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Writing Problems in a Second Language: The Lowdown

written by: JKLlewthor • edited by: Elizabeth Stannard Gromisch • updated: 6/25/2014

Writing problems in second language acquisition occur for even the most experienced of ESL students. Why not examine these simple and easy solutions to some common writing quandaries in a second language? They could prove to be invaluable in your English language studies.

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    The Written Error: More Noticeable Than the Spoken Error

    Although native English speakers are intimately familiar with the frequent and often quite eccentric exceptions to the English language, Writing those who are learning English as a second language (ESL) can experience a great number of quandaries. To make matters worse, a great deal of these so-called writing quandaries will usually only reveal themselves through the medium of writing--otherwise, non-native speakers are sometimes fortunate enough to glide over them without error. To preempt the understandable difficulties that so many ESL students will encounter, let’s take a look at some of the most notorious writing problems in a second language acquisition of English.

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    The Problem With Prepositions

    Prepositions have proved to be frustrating bedfellows for students of English. Many languages, such as German, are overall very definitive about their usage of prepositions, with almost no exceptions. However, it can sometimes seem as if the English language generates its own exceptions at leisure. Perhaps most common of all is the quandary regarding the prepositions "in" and "inside"--how can one discern between the two?

    It would be perfectly acceptable, for example, for me to write both "I am in the house" and "I am inside the house." However, if I were to say that I were "inside Hell," or "I am inside a bad place," the sentence does not quite ring true.

    Fortunately, there is a fairly reliable rule that one can lean on when grappling with this strange construction. The preposition "inside" is effectively a preposition of extreme precision--that is, more precise than its cousin "in." Whereas "in" is a highly ambiguous preposition, meaning associated with, within the interior of or among, "inside" refers to a concrete, non-abstract entity. Hell, for example, is an abstract entity in English--it is written about as if it were not quite real or indeed existing elsewhere. The same goes for "a bad place," meaning a precarious emotional state--it is an abstract situation intangible to the observer. In these cases, the more ambiguous preposition "in" must be used, to suit the ambiguous nature of the noun itself.

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    Grappling with the Gerund

    Another writing quandary that often crops up among ESL students--particularly European learners--has its roots in a lack of familiarity with the gerund. The gerund, meaning essentially a doing word in the continuous present tense, does not exist in a great deal of European languages--such as German, once again. For this reason, the form of the gerund in English (I am doing, I am playing, etc.) can be unfamiliar, alien and unusual to the writer. It’s for this reason that odd phrases such as "I eat now" or "Jack goes to lunch now" often crop up in the written work of ESL students.

    Once again, this quandary can also be combated quite effectively with a simple and reliable rule. When coming across present tense verbs in a writing piece, ask yourself: am I talking about something, perhaps an imagined or hypothetical situation, which is happening right at this instant? For example, Jack goes to lunch now would become Jack is going to lunch (without the "now" the sentence would mean that Jack goes to lunch on a regular basis). If the sentence works with a "now" clause, then change the verb to a gerund.

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    A Capital Idea

    The final, and perhaps most taxing quandary of all, gravitates around the capitalization of nouns. Eastern Europeans will no doubt have come across several issues in this area, in addition perhaps to the non-native speaker whose mother tongue does not have a Latin alphabet. Although the going is usually fairly straightforward, sometimes it’s seemingly impossible to tell if a noun should be capitalized. Here are a few rules to keep in mind when grappling with the quandary of noun capitalization.

    First of all, remember that God is nearly always capitalized in English--many ESL students probably already know this. However, some may not be aware that indeed even pronouns related to God--in His image, for example--are also capitalized. This practice is not exclusive to the religious community and is employed by all speakers of English in writing.

    Another strange quandary surrounding capitalization is linked to the words Mother, Father, Mom and Dad. These are of course names, and so they should be capitalized--or should they? Remember that if the mom you are referring to is an abstract entity, i.e speaking about moms in general, then it shouldn’t be capitalized. By the same token, when talking about someone else’s mom, there is no need to capitalize the noun. Keep the capitals for your own parents!

    The same applies to directional words. You may be traveling west, but capitalize it if you're visiting someone who lives out West.

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    A Strange Terrain

    Navigating the terrain of the English language, particularly in its written form, can indeed be a strange and pitfall-ridden experience. However, with the aid of these writing tips, the process should become considerably less stressful and more fruitful.

    Although it can sometimes feel as if the number of potential problems in English is completely without an end, this is simply not the case. The difficulty of learning English as a second language is bound to improve in time. Good luck getting to grips with the solutions to these quandaries, and good luck in your studies as an ESL student!

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