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Avoiding Common Errors with English: Part I

“I’ve never heard that. I’ve never taught that,” one Chinese teacher of English once told me. We were discussing what I call “The Little Things” of written English. My teachers in the 1960s called the little things, “the mechanics of written English.” Today, we plan to discuss why little things are important when writing English and how Asian writers of English may be able to rapidly improve their English. Specifically, we will discuss capitalization, punctuation, and spacing. In addition, we want to discuss the use of proper nouns as well as English and Chinese fonts in scientific research papers. Lastly, we will discuss sentences that are too long (run-on sentences) and the related topic, the use of semicolons in sentences. Later we will discuss several other writing-related topics that create problems for non-native speakers of English.

For example, a niece of mine, Lori, recently told me, “If I found a resume with many errors, I definitely would not hire that job applicant.” While many resumes have errors, there are ways to avoid common errors. Today, we will find simple ways to avoid those errors.

The little things are capitalization, punctuation, and spacing (or the use of spaces in writing English). I’m told that ancient Chinese writers used no spacing or punctuation. Recently, I read that Chinese parents in the early 1900s were upset when their children returned to China from studying overseas and started using punctuation with Chinese. Times have changed. However, having been a teacher at several levels as well as having visited elementary school classrooms in mainland China, I can imagine how difficult it is to teach “The Little Things” when simply teaching English to students is a challenge in itself. Please let me explain.

I will go back to 1961, as an American boy in third grade in California. My teacher, Miss Young, much like Chinese teachers today, emphasized that handwritten letters should be evenly spaced, well-aligned, and consistent. The rules we learned in elementary school should be remembered when typing on a computer. As a professional editor, a small majority of the papers I see need a considerable amount of work to clean them up simply by using spaces correctly. Here are a few simple guidelines that can be applied and may improve the look of your writing dramatically. Examples, both correct and incorrect, are shown in bold text.

Never use a space before a period or comma ,like this incorrect example. Use either one space (today’s style) or two spaces (an older style) after a period; but don’t mix the two styles in the same paper. Always use a space before and after parenthesis (such as shown correctly here) in a sentence but do not use a space before a period(this example is incorrect) . Similar rules apply when citing research papers such as Smith and Gao (2014) shown correctly here or at the end of a sentence shown here(Smith and Gao1999) with incorrect spacing in two places.

Capitalization is a similar issue. Here are a few simple rules and examples.

Many specific rules exist for capitalizing words, but here are a few rules that are most frequently overlooked by Asian writers of English. “Proper nouns” are the names of specific persons, places, and things (Beijing, Starship Enterprise, the People’s Republic of China, President Obama). Common nouns are not specific (city, spaceship, country, president). Many non-native speakers start making mistakes with lists of proper nouns. Correct examples would be Fujian Province and Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region with all words starting with capital letters. However, when multiple provinces are listed, the word “province” is not capitalized such as Fujian and Hunan provinces or Tibet and Xinjiang autonomous regions.

Another point should be emphasized when listing provinces, keywords, or any list. Writers should list things alphabetically unless another reason exists for some other sequence. Therefore, we usually write “the cities of Beijing and Tianjin” and not “the cities of Tianjin or Beijing.

Chinese, Simsun, and MS Mincho fonts should also not be mixed with English. This occurs most frequently with parenthesis, commas, and symbols. While it may seem minor, this creates major problems for editors related to style and spacing. To say it simply, the different fonts take up different amounts of space and look different.

For example:

Time New Roman font: ,./;<:>?+_)(*&^%$#@!°C and I, II, III, IV, and Cambria Math, ①, ②, ③

Simsun font: ,。、;《:》?+——)(*&……%¥#@!°C and ①,②,③,Ⅰ,Ⅱ,Ⅲ,Ⅳ

As you can see, Chinese punctuation (using a Simsun font) has added space that is not available with English fonts. Look again(at these Simsun parentheses)and you can see the difference. This is one reason the use of spaces is important with English. Also notice two other points. First, in the Times New Roman font, Roman numerals are typed as individual characters such as the three keystrokes needed to type III; in the Simsun font, the Roman numeral III is a single character, Ⅲ.

Let’s conclude this part of the discussion with two more topics related to punctuation and sentence structure, run-on sentences and the use of semicolons. While semicolons (;) are used in several ways, we are discussing sentences and not table or figure legends; bold text is used again to show examples. In sentences, semicolons are mostly used to separate two “independent clauses.” An independent clause can stand by a sentence separately; I’ve used a semicolon in this sentence to show how two sentences can be joined by a semicolon. This is often convenient when an author is citing someone else’s research; using a semicolon allows a person to join two or rarely three or four ideas and attribute those ideas to a single research paper such as Smith and Gao (2014), a fake reference cited here as an example.

Lastly, this is an example of a run-on sentence because a run-on sentence is one that never seems to end and you should not use a run-on sentence like this sentence because even though you may join words with conjunctions and the word “and” your readers will eventually get lost in the long and complex sentence that you are trying to write because it never seems to end and just goes on and on forever so you should keep your sentences to where they only provide one idea for each sentence. That is, that is a run-on sentence; it is far too long.

A scientific journal will gladly not review a paper that has many of these “little” types of errors. This is because an editor would have to spend several hours carefully correcting the spacing and other little errors and removing the Simsun fonts. If you can avoid these types of errors, your paper will be much more likely to receive the review it really deserves by the journal editors.

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