Friday, February 20, 2009

Writing Like a Native: Quick Tips for ESL Writers

Do you wish you could write like a native-speaker but feel like something always gets in the way? It may be just a missing article or the wrong preposition, but somehow your writing doesn't quite read like English. You may have had the frustrating experience of some instructor or reader muttering, "Well, you can't really say it THAT way." Unless you have the time and the money to go through an intensive immersion program, you may find it difficult to know exactly how to phrase it in English without some extra help. So here are a few quick tips that will help you check your how to say it in English.

1) Google + Quotation Marks
A quick Google search is the best way to check for the most appropriate ways to use prepositions and articles. For example, if you are not sure whether you should say "at Purdue," "in Purdue," or "on Purdue's campus," type each of these phrases, surrounded by quotation marks, into Google. The results will provide you with examples in context. You will not only get a sense of how people use the phrase, but you will also be able to judge how often people use the phrase. If your Google search turns up only 3 hits, you can be pretty sure that the phrase, "in Purdue's campus," is not a phrase that native English speakers often use.

Try these two phrases and see which one pops up the most and in which contexts. You may find that sites using more colloquial (spoken) language will favor one expression.

"at the house of my mother" vs. "at my mother's house"

Remember that for an accurate representation of which phrases people use and how, you need to enclose the phrase in quotation marks. That way, the search will only look for the phrase.


2) Use a Thesaurus
Once you have established a working English vocabulary, a thesaurus (dictionary of synonyms) is one of the best tools for expanding it. You don't even need to have a printed version anymore. Most word processing programs, such as Microsoft Word, are already equipped with a thesaurus function. All you need to do is:

highlight the word and then hit "shift + f7."

The program will automatically bring up a list of synonyms and a few antonyms. Other resources include This strategy does not just apply to ESL writers. Even native writers can forget about words from time to time. Especially if you find yourself using the same verb, particularly a generic verb, over and over again, using a thesaurus can bring some great variety to your writing. You may also find that a more specific and expressive verb exists than the one currently stuck in your mind.

Here is a list of generic verbs that should be "thesaurus-ized."

make, do, say, talk (about), work, think, have, like
and any form of "to be" (is, are, was, were)


3) Read it Aloud (Slowly)
Because many writers focus so intensely on creating the perfect sentence, they often overlook more general grammar principles, such as plurals, subject-verb agreement, and verb tense. I have found that writers can often recognize their own mistakes if they read their papers aloud and pay careful attention so that the words they say match the words on the page. Writers will often say the phrase correctly even though it is incorrect on the page. Here is an example:

"Yesterday, she walk to the store with three empty bag."

Attentive readers may notice that the word "yesterday" requires that the verb should be in the past tense (i.e. "walked). They may also notice that the number three means that "bag" should be in the plural.

If you find it difficult to read and edit or if you do not notice your mistakes, find a friend to read along with you. The friend should mark down any differences between what you say and what is on the page.


Hope these tips help, and, as always, if anyone out there has any other tips, please share them.

Brady Spangenberg

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