The Grammar Bitch: English as an Impossible Language

Last week, I got into a discussion with my fellow copyeditor about English as a second language (ESL). Sort of. We were discussing the number of staff writers and contributors that we have who speak and write English as a second (or third, or fifth) language. The general consensus of our conversation was: “They really are the best. Seriously.” I know, pretty lackluster for people who deal with words for a living. Don’t judge. Anyway, I can’t remember the reason we even got started talking about it in the first place, but it basically boils down to the fact that I’m in complete awe of people who don’t speak English as their primary language who write for a primarily English-speaking magazine.

English is hard, y’all. It only sort of makes sense in the best-case scenarios, and is a holy mess the rest of the time. We shouldn’t even bother having spelling and grammar rules, because there are so many exceptions that the rules are pretty much pointless. There is absolutely no consistency whatsoever, and, unlike almost every other language, you can’t obtain proficiency by simply memorizing the rules of grammar; instead, you have to memorize every single stupid quirk and idiosyncrasy of the language. I can’t imagine how anyone could possibly do that. And yet, so many do.

I fully acknowledge the linguistic privilege that comes from growing up in an English-speaking household, raised by two teachers who were responsible, at least partially, for making sure their students (and their children) had a mastery of the language. I’m also incredibly lucky to have gone to college, where I essentially majored in words. I studied words and sentences and works of literature intensively. And, frankly, I think people who learned English as a second language worked much harder than I ever did.

When I first started editing for Persephone, I came across a few articles that kind of stood out at me. The syntax and construction was just a little off. I’d seen this before when I was editing academic papers, usually when people were writing about things outside of their main disciplines. And then someone mentioned that this writer or that does not speak English as their primary language. And suddenly, all of the pieces fell into place. Their syntax looked off to me because it was logical. Their writing followed specifically set rules as to where words go in a sentence, how prefixes and suffixes are used, and how sentences are assembled. Of course it looked strange to me. English doesn’t follow any of those rules, not consistently, at least. What is even more interesting to me is that once I know a writer’s primary language, I can deconstruct and reconstruct their sentences pretty easily. Most languages have their own flow, certain “tells” that indicate when a native speaker is writing in a language other than their primary one. But the fact that anyone who learned English after first being fluent or proficient in another language can write an article fit for publication and easily read, understood, and discussed is absolutely astounding to me.

And I can’t even begin to tell you how impressed I am with our writers who are non-native English-speakers. Not to mention our commenters. I see comments sometimes, not just here, but other places, in which people apologize for their writing, explaining that English isn’t their first language. And I just wish I could convey, in this complicated and ridiculous mess of words that is the English language, just how incredible I find it. Learning another language, any language, is difficult, but English is its own particular brand of messy, and anyone who is willing to try to tackle that, and then share their efforts with others, has nothing but my complete respect.

So I never want to hear or read anyone apologizing for their imperfect English. I guarantee that even with a lifetime of study, I could never be as proficient in another language as so many non-native speakers are in English. So say what’s on your mind, write out what you have to say, and don’t apologize. If anyone has a problem with whatever tiny technical errors you might make, you just tell ’em to talk to the Grammar Bitch.

11 replies on “The Grammar Bitch: English as an Impossible Language”

I once worked as an editor for an Anglophone online journal hosted by a French uni. For most of the contributors, English was a second or (most often) third language. I was most impressed by their ability to write in academic English, something many native speakers have failed to master. Reading their articles brought to light so many common phrases and sentence structures unique to academica– many of them are even more eye-rolling than casual idioms.

The thing I enjoyed most was editing articles with strange sentence structures as a result of literal translation. I was struggling to learn French, and reading them gave me several “a-ha!” moments because it demonstrated how I would write a statement with the same meaning in French. After that, I started playing literal translation games with my students– kind of like live sessions of back-and-forth Babelfish. It was a good way to play with style and word choice to craft natural-sounding writing.

As a non-native English speaker living in English-speaking countries I have heard that a lot. And I can never quite follow.

To me English grammar is quite straightforward. There are not declination of conjugations, no weird tenses, only one definite and indefinite article so pronouns don’t vary by gender, etc. Small exceptions and idiosyncrasies only start to matter way into the learning process, the lack of rules makes it easier at first.

Compare that to, say, German. When I’m asked to proof-read texts by people who learn the language, almost everything is read. I know what they want to say and the vocabulary and tenses might be correct but at the beginning you’re basically guessing which definite article to use, how exactly that verb is declinated and what the ending for that direct object is. These are things you have to deal with from the beginning.

This is a topic I love, but I feel that this article is too simplistic. To say that their syntax was off because their grammar was logical while English’s is usually not is a bit too naive for my taste. True, some language constructions are different, but really there is little logic to grammar except for familiarity. English didn’t make sense to me while I was learning it because it was different from my first language’s structure, but once I knew it, it made complete sense. People have told me Spanish or XYZ language doesn’t make sense, because it’s different from what they are used to. It’s all in familiarity. Language itself is arbitrary and so is syntax, to an extent (all languages share many similar rules and structures).

Wow, I had an epiphany moment with – Their syntax looked off to me because it was logical. I’m ESL and I’m doing a PhD and I have an English editor for article and abstract and all that. sometimes I get my draft back from her and she changed some line, and I’m like: “why would she change it? it was a line I work hard and it was perfectly structured and correct!” I always go with her cause I get she know better. But now I get it. It’s not me, it’s English!
Also, thanks for the encouragement. I’m always a bit worry to write because I think people will think I’m stupid. No more, the Grammar Bitch says I’m ok!

I grew up with a parent who spoke English as a second language and one who spoke English as a first language. My spoken English is vastly different from my written English, with a weird hybrid of my parents’ and regional accents (if one can call it that, it’s a pretty accent-neutral part of the country). In addition, I edit papers for peer-reviewed journals written by my Chinese advisors, which has also altered how I deal with grammar, as the errors tend to be systematic, as the article pointed out. The way I speak with ESL speakers is completely different, too, than when I speak with native speakers, and I know it’s poor grammar but I can’t help it. English is a weird language.

All of this happens to me as well! Both my parents speak English as a second language, and English is technically my second language as well (I now consider English to be my better language, though). But the way I speak with ESL speakers, native English/Spanish speakers, and Spanish as a second language speakers is completely different!

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