“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?


  1. The language doesn’t bother me too much, although I’m slightly annoyed if they haven’t been to the writing center or had it proofread by one of their colleagues first.
    The bottom line is… the language in a paper can be fixed, the data/science- if the experiment is done and over, and it turns out the student messed up in a big way and either did something incorrectly or forgot to do something necessary- can’t. Give me the former any time!

  2. Gob of Goo, we usually look at data many times and discuss the skeleton of the paper before I say, “OK, go ahead and draft the paper.” So, for me, there are usually no big surprises regarding the data once the time has come to write.

  3. And yeah, we don’t have a writing center here. Maybe they have the manuscript read by another student before it comes to me, but often not.

  4. I’m exactly like you — I can’t read the content of the paper until I’ve corrected at least all of the egregious grammar errors. They just grate on me so badly. If the paper is really awful, I’ll just do a first read-through for grammar, and then go back and read again for content — I can’t read it at all otherwise.

  5. There is no content without words.

    There’s a threshold at which poor grammar, etc simply makes work unreadable.

  6. Have you ever considered paying a professional editor to look over your students’ first drafts? I’m similar to you in my inability to tune out grammar in favor of content and a senior scientist suggested that to me recently. His point was my time is likely worth more to me than the ~$500 I would pay for the editorial services. I think he might be right…

  7. I do a fair amount of editing of sidework that is editing non-native (mostly academic) English mostly (though not all) by Polish speakers. Polish is typically Slavic in that it has neither definite or indefinite articles so the usage in things I get is all over the place.
    My first advice, when asked, is that for native speakers (at least me) it’s far easier to read and understand a text that has articles that shouldn’t be there (or the wrong article) than texts with not enough articles.
    I happened on this principle when I was working with a translator some years ago (she translated into English and I checked it) and she sent me this….. thing in geology. They had thought her (very reasonable) price was too much and so the professor translated the article himself and wanted her (that is me) to check it.
    She passed it on saying I should feel free to toss it right back at them if I didn’t feel like messing with it. I foolishly decided to try.
    Oh. my. freaking. god. Six or so dense pages with almost no articles whatsoever, it was incredibly difficult to understand, it was hard to parse sentences into any recognizable form and sometimes I just had to guess. I charged them over twice what I charged the translator (which wasn’t nearly enough in terms of time and effort expended).
    Ever since that’s always been my advice – when in doubt insert an article, If you’re not sure – guess, but put one in.

  8. Grumpy, that’s a very good point. But there is the educational aspect — when I return a marked-up copy, bleeding red, hopefully some of the edits and the explanations for them stick with the student…

  9. I used to advise students to read the chapters on article usage in Huckin and Olsen’s Technical Writing and Professional Communication: For Nonnative Speakers of English, which has one of the best explanations of article usage I’ve seen. (It also has good chapters on flow.)

    Unfortunately it is out of print.

  10. I think a key issue is whether a person is invested in improving their writing, and to what degree. I am convinced that, if writing well is really important to someone, they will find ways to improve. It’s not impossible, especially for intelligent people with an analytic mind: if you dissect well-written papers and books, you can infer a lot about structure, flow, and various grammatical issues. We are not talking about students writing the next great American novel; we are talking about cracking the code of clear, grammatically correct use of the language in the written form for the purpose of fairly formulaic technical writing. The Web is replete with resources — I don’t think it’s the issue of needing more of them; rather, it’s the issue of a person deciding that improving their written language is a big priority and aiming their mental faculties at the problem. As with most things in life, you can lead a horse to water (point to a variety of resources) but you can’t make it drink (you can’t really make someone want to mentally engage with all this information).

  11. I agree that desire to improve is key, but having a near-infinite number of low-quality resources (The Web), it not very helpful—a smaller selection of carefully tailored resources is much better. That was why I liked Huckin and Olsen—it had a very targeted set of heuristics for choosing articles correctly and for other very common problems with writing by non-native speakers. They were written in a way that made them easy for engineers (and presumably scientists) to apply.

  12. I don’t encounter this as much (in the humanities) but am bookmarking Huckin & Olsen for future recommendations to my colleagues. Thanks!

  13. I ordered a used copy, thanks! Another one that’s quite good (although I find it somewhat irritating in tone) is “Writing Science” by Joshua Schimel.

    The downside of a physical book is that someone is hogging it in the lab or has taken it home and then taken it with them after graduation (it happens, no matter how many times and where I stamp the book with my name), and then everyone else is f*cked. Thus my love for online resources.

    For grammar and punctuation, I like the Blue Book of Grammar and Punctuation (http://www.grammarbook.com/) and Grammar Girl (http://grammar.quickanddirtytips.com/).

  14. The absolute worst writers that I have encountered in my 20 year experience running a lab have been 2 native English speakers. Both were Americans, at PhD/postdoctoral levels.

    It was amazing to me, but they could not understand how to communicate any kind of argument in a logical way. They couldn’t organize their thoughts. They couldn’t present or discuss any type of evidence coherently. Instead, they just “threw” all their data and other facts into a kind of a junkpile on the page, added some standard phrases here and there as decoration, and hoped that the readers would be able to sort out and make sense of it.

    I tried to work with them to improve their writing, but they had no idea that writing a paper was supposed to consist of anything other than what they were doing. When they read papers written by others, they similarly only “saw” a junkpile of disconnected facts—the concepts in the paper went over their heads.

    Of course they also couldn’t write 1-2 sentences in standard English. But that was the least of their problems.

  15. In my experience it is Slavic speakers (including myself when I started writing in English) who don’t include articles. That said, most of them do improve and the main remedy seems to be reading in English as much as possible (regardless of what the reading material is, the point is to get the feeling for the language).

    The worst writer I ever met was one of my PhD students who was a native speaker – like Artnsci’s two writers, this person just threw words together in a jumble and with no logic whatsoever. I tried for several years to train this person, but it was impossible, one of the reasons being that the student as the native speaker didn’t want to be taught how to write by the non-native speaker. In the end I gave up and just told the student to have the thesis professionally proof-read before submission.

  16. It’s not just the ESL writers who are horrible. My worst writer was a native English speaker. The errors had no rhyme or reason, and made me want to gouge my own eyes out. At least with someone who acquired English later there is usually a pattern of errors from their native language (no articles, no commas, verb tenses, pronouns, etc). And this person had trouble stringing three sentences together to make a paragraph. Disorganized writing knows no native language.

    I agree with you that people either see improving their writing as a priority, or they don’t. Once I figure out that they don’t, I try to waste as little time as possible if I can’t convince them otherwise. My main advice to students is to emulate papers they find especially clear, and to read as much as possible.

  17. Oh, lordy, most of my students (~95%) are native English speakers and fully 50% of them produce incomprehensible nonsense. Most of them can’t even copy the word ‘soluble’ from one page to the next. I wonder, I really do.

    The worst non-native speakers I’ve ever encountered were the ones who thought their writing was perfect and needed no editing, not even for idiomatic usage. They would write all these things that were technically grammatically correct and yet the reader would have to re-read it six times to figure out the meaning because no-one would ever say that. (The rest of the non-native speakers- and I speak another language fluently but I don’t kid myself that it’s perfect! – would cheerfully accept explanations of obscure idioms and peculiar grammatical points when offered. I got a Russian colleague, who’d been in the US for 12 years, with ‘even odds’ one day.)

  18. Jenny F. Scientist: The word “gunshy” just came up at a meeting on Friday in a question. The speaker, although fluent in English, was francophone and didn’t know that word. (Then again, I couldn’t think of a French translation for it either).

    As for “the”, yes, I wrote a lot of papers in grad school with a coauthor originally from Serbia and I just couldn’t get over the occasional lack of “the”. It wasn’t unreadable, but just looked wrong.

  19. FWIW, this student in the post isn’t Slavic. In my experience, students from many countries have issues with articles, even though other systematic problems might be even more pronounced owing to the structure of their native language (as Prodigal says, mixing pronouns because native language doesn’t gender pronouns — not really an issue in technical writing, but very noticeable when speaking; not being able to identify an appropriate tense/mixing tenses because native language doesn’t have tenses, etc. ).

  20. The lack of articles is common in many languages—the Slavic languages have been mentioned by others here, but Chinese and Japanese are the more common native languages on the West Coast to result in cluelessness about article usage.

    Even students coming from languages with definite and indefinite articles (most of western Europe) can be confused by the differences in what nouns are countable and subtly different uses of definite and indefinite articles between languages.

    I find myself often recommending to students that they use the Oxford on-line dictionaries, which explicitly mark uncountable nouns. (I used to recommend a paperback dictionary, but the on-line ones are now easier to access.)

  21. As a non-native user of English myself, I think the only way to improve one’s written English is to read lots, and somehow internalize the language. For those of us who like to read, this is not really a chore, but I imagine this solution will not work for all. Also, it takes time.

    I used to get very annoyed when asked to read badly written scripts (non-academic, but technical). But nowadays, I have learnt to resist the impulse to correct syntax rather than content, much to the relief of my colleagues. But surely a University is full of liberal arts majors who would love to have a “research assistantship” proofreading?

  22. My husband grew up in the USSR, and moved here for grad school barely speaking any English. I grew up here, and do not speak a second language (except rudimentary Russian, picked up from him). Both of us have students who are mostly foreigners, and over the years it’s become clear that he is far, far harsher on them for this than I am. I think it boils down to the fact that while we both try to provide students with resources to learn English when they get here, to me the idea of learning a new language while going through grad school is crazy, while he knows that it’s absolutely doable. He gets angry at his older students who haven’t put in the time watching sitcoms or reading novels or just hanging out with native speakers, and has been known to gift students copies of the chicago manual of style.

    For a long time I thought he was way too harsh, and I still think that to some extent – the fact that he was able to pick up English reasonably well doesn’t mean his students will be perfect. And even now, I sometimes proofread his stuff for articles – the need for a “the” shaker is real. As I get older, though, I’m starting to think that he’s somewhat right, and that there needs to really be a firm expectation that learning the language (and learning it *well*) is more than a nice idea, but is actually a requirement for a career.

  23. It’s also worth noting that for both of us the issue extends beyond writing, even – we have both had students who speak such bad english that even after a few years we simply cannot communicate about science with them without the aid of a chalkboard.

  24. I won’t correct persistent issues, I point it out for a page or two, and tell them to find the rest. if it makes it too hard to understand, it goes back like that until it comes back readable. I am not a copy editor, I don’t mind mistakes here and there, but not massive issues. I had a supervisor who had a rule that you had to have another student read your work before he would look at it; I will be adopting this as a PI. As a postdoc I am often a first look person. I often deal with basic understanding first, and send docs back to people to fix that before I try to decipher the actual content. If it’s generally ok to read, I’ll just do both at once, but I won’t try to decipher something written horribly.

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