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It is important to have someone proofread and edit your work. However, as a company founded by an English educator and a second language graduate student, one of our goals is to see our clients (mostly second-language students) improve in the English language. After three years of proofreading and editing English language texts, the following errors are the TOP FIVE most common problems I have seen non-native English speakers have in their essays.

5. ORDER OF ADJECTIVES

Non-native speakers often don’t realise that in English, there is a specific order for multiple adjectives. This order is instinctive for native speakers, but usually needs to be memorised if English is your second language.

The order is this:
1) opinion, 2) size, 3) age, 4) shape, 5) colour, 6) origin, 7) material, 8) purpose

The result is that a sentence like, “The plastic, large device was not practical for the supply chain” sounds very uncomfortable to a native reader. Instead, size should be described before material: “The large, plastic device…”

For more information, see the following link:
http://web2.uvcs.uvic.ca/elc/studyzone/410/grammar/adjord.htm

4. WHO, THAT, WHICH, WHERE

These four words are each unique. Using the right ones can make an academic essay appear especially polished. The following are the general rules for each one:

- People = Who
For example, “The supervisor who reviewed the report found it unsatisfactory. The manager who saw it next realized there were many errors. The employee who submitted the fraudulent report was fired.”

- That & Which = Things
For example, “The company that established the new store profited greatly. The store that succeeded became the new central location. The corporation went on to donate a great deal of money, which helped many children at a local hospital.”

- Places = Where
For example, “The country where the manager was originally from had a very different culture. His town, where there were few large companies, did not train students to deal with interviews.”

3. PREPOSITIONS

Prepositions are those usually small words that express a relation to another word or clause in a sentence (on, in, from, at, above, below, etc). The use of many prepositions does simply need to be memorised through practice. However, there is one rule that applies all the time but is still commonly confused:

Example:  The contract was signed on December 27, 2011.
               The contract was signed in December.
               The contract was signed in 2011.
               The contract was signed in December 2011.
               The contract was signed in the 21st century.

If you are using a specific date (it must be so specific as to list the number of the day), then the preposition to use is “on”. However, if the time is more general, such as a month, year, or century, then the preposition you need is “in”.

For more preposition support, visit this site: http://owl.english.purdue.edu/owl/resource/594/01/

2. VERB TENSE FOR DISCUSSING AUTHORS

Many essays involve discussing the lives, works, and ideas of authors who are long dead. However, that does not mean past tense is always used: While the events of their lives occurred in the past, their works and ideas are often still very present today. This can cause much confusion, both for a non-native English writer, and for the reader, if the tenses are not consistent. The following examples and rules will help:

- Author’s Life = Past Tense
If you are discussing an event in an author’s life (assuming the event is not literally happening in the present day), then you will use past tense. For example, “Picasso began painting in the 19th century. He was an ambitious young man.”

- Development of Author’s Ideas = Past Tense
If you are discussing how a certain idea, or how a certain author, developed over time, then you will use past tense until you reach a point in the present. For example, “The term ‘globalisation’ was first used in the 1980s. The term developed new meanings in the next few decades. In the 21st century, it is now viewed as culturally significant.”

- Ideas of Author’s Published/Public Work = Present Tense
If you are discussing an author’s work or ideas and you want to discuss how they play into or affect your own ideas, the present tense is recommended. For example, “Smith’s report states that water quality is affected by deforestation. According to his studies, deforestation is a serious issue.”

- Author’s Tendencies/Habits = Present Tense
If you are analysing an author and want to discuss the common traits of their work, present tense is also recommended. For example, “As an author, Sylvia Plath tends to examine dark subjects. She is interested in sadness, and explores her depression constantly.”

To combine this advice, take a look at this overall example:
Robert Johnson was born in the 19th century. He published his first book in 1827. His idea that companies should hire more flexible managers was introduced in his third book. In 1856, Johnson expanded on the idea, and insisted that managers be able to adjust to a changing environment. Johnson’s second book states accurately that managers should be creative individuals; this is very true. Johnson is overall an aggressive author whose writings are dramatically in support of a new kind of management.

1. ARTICLES (“A/AN” VERSUS “THE”)

This is the big one. Almost every non-native English speaker struggles with the difference between “a/an” versus “the”. These might seem like small words, but they have very different meanings that can have a huge effect on clarity. Let me explain:

There are two types of articles.

Indefinite Articles (“a” or “an”)             The Definite Article (“the”)

Indefinite articles are for when the noun involved is non-specific or not particular. Definite articles are for when the noun is very precise.

For example, if I raise “an” employee’s salary, then I have raised the salary of one random employee. It doesn’t matter who it was, and I don’t know or care which one. Use “a” or “an” when you are speaking about something generally: If “a” company fails to profit, it will have to close.

In comparison, the definite article “the” is for when you want to reference a specific noun. For example, if I raise “the” employee’s salary, then I have raised the salary of John Smith, a specific employee in the Electronics Department. Similarly, if I say “the” company failed to profit, then I had probably already told my reader we were discussing the exact company named Nintendo.



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