Advanced ESL Writing,
Top Five Mistakes

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Advanced ESL Writing, Top Five MistakesOnce an ESL learner gets to a certain level of language learning they:
  • Know all the basics
  • No longer have to work at them
  • Have become natural
When an ESL writer gets to this stage they:
  • Know and can use English grammar
  • Can express themselves so that their readers can understand them
  • They're not quite perfect. Their writing just doesn't read exactly the same as a native speaker's.

I have extensive experience of working as a proofreader correcting the writing of advanced writers who aren't native English speakers.

I'll list and explain five of the most common mistakes that I see in their writing.

1. Overuse of linking words and phrases

Linking words and phrases are words and phrases such as:
  • Firstly
  • Therefore 
  • Indeed
  • In addition 
  • However, and many others
I know that most ESL writing teachers tell their students about using linking words in their writing to join sentences and paragraphs together. This is an important skill to learn and use, but I find that linking words are often overused or the wrong word is used.

ESL learners are told that linking words are important and will make their writing better and easier to understand. You're given exercises to help you chose and use linking words, but like many exercises, these are slightly unnatural, in that, they're designed to give you as a student, as much practice of the topic as possible in a short time.

Native English speakers don't use linking words extensively. Just at selected points in their writing.

An advanced ESL writer generally uses linking words much more frequently than a native speaker would. Try to reduce your use of linking words to sound more natural in your writing.

2. Unnatural word choice

Even advanced ESL writers can still make mistakes in their choices of vocabulary; but these mistakes are related to more complex words.

Often the words which are used incorrectly have a similar meaning to the intended word but not quite the same.

For example:

Word used by ESL writer Correct word                    
Interested in Related to
Disclosed Demonstrated
Easy Suitable
Utilized Inhabit
Accumulate Result in

In all the examples above the word used by the ESL writer, in the context of the sentence, were similar to the correct word.

In all the cases the sentence was understandable, but did not sound natural or required the reader to stop and think, just for a moment, about what the writer meant.

And this is the most common problem with advance level ESL writing – sometimes it just doesn't sound right to a native speaker. It's close but not quite right in a few areas.

3. Misplaced modifiers

A modifier is a word or group of words that describes something or limits its meaning.

For example:
  • I want the blue hat.
    (Blue describes which hat.)

  • We ran quickly.
    (Quickly describes how we ran.)

This is something that's not just a problem with ESL writers but with many native writers as well. The modifier is misplaced in the sentence – it modifies the wrong word.

Usually this makes the sentence sound wrong. It doesn't flow naturally, the reader has to stop and think. (An advanced ESL writer doesn't often make a mistake so bad that it causes the sentence to become impossible to understand, though.)

For example:

  • Incorrect: We almost washed all the dishes.
    (Here almost describe the action of washing all the dishes.)

  • Correct: We washed almost all the dishes.
    (Here almost describes all the dishes.)

Often in the work that I'm correcting I can still understand what the ESL writer wanted to say, by using common sense and reading the sentences around the one with the misplaced modifier. I can guess at what I'd have wanted to say in that situation.

But it's still a mistake and each mistake, no matter how minor they might appear, makes your writing less professional looking, which can be a big problem if your writing is all that the reader has to judge you and your ability on.

4. Mixing up prepositions

In the advanced ESL writing that I quite often see there are mistakes with the use of prepositions. Particularly:
  • With
  • To
  • In
  • Of
  • From
These five prepositions often get mixed up and misused. As with many of the mistakes made by advanced ESL writers, the differences between the prepositions are quite subtle; the sentences sound almost right, and it's possible to understand what the author meant to say. But they don't sound like the writing of a native English writer.

For example:
  • Incorrect: He's bigger from me.

  • Correct: He's bigger than me.

5. How about that zero article?

Most advanced ESL writers can use the indefinite (a/an) and definite (the) articles correctly but have problems using the zero article (no article at all).

The problems are either the use of an article when there should be no (zero) article present or the zero article being used when either a/an or the should have been used.

For example:
  • Incorrect: She's afraid of the snakes.
    (Meaning: she's afraid of specific snakes.)

  • Correct: She's afraid of snakes.
    (Meaning: she's generally afraid of snakes.)

Advanced ESL writers can usually produce well written and presented documents.

They're able to write without making many of the mistakes that they made when their English was at a lower level; but they still make mistakes. Only the mistakes are more advanced.

They're the sort of mistakes that can be corrected with careful proofreading, if the writer is aware that these are the sorts of mistakes they're likely to make.

This article should help you know about, and therefore be aware of the possible mistakes. If, when proofreading, you check for the mistakes I've explained here, you should be able to improve your writing so that it gets even better.

This article was written by Jolyon Dodgson.

If you would like more information about English writing and proofreading or need someone to proofread your documents, you can go to the Excellent Proofreading and Writing site. The site has ESL, academic, scientific, and many more sections about writing, as well as checklists and techniques to help you proofread your own documents.

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