’t be able to either. In my opinion a lot of scientists – especially students – will overcomplicate the language because they think it sounds more impressive (I know – I’ve done it!). Keep the style simple and direct. Shorter sentences are usually better. Avoid repetition, and make sure you understand every single word.
6. Use spellcheck! But sometimes this isn’t enough…
There are some words with very similar spellings that have very different meanings. Native English speakers also make these mistakes often – and sometimes the results are not ideal! For example:
- Causal and casual. (We usually talk about causal relationships in science, not casual relationships…)
- Statistically and statically. (Effects are statistically significant, not statically).
- Model and modal. (Both are common in scientific writing but mean very different things).
- Summary and summery. (You will want to include a summary of your work, not a concluding statement about the summery weather you are enjoying).
7. Capital letters.
Hopefully for those people whose mother tongue has the same writing system as English, this will not be relevant. But for those who are learning a new alphabet and writing system in English, I see mistakes with capital letters again and again. This is one of the first rules we master when learning to write, so mistakes with capital letters make the assignment appear very immature and unprofessional.
Capital letters are always used at the start of the sentence and for proper nouns (specific places, people, organisations). That’s all.
✓ ‘In conclusion…’ ✗ ‘in Conclusion…’
✓ ‘A study in Spain’ ✗ ‘a Study in spain’
✓ ‘Gomez and Ruiz (2016)’ ✗ ‘gomez and ruiz (2016)’
8. The references.
In an assignment you will usually get marks for correct use of references. These are easy marks – don’t miss out on them!
Of course you need to check which reference system you are using, make sure you are consistent and that you have included all your citations in the reference list. But you may also want to check you have the following correct:
Position of reference in text:
✓ usually in brackets at the end of the sentence (before the full-stop, not after).
Only include the surname in the text, not the initial:
✓ Gomez et al… ✗ P. Gomez et al…
In the reference list at the end you will include the initials as well.
Make sure you have got the surname, NOT the first name! This might sound obvious, but it isn’t always easy when the names are unfamiliar and sometimes the surname appears before the first name (e.g. ‘Jones, William E’), so just double check!
So that’s it. The 8 most common – and hopefully fixable – mistakes I come across when reading work by non-native English speaking scientists. I hope this post is useful to some people, please do get in touch or leave a comment if you have anything to add or want further clarification. Good luck!