Some Notes on Writing Mostly for Non-Native Speakers
--Wes Peterson

As I read reports, I think, how can I help you? I think that my marking corrections won't really teach you how to write. Therefore I decided to give up when the English is very bad, and instead write these notes that I hope will help you write better English.

I know how hard it is to write good English. As most of you know, my wife is Japanese. We both use both languages, so I have a little foreign language experience, and I see the difficulties that we have. She still asks me to proofread her reports, even though she has been living here with me for over 34 years. Still, you have to write English if you are going to work in this country, and probably even if you don't stay here. You are probably simply going to need to get help from a native speaker.

I have a friend, Tadao Kasami, who teaches in Japan and who has done very good research, and therefore written many papers in English. He writes remarkably good English. My theory is that he has a context-free grammar for a subset of English that is adequate for what he writes, and he always uses that. What that really means is that he has a collection of sentence patterns that he knows are correct, and he restricts himself to those. I guess that you can write respectable English if you have a collection of somewhere in the neighborhood of thirty such patterns. (I guess that native speakers do much the same thing, but that they know a lot more patterns, maybe thousands.)

I think you can do that. Use some fairly simple sentence patterns that you know are correct, and don't try to be very creative with your grammar. Use simple sentences. Don't try to write elegantly.

You have studied English a lot. I assume that you know basic English grammar, and I will make no attempt to be complete. I will write about some of the areas that give difficulty. I will expand on these notes over time, but I have to start somewhere. I don't plan to make a complete book on writing English. I just thought that I might be able to help with a few troublesome points.

Rule number one is that there are exceptions to every rule (except this one). Native speakers know these exceptions. You will have difficulty with them. It is best for a non-native speaker simply not to use exceptions unless you really understand them well. For example, I will tell you soon that sand and water are collective nouns and you never make them plural. However, there is a place on Kauai called Barking Sands and a song named "Bridge over Troubled Waters". Still, it is best if you never say "sands" or "waters" (maybe except when the word is part of a name like this).


A) English is divided into sentences that start with a capital letter and end with a period. Every sentence has a subject and every sentence has a verb. If there is no subject or no verb, it isn't a sentence--at least not an English sentence. This is a problem for Asian people, because the subject is optional in Asian languages. If you don't want to say the subject explicitly, in English you have to use a pronoun. The minimum sentence has two words, a subject and a verb, like "He passed."

B) Some verbs are transitive--they need an object. For example, if I say "He earns." or " I like.", that sounds strange. Those need objects--"He earns a good salary." and "I like Hawaii." Some verbs are intransitive--they cannot have an object. For example, "I agree." You can't say "I agree that." That simply isn't English.

C) Many verbs can be used either with an object or without. For example, it is correct to say "He is eating" and it is correct to say "He is eating steak." In Asian languages, if it is clear what the object is, you can just omit it. That doesn't work in English. If there is supposed to be an object, then there must be an object, and you may use a noun, like steak, or a pronoun, like it. When you write a sentence, then you should think, is there an object? You may say "He is eating" and that means he is eating something, of course, but nothing special. If you say "There is a steak on the table. He is eating" then that does not mean he is eating the steak. I would think not. If he is eating the steak, you say, "There is a steak on the table. He is eating it." If you say, "The ICS423 textbook is on the table. Ken is reading" that does not mean that Ken is reading the textbook. I guess he is reading something else. If he is reading the textbook, you should say, "There is a book on the table. Ken is reading it."

In summary, try to understand whether your verb should have an object. If so, put an object there--if not a noun, then use a pronoun, even though in your native language you would omit it.

D) There are dependent clauses that, like sentences, have a subject and a verb. They have some special word that makes them dependent clauses. This is different from Asian Languages, where some dependent clauses don't have that special word to show that they are dependent clauses. The simplest examples are when and where, and how, which is a little harder. These clauses modify the verb or maybe the whole sentence, like "When I am hungry, I eat" or "I eat when I am hungry." Note that although "I am hungry" is a sentence, "when I am hungry" is not a sentence and you can't write that with the first letter capitalized and with a period an the end. It just is not a sentence.

E) The other most common dependent clauses modify nouns. They need a relative pronoun like who, whom, whose, what, or that. Again, in Asian languages you don't need that relative pronoun. You just write a clause in front of a noun and the clause modifies the noun. That doesn't work in English. You need that relative pronoun, and the noun comes first, then the relative pronoun (which refers to that noun), and then the rest of the clause. Here are a couple of examples: "He is the person who finished the project first." "He is a person whom I trust."  "He is the person from whom I borrowed the book." "He is the person whose book I borrowed."

In summary, dependent clauses need a special word that shows that they are dependent clauses. If they modify a noun, the noun comes first, then the special word (called a relative pronoun in this case) and following that is the rest of the clause. I emphasize that because it is so different from Asian languages.

Agreement--Nouns and Pronouns

F) A pronoun must represent something. That something should be mentioned in your paper, fairly close to where the pronoun is. For each pronoun, you should be able to point to a noun or other pronoun and say that the pronoun refers to that. That should be in the same sentence or the preceding sentence, or maybe occasionally the sentence before that, but not farther away than that. There should not be a different noun or pronoun that the pronoun could refer to between the pronoun and what it is supposed to refer to. I, we, you are exceptions to that rule--what they refer to is considered close enough without being explicitly referenced in the writing.

So, for each pronoun except I, we, and you, you should be able to point to a noun and say that the pronoun refers to that noun.

G) A pronoun must match what it refers to. You must use he or him for a male, she or her for a female, or it for a single thing. If there are several persons or things, you use they. When you are checking pronouns by pointing to the noun or pronoun that each pronoun refers to, check whether the pronoun and the noun agree, i. e. that they match.

H) English has an awkward problem. We are not supposed to discriminate with respect to sex, but the language does. There is no nice way to refer to a person if you don't know whether the person is male or female. Probably the best way is he/she, but that is kind of awkward. To use "they" to refer to a single person is wrong. I was taught to use "he" if you don't know--but that was 60 years ago and things have changed since then. Some authors just use "she", figuring, I guess, that they are making up for the past. I have no good answer for this problem. Sometimes you can simply avoid using a pronoun.

Agreement--Verb and Subject

I) For present tense, if the subject is singular and not I, we, or you, you put an s on the end of the verb. For example, "He goes to UH" or "She drinks too much coffee." You have to get that right for the writing to sound correct. You don't do it for past or future, e. g. "He went to UH and she will go to UH."

The tricky thing here is getting this right when the subject and verb are separated. For example, you should say "That group of people goes to UH." The verb is the singular form because the subject is group, not people, and group is singular. If you don't like that, change the sentence. "Those people go to UH."

Verb Tense

J) In English your verb must indicate past or present or future or something like that. In Chinese you don't have to bother with that. Just think, did that happen in the past? If so, use past tense. If not, generally use present. "I went to school yesterday, and I will go to school tomorrow. I go to school every day."

Collective Nouns

K) There are two kinds of nouns in English, ordinary nouns and collective nouns. Collective nouns describe something that you measure by quantity. You don't count those things. I always think of sand and water. You don't say "one sand" or "two waters". (There are exceptions, but you will be much safer simply not to try to use the exceptions.) You cannot say "a sand" or "a water". You should say "a cup of water" or "a ton of sand".

"Book" and "cup" are ordinary nouns. Here are ways in which collective nouns and ordinary nouns differ in English usage:

L) You can't count collective nouns--you count ordinary nouns:

I have three books and two cups of water.

M) Use "much" with collective nouns, "many" with ordinary nouns:

There is much sand and there are many cars at the beach.

How much water do you want? How many books do you have?

N) Never use "a" with collective nouns:

I have a book and a cup of water.

O) Never make a collective noun plural (by adding an s on the end).

There are lots of cars and lots of sand at the beach.

P) If a pronoun refers to a collective noun, it should be singular, not plural.

There is a lot of sand at the beach, and it is very nice for walking.

He gave me a lot of advice and it was very useful to me.

In general, anything that is measured in a quantity rather than counting is a collective noun. Besides sand and water, sugar, salt, milk, air, air pollution, smoke, etc. are collective nouns. Most nouns are ordinary nouns, but there are a lot of collective nouns, and it isn't always clear what nouns are collective nouns. You just have to learn which are which. In fact, it is harder than that. A noun can be sometimes collective and sometimes ordinary. For example, "modification" is collective if you think of it as a process that continues as a process, or it is ordinary if you think of a "modification" as being a definite, well-defined change in a program or something. E. g. "I made three modifications to my program today", or "modification to improve security on the system is continuing".

Here is a list of some collective nouns that I have seen in reports. I will add to the list as I notice more.

advice, code (meaning computer software code), software, hardware, spyware, etc., documentation, feedback, information, work, homework, progress, money, text (meaning something like a bunch of characters or bytes) , stress (from too much homework), confusion.

Articles (A and The)

Q) These are really hard. "A book" means any book, not a certain book. If you are talking about a certain book, you say "the book". The original meaning that "a" came from was "one". (In pidgin English, you use "one" instead of "a".) "The" came from "this" or "that". Generally if you can substitute "one" for "a" and the sentence is correct, "a" is correct. If you can substitute "this" or "that" for "the", then "the" is probably correct.

In the sentence "I chose a book and I gave the book to Alice", "a book" is correct because at that point it could be any book. However, after I have chosen it, it is the book that I am talking about, and therefore the second time "the book" is correct. Note that it would make sense to say "I chose one book and I gave that book to Alice."

"A" means singular--one thing or person. You never use it with more than one thing. You also never use "a" with collective nouns. Never say "a sand", "an advice", "an information", "a software", etc. If the noun is plural or collective and you don't use "the", don't use anything.

Unfortunately there is a third choice, even for singular nouns--omitting the article. I think your best guide is the "one" or "that" guideline. If neither one fits well, omit the article. You wouldn't say "one Hawaii" or "that Hawaii" and therefore don't say "a Hawaii" or "the Hawaii". Simply say "Hawaii". If "one" or "that" fits reasonably, then use "a" or "the", and if not, use no article. Generally you don't use an article with a "proper noun", i. e. the capitalized name of something.

Dangling Participles

R) This is a common problem for native speakers. It is so common that I sometimes wonder whether English has changed--I was taught that dangling participles are wrong, but that was more than 60 years ago. But I was told that dangling participles are still not correct English. Here is the problem. When I read this sentence:

"While eating supper, the telephone rang."

I want to know who was eating. I expect to find that person as the subject of the main sentence. That is the telephone. I don't believe the telephone was eating. It must have been someone else. Then I have to look around to try to figure out who it was. If this were clearly written, I would not have to do all that monkey business to understand the sentence completely. It would be better to write

"While I was eating supper, the telephone rang."  or "While eating supper, I heard the telephone ring."

Here is another bad sentence: "While writing my program, a file got lost." Since the file was not writing my program, it would be better to say, "While I was writing my program, a file got lost." or "While writing my program, I lost a file."

Here is one more bad sentence: "Using Visual C++, there were a lot of compiler errors." It just isn't clear who is using Visual C++. It would be better to say, "When I was using Visual C++, there were a lot of compiler errors." or "Using Visual C++, I got a lot of compiler errors."