Day: October 13, 2017

“The” Shaker

It’s Friday evening and it’s raining. I’m sitting in my car, waiting for my middle son to finish his outdoor flag-football practice. My phone is low on battery, so useless for killing time. I have with me a student’s manuscript draft, which I have been carrying around for a couple of weeks; I have done some work on it, picked it up and dropped it many times, and now seems like as good a time as any (save for having a three-hour flight with no WiFi) to devote myself to it. The near-captivity of limited duration somehow makes reading the manuscript almost bearable. Almost.

As a non-native speaker of English, I know it makes me a total douche to begrudge the student’s writing (this is a 4th-year student, whose spoken English is quite good). Yet, I wish I had a “the” shaker, so I could liberally sprinkle the definite article on the manuscript, because right now it looks as if the student were allergic to it.  If the paper were a frozen tundra and your life depended on finding a “the” to ingest, you’d be dead by page two.

People say that we should focus on the structure of the paper and not worry about the language. But I can’t; to me, if the language is really bad, it’s as if someone were poking me in the eye with every word. I have to clean up the language to the point of reasonable readability and grammar at the local level (sentence, paragraph), then read without constant irritation to see if the paper as a whole makes sense scientifically… Then rewrite again.

I don’t know why this issue annoys me so; again, I should be understanding of the struggle of foreign-born students with the English language. I do send them to ESL courses, recommend watching sitcoms, reading anything they can get their hands on (including trashy magazines), writing a blog, arguing on the web in written form, hanging out with native speakers… I try to help as much as I can, but it’s usually not enough.

I wonder how native English speakers who advise foreign students and postdocs view this task. What say you, dear native-speaking readers? Are you perpetually livid that your students butcher your language? Are you completely unfazed? Or, likely, something in between?