Not only is English the most popular language on the internet, but it’s also the most commonly studied foreign language in the world.
So even if you’re a non-native English speaker, it’s good business sense to write your content in English—that way you’ll reach and attract a bigger audience of potential customers.
And you’d be joining a hallowed club. Non-native English speakers have blazed a trail through English literature, including Joseph Conrad, who learned English as an adult, and Vladimir Nabokov, whose mother tongue was Russian. Both authors’ works are regarded as classics and studied at universities.
Nabokov called his English “second-rate,” but millions of people regard his novels as masterpieces. In actual fact, non-native English speakers bring a lot to the content table. Because of their multicultural background, they often have a better grasp of international audiences and write accordingly. And they bring an extra flourish to their second language that many mother-tongue writers lack.
However, mistakes can detract from the quality of the content you are putting out there. They can be costly for your business, with some customers turned off by obvious spelling mistakes and awkward translations. So if English isn’t your first language, how can you make sure you’re writing quality content?
Non-native English writers often make the same mistakes over and over again without even realizing it, such as:
- Overusing long words and complex sentences.
- Falling for false friends or cognates.
- Directly translating content from their native language.
- Switching between British and American English.
But you can avoid these errors if you are aware of them and keep them in mind when you’re writing. Here are seven tips to start improving your content.
1. Read and Analyze Good Content, Often
You may realize that to write good-quality content in English, you need to read as much as possible. But it’s not enough to just passively take in content, which is easily done when your news feed is saturated and you’re just scanning and scrolling.
Instead, read selectively and with intention. Go out of your way to find quality content, and break it down. Why does it stand out? What’s the tone, aim, or subject that attracts readers? How does it flow from paragraph to paragraph?
It’s essential that you find your writing style in English, a style that may be different from your native language style. And the best way to find your English voice is to consume and analyze until you’ve figured out what works best.
2. Keep Your Words and Sentences Short
Using long words and going overboard with adjectives and adverbs is a rite of passage that all writers go through. You may think that the fancier the words you pack in, the better you sound.
But instead of reading text word for word, people tend to scan online content. So your writing must be short, well-formatted, and to the point. The key is to keep it simple, but not simplistic.
As a non-native speaker, you may find it difficult to write pared-down, simple English. For example, if your mother tongue is a Romance language, you might be overusing multisyllabic Latin words in English.
This is because English shares many Latin loanwords with Italian, Spanish and Portuguese, so they may come naturally to you. But using too many Latin words in your English content can give it an academic and dry feel. This is known as inkhorning.
If you stuff your sentences with too many long, complex phrases, you’ll put your impatient readers off. Instead, try replacing long words by searching for similar terms in a thesaurus.
For example, some Italians overuse Latin words in English, like “I descended the bus.” Descending may be technically correct but sounds stuffy and fussy. The thesaurus suggests the better replacement: “I got off the bus.”
Another example is a waste paper bin in a Spanish park that reads “Jettison your dog waste here.” The word jettison is old-fashioned and reads awkwardly on a sign. “Dispose of your dog waste here” is better.
Or you may pack in as many adjectives and adverbs as you can to add color to your writing. But relying on these words can make your text flabby and lifeless. Instead, you need to concentrate on using strong, active verbs.
Stronger verbs help the reader paint a colorful picture with your words. They make your content clearer, more concise, and more engaging to your audience.
Take this sentence: “He moved into management quickly.” To find a stronger verb and ditch the adverb “quickly,” search for the verb “move” in a thesaurus:
- He sprinted into management.
- He hustled into management.
- He raced into management.
So how do you make your content lean and mean? Try to keep sentences under 25 words. Get out your thesaurus and:
- Replace long words with shorter ones.
- Replace adjectives and adverbs with strong verbs.
3. Don’t Fall for Direct Translations
A mistake many non-native English speakers make is translating content into English rather than writing in English. You may be subconsciously using syntax or grammar rules from your native language that are not as natural in English.
Here are a few examples of some translation errors that keep popping up in non-native English text.
|To be versus to have||My company has 31 years old.||My company is 31 years old.|
|Uncountable nouns||Moneys, datas, knowledges||Money, data, knowledge|
|Since versus for||He’s been working here since four years.||He’s been working here for four years.|
|Possessives||The Irish office of our company welcomes you.||Our company’s Irish office welcomes you.|
|Fun versus funny||The office party was funny.||The office party was fun.|
|Nice versus good||Do you know of any nice deals?||Do you know of any good deals?|
|Present tense confusion||Our head office is in Singapore for many years.||Our head office has been in Singapore for many years.|
|Past tense confusion||Last year, the markets were being volatile.||Last year, the markets were volatile.|
If any of the above mistakes look familiar, it’s time to brush up on your English grammar. If you have a favorite English language textbook, dust it off and review. If you don’t have much time, check out bite-sized grammar and syntax guides, like podcasts, blogs, and websites.
And remember that native English speakers aren’t immune to grammar mistakes either, so you don’t necessarily need a guide for non-native speakers. There are plenty of grammar and style guides that are aimed at mother tongue users.
4. Don’t Trust in False Friends
Anyone who has used a language other than their native one has come across these pesky false friends or cognates. They are words that sound or are written the same as in your native language but actually mean something completely different.
Here are a few examples:
|Foreign word||Foreign meaning||Incorrect||Correct|
|Kontrollieren (German), Contrôller (French)||To control, to check||He controlled the team’s work.||He checked the team’s work.|
|Sympathique (French)||Nice, kind, sympathetic||They are very sympathetic; they say hi every morning.||They are very nice; they say hi every morning.|
|Réaliser (French)||To realise, to achieve||I realised that task yesterday.||I carried out that task yesterday.|
|Bekommen (German)||To get, to receive||I become a steak, please.||I would like a steak, please.|
Everyone’s guilty of using false friends when speaking or writing another language. But these mistakes stick out like a sore thumb to native speakers. Your text will just look badly translated rather than written from scratch.
Read up on common false friends in your native language, and make a note of them. Refer to this list as much as possible to make sure you avoid these errors.
5. Don’t Confuse American and British English
Many non-native English speakers mix up American and British terms and syntax. It’s very common with people who studied in a non-English speaking country or who learned English by mainly reading books and watching TV.
This is so easy to do, as both English styles are very alike. But if you confuse the little differences too much, your content will come across as inconsistent and jarring to your audience.
One of the biggest differences is collective nouns, also known as a group of individuals. In American English, these groups are always singular. In British English, they can either be singular or plural.
|British English||American English|
|The staff scramble into position.||The staff scrambles into position.|
|The team stare into space.||The team stares into space.|
There are hundreds of spelling differences between British and American English. Here are a few examples to give you an idea.
|British English||American English|
American and British English are quite similar, but there are certain colloquialisms that are unrecognizable to the American or the British ear.
|British English||American English|
|Petrol station||Gas station|
So which English form should you use? Unless you’re writing for a particular market or client, it doesn’t really matter. But it’s important to be consistent—so pick one and stick to it.
This is where spell checkers come in very handy. Make sure to select either British or American English as the language before running the check. You’ll see that many of these differences will be picked up.
6. Find a Native English Editor
But how do you correct your mistakes when you don’t realize you’re making them in the first place? What happens when a spell check highlights a word that you’re sure is correct?
Behind every blossoming non-native English writer is a great native English editor. Even native English speakers have bad habits they make when writing content. These mistakes just blend into the background, and you become blind to them.
A good editor won’t just send your corrected text back to you. If you want, they will take the time to point out why the text has mistakes in the first place. Did you use a British term when the rest of your content is clearly American English? Did you use a direct translation from your native language that makes no sense?
There are also issues that cannot be fixed by reading grammar books or using a spell checker. You may translate an idiom that works in Dutch but is gibberish in English. And certain turns of phrase just sound downright weird to the English ear no matter how correct they seem to you.
An English editor will pick up on these issues in your text and suggest alternatives. Or they will query your meaning and rewrite your clunkier sentences into concise content.
7. Keep a Note of Your Mistakes
Now that you’ve got a native-English editor, make sure you learn from their feedback. It’s essential that you keep track of the errors that you make so you can avoid them later. Bury your ego, take on their constructive criticism, and apply it to your future writing.
One way to stay consistent is to create a style guide or checklist for your content. Do you tend to overuse certain words or false friends? Do you keep spelling the same word incorrectly?
Keep a running list of the common issues in a document, which you can use as a checklist when you’re writing and editing content. The more you refer to this cheat sheet, the more your writing will improve.
Over to You
It often makes good business sense to write your content in English even if your company is based in a non-English speaking country. English is popular as a foreign language, widely-spoken across the globe, and everywhere online. Your business will be more visible, and you’ll be more likely to reach a larger audience.
But if you’re a non-native speaker of English, you might not pick up mistakes you or your employees make when writing content. The odd typo or grammar error here and there is not a big deal. But if you make a habit of awkward translations and outright mistakes, you could put off potential clients.
It can be hard work writing in a language other than your mother tongue, and there are unique challenges that native speakers just take for granted. But with a little effort on your part, your content will shine.
Take the time to find a quality editor, and take note of the common mistakes non-native English writers make. Your improved content will not only let your clients know how your services can help them, but it also will be error-free, engaging, and enjoyable to read.