Editing journal articles when the author has English as a second language

This blog aims to give some advice for academics who are not native English speakers who have written an article for submission to an English-language journal.

false friends in English Second Language proofreading and editing can be tricky

Firstly, confession time: I have had to re-learn English grammar to become a proofreader/editor. I learnt a bit of Spanish while travelling and never came close to learning Chinese when I was there teaching English, so I'm well aware of the difficulties that foreign languages can bring. Sometimes a journal's reviewers can be very pedantic (and sometimes incorrect) and the submission might come back with comments on the language. This happens – it has happened on my papers, which I edited, and I'm a native-English editor!

When you get in touch about proofreading/language editing for your manuscript to help it through the peer review, or if it just needs some polishing before submission, it can help us both if you let me know if there are any errors you regularly make or issues you come across often that you would like me to look out for.

A good example of this is the use of "until" by German authors in sentences like "the thesis must be handed in until July 10th 2016".

The correct word would be "by" but I often encounter the use of "until" by people who speak German. If you do this then let me know, and I can keep an extra look-out for it, and explain the aspects of its usage when they come up.

Another common error is in the use of articles, such as "the". Many languages don't have articles, so this can cause some trouble for authors whose native language does not require this sort of grammatical construction.

I had a tough time explaining why we might refer to solar radiation as "solar radiation" and not "the solar radiation" with a client recently. Using the definite article, as the name might imply, means that "the solar radiation" refers to a specific (definite) bit of radiation but my client was referring to more general solar radiation and therefore "the" wasn't required. Sometimes, though, the inclusion or omission of "the" can seem less clear and it can come down to gut instinct, which is really difficult to master in a foreign language! If in doubt and you don't have time/resources for proofreading, it can sometimes be worth looking up a term in Google scholar, using quote marks around the exact phrase. For "solar radiation" versus "the solar radiation", a quick Google scholar search showed an 8:1 preference for missing out the article in this context.

There are also times where the meaning can get lost, often associated with "false friends" – when a word means something in English that sounds like a word with a different meaning in another language. Here's an example:

The results of [5] show that the power losses in the reactor are not sensible to the reactor insulation material

This is a classic false friend because many Latin-based languages use the word "sensible" too and it might be easy to use the same word in English, not realising it means something different from "sensitive", the word the author no doubt meant to use. An engineer might be used to reading about one variable being sensitive to another, and might well figure this one out, but it would be easy to make the mistake of thinking that the author means that the value of the losses is nonsensical/unrealistic.

The most important thing is that you get your meaning across, so don't spend too long worrying about these details, but watch out for the false friends, and get the work completed. If language is an issue for the acceptance of the paper at review then you can always get in touch and let Technical Editorial fix it.