How to improve your written English on the web as a non-native speaker
Whether you’re trying to get your story distributed by Medium curators or to set up a successful LinkedIn profile, the importance of avoiding major spelling and grammar mistakes on the web cannot be overstated.
Non-native speakers like me often have a hard time getting everything right, but search engines and other technologies can make things much easier.
These are my personal tips to keep your writing as polished as possible even without a perfect knowledge of the English language.
1 — Turn on your browser’s spellchecker
Spelling mistakes are the most basic mistakes to avoid. Most modern browsers come with a built-in spellchecker that will highlight spelling mistakes for you: spend some time to figure out how to enable it.
If your browser doesn’t have a built-in spellchecker, one might be available as a third-party extension.
2 — Double spellcheck on Google
The spellchecker spotted a mistake: now what? If your spellchecker doesn’t suggest a replacement, try searching for the misspelled word on Google: it will likely recommend you the correct spelling.
3 — Use Google Translate to say what you mean
While I wouldn’t recommend using Google Translate to check the correctness of long sentences, it usually does a good job with shorter expressions and single words. When in doubt, always make sure that the words you’re using actually mean what you think they mean.
Note that, when possible, Google Translate will also explain the meaning of a word, suggest synonyms and provide usage examples. Never underestimate the usefulness of this tool.
4 — Use online dictionaries
When all else fails, you can find plenty of authoritative English dictionaries on the web. The Merriam-Webster is a good one to start with.
Note that the Merriam-Webster can also be used as a thesaurus: it will display both the meaning and the synonyms of the word you looked for. Synonyms are great to make your writing style more fluent.
If you’re looking for usage examples instead, you might want to take a look at WordReference or similar sites. Personally, I don’t use it that much, but my old English teacher used to recommend it a lot.
5 — Compare alternatives on Google
Often, we can’t choose between two plausible forms of a certain expression. Asking Google which one is the correct one will usually yield an answer.
6 — Know what you’re searching for
Thanks to search engines, we don’t have to know the rules of the English language by heart: we can always look them up. However, coming up with useful Google searches is not as easy as it seems.
Verb tenses, for instance, are especially difficult to get right for non-native speakers. Consider the following conditionals:
If I won the lottery, I would hire an English teacher.
If I had won the lottery, I would have hired an English teacher.
What would you search for in order to find out which form is more appropriate in your situation?
One thing that could help you is learning the names of the most common grammar concepts. It does take a little effort to learn them, but in the age of search engines this is a high-return investment.
For instance, there’s no quick trick to master verb tenses, but their names (present simple, past perfect, future continuous, etc.) are the perfect starting point to find out how to use them properly.
7 — Say the bare minimum
More often than not, trying to use big words to appear more sophisticated carries a high risk of misusing a certain term or expression.
A plain, correct term is always better than a fancy, incorrect one. Unless you’re 100% sure that what you’re about to say is correct, just reformulate your sentences using only words and structures you’re comfortable with.
When possible, try to avoid risky words and structures altogether: you can’t make a mistake if you don’t say anything at all.
A long-term tip: absorb as much English as you can
As much as online dictionaries and translators can help you, English remains an extremely dynamic, rich and nuanced language. The only way you can learn how to write idiomatic English is to read idiomatic English.
The web abounds with authoritative anglophone sources that you can learn from: at least once in a while, take some time to delve into them. Medium stories can be a great way to learn new English words and idioms as well.
Good luck with your English, and forgive me if I made any mistakes.