Mastering the English language is a difficult task, even for native speakers. Although some mistakes are permissible, being regarded as errors common to all English speakers, journal editors and reviewers are very aware of the mistakes often made by those whose first language is not English. Unfortunately, it is possible for a reviewer’s opinion of an author submitting to an English journal to be negatively impacted by any indication that the author is not a native English speaker. Even worse, mistakes made in the abstract of a manuscript can cause a reviewer to scan a paper with a more critical eye, which means that mistakes that normally would not count against an author suddenly have greater negative impact, often resulting in a rejection letter. How can situations like this be avoided?
Suggestion: Review and avoid the following common red flags that make it easy for an editor to determine an author’s non-native status:
Incorrect article usage – One quick way to determine someone’s level of comfort with the English language is whether or not that person uses articles such as a, an and the correctly (or at all). Some languages (such as Spanish and Italian) use different articles depending on the gender of a word. Others (such as Chinese and Japanese) use no articles at all. Hence, an author’s comfort level with the use of articles in English can indicate much about their comfort with the English language in general.
Use of the same word/phrase repeatedly – The level of comfort someone has with a language is very similar to the level of comfort a pianist has with his/her instrument. A novice pianist may play music in a very rigid or uninspired manner, performing only according to the sheet of music in front of him/her. An experienced pianist, however, can play with emotion, perhaps not even looking at the sheet music at all. He/she can improvise depending on the situation or mood, playing with much passion and fervor. In the same way, native authors can utilize several variations of words or phrases to keep their content from becoming repetitive, while those with minimal experience regarding a language tend to use the same words/phrases over and over. This lack of comfort can be very obvious to editors, who often comment on the overuse of a term or expression.
Incorrect pluralization – This often occurs with words that do not change regardless whether they are singular or plural. For example, the word equipment implies more than one item. Non-native English speakers often write equipments, when it is more acceptable to write pieces of equipment. Another example is the term research, which can be regarded as either singular or plural. Several researchers do not conduct different researches; rather, they conduct different studies or carry out many research efforts, which can be found in the literature (and NOT in the literatures).
Incorrect construction of questions – The construction of questions in English can often be confusing to non-native speakers, as it differs from the construction of declarative statements. A regular sentence takes a [subject] [verb] arrangement, while a question often takes the [verb] [subject] form. For example, the statement “You are happy.” would be written as “Are you happy?” when asked as a question. Non-native English speakers tend to retain the [subject] [verb] arrangement when asking a question. The statement “We should study different types of data.” would be a suitable answer to the question “What types of data should we study?” , but the mistake that is often made is to write “What types of data we should study?” instead. Errors such as this are very noticeable.
As mentioned earlier, the English language can be challenging to master. Even adult native speakers can still struggle with the most basic rules, including the proper usage of commas and choosing between which and that.
By focusing on the issues listed above and spending less time worried about whether commas are being used correctly or hyphens are being added in the appropriate places, you may be able to avoid the negative bias of an editor towards non-native speakers.
Seeking out the expertise of a native English speaker, such as the editors at AJE, can also be helpful, as that person can help you determine whether your written work appears as if written by someone very comfortable with the English language.