Pre-submission advice:  language

The following advice is of a general nature.  Elements will be valuable mostly for non-native speakers of English;  however, native-speakers may also find some helpful reminders.  It will be useful as a reference prior to submission to a journal or conference, or prior to submission to a copy-editing or proof-reading service.  It covers selected aspects that are specific to English language expression. 

Varieties of English

International standards
How can this be implemented?
Electronic dictionaries for specific software

Avoid spelling errors

Plurals

Simple nouns
Compound nouns

Articles

Academic language

 

Varieties of English

There are numerous varieties of English to be found around the world.  When writing, the most relevant distinctions are in the spellings. 

The two varieties of English most commonly encountered in international publications are British English and U.S. English (also known as 'American' English).   
Countries such as Australia, New Zealand, Ireland, Kenya, Nigeria, Pakistan, India and many others mostly adopt the same spelling as in British English. 
Canada, Liberia, the Philippines, and a few other countries mostly adopt the same spelling as in U.S. English.  

Wikipedia has an article outlining the prevalence of British and U.S. spelling systems around the world, and enumerating differences between the two spelling systems

If the publisher is based in the U.S.A. or Canada, then U.S. English spelling would be preferable to use.  If the publisher is based in other English-speaking countries, then British English spelling would be preferable to use.  If the publisher is multinational, or is based in a non-English speaking country, then either variety is probably reasonable to use (but for each document consistently use just one variety!). 

International standards

Irrespective of the variety of English chosen, there are certain words for which international standards (or recommendations or guidelines) should be adhered to in academic writing. 

BIPM:  the approved spellings for the SI units are "litre", "metre", and "tonne".  (Not "liter" or "meter" or "ton".) 

IUPAC:  the approved spellings for the chemicals are "aluminium" and "sulfur".  (Not "aluminum" or "sulphur".) 

Adherence to these is not as critical for less academic texts, or for more artistic works. 

How can this be implemented?  

The easiest way to implement this (especially for NESB authors) is to choose an appropriate electronic dictionary in your word-processing software.  Of course, it is also required that checking of spelling is activated within the word processing software! 

Electronic dictionaries for specific software

Microsoft provides dictionaries for many languages, but also for quite a few varieties of English.  Because Microsoft is headquartered in the U.S.A., by default it will specify U.S. English as the language of the text to be checked.  Following from this, you may receive drafts of documents from colleagues or elsewhere in which the language is marked as U.S. English.  (Occasionally Word will 'auto-detect' passages of text as e.g. South African English or some other unexpected language, if the "Detect language automatically" option is activated.) 

However, it is very easy to make your own choice in Word, under "Set Proofing Language"! 

In case the desired proofing (spelling and grammar checking) language option does appear under "Set Proofing Language", then choose the adjacent menu item "Language Preferences".  Often the desired languages are available on your computer, but are 'hidden' by default.  In case the desired proofing language is not yet installed on the computer, it is usually easy to install the necessary language pack.

Avoid spelling errors

Modern word-processing tools generally come with proofing tools that do a fairly good (but not perfect!) job of identifying incorrect spelling. 

With academic work, it is common to want to include highly specialised terminology that won't appear in standard dictionaries, along with the names of authors whose work is cited, and various other ad hoc technical snippets that dictionaries cannot recognise.  Some users therefore either deactivate the spelling check tool.  Other users might find that the high number of 'false alarms' means that they overlook some genuine errors. 

The best measure to take here is to add words to your own custom dictionary.  If your document contains a few instances of words such as CamRecord (a brand name), Biomacromolecules (a journal title), cassiterite (a mineral), or Verrelli (a name), then these words should be added to your custom dictionary. 

Caution is only needed in the case of specialised words that are unlikely to be used often by you, and which furthermore are similar to another much-more-common English word. 
Suppose that a company has launched an electronic sampling system that they call "esample".  This is very similar to "example", and furthermore on a QWERTY keyboard the "s" key is adjacent to the "x" key, increasing the risk of mistyping "example" as "esample" — without the error being detected, if "esample" has been added to the custom dictionary.  Therefore, unless the author needs to use the word "esample" very often, it should not be added to their custom dictionary. 
On the other hand, suppose that a company has launched an electronic sampling system called "eSample".  Provided that custom dictionary entries allow case-sensitivity (as Word's seems to), it would be relatively safe to add "eSample" to the custom dictionary. 

In Microsoft Word it is possible to set up multiple custom dictionaries, and to assign different languages to different custom dictionaries — although most users will only really need to use a single custom dictionaries.

Plurals

Simple nouns

Of course nouns, verbs and all other elements must agree:  "These apples are green." or "This apple is green." 

In certain circumstances NESB authors might expect that the plural is called for, where actually it is conventional to use the singular. 
Common examples are in the headings of tables or the labels of axes on a graph or other chart.  For example, a researcher might perform a survey to determine the heights and ages of one thousand people.  When plotting the data, the axis labels would be "Height" and "Age". 
Another example is in phrases like "... types of ..." or "... kinds of ...".  For example, we would say, "seven species of worm". 
Additional care is needed when the plural is more commonly encountered than the singular, as is the case for bacterium/bacteria, datum/data, and alga/algæ. 

A further case to be aware of is so-called 'uncountable' nouns.  (There are also nouns that are sometimes considered 'countable', and sometimes considered 'uncountable', depending upon the context.)  An uncountable noun does not explicitly form a plural. 
For example:  "traffic" describes a multitude of automobiles on the road;  "literature" describes a collection or set of printed works;  "matter" may describe a collection or set of certain material(s);  and "research" describes a multitude of investigative activities or endeavours. 

Compound nouns

One error that many are unaware of is in forming compound nouns. 
For example, the tree upon which apples grow is known as an "apple tree" — never an "apples tree", even though many apples do grow on the tree.  If there are several of these plants, then we must refer to "apple trees" (e.g. "I have two apple trees in my garden."). 
Similarly, we can refer to a "pencil case", but not a "pencils case". 
Finally, we would also refer to "colour configuration", not "colours configuration".  

Articles

There are three basic categories of article use in English: 

  1. The indefinite article, "a" (preceding a consonant sound) or "an" (preceding a vowel sound).  "A" or "an" is commonly used when introducing a noun for the first time. 
  2. The definite article, "the".  "The" is used after something has already been introduced.  It is also used after things considered to 'need no introduction' — because they should be understood without ambiguity either from the context (e.g. "the size of a parcel"; "the dimensions of a room") or from general knowledge (e.g. "the sun"). 
  3. No article.  Omitting an article is common for general statements, and for uncountable nouns;  it also commonly occurs where a particular amount is specified, or where a pronoun (e.g. "our" or "this") is used.

Non-native speakers often have trouble understanding which of the above to use in any given circumstances. 

The rules are sometimes subtle, so consult a grammar textbook (or online resource) to refresh your understanding.  Above are just simple guidelines to cover common situations. 

Examples:

  • "A suspension was made from [no article] fine grains of sand and a thick gelatine mixture (prepared in advance from a sachet of Acme gelatine powder and [no article] one litre of water).  A mixing wand was used to stir the suspensionThe wand was manufactured from a stainless steel alloy in [no article] our facility.  [No article] This mixture was allowed to equilibrate for [no article] seven minutes after stirring." 
    Articles are given in bold (xxx), and the associated nouns are underlined (xxx).  The absence of an article is indicated by italic annotations in brackets ([no article]). 
    Notice that although sand and gelatine powder would both considered uncountable in the above context, the "gelatine powder" is a modifier of the noun "sachet", which is countable, whereas "sand" is a modifier of "grains" (which is countable in some situations, but would not be countable in the above context). 
    "Facility" and "mixture" are preceded by pronouns, so no article is used.  Similarly, "minutes" and "litre" are both preceded by numbers quantifying the amount, so again no article is used
  • "Why is the sky blue?  And why does the moon seem to change [no article] its shape?"
    It is not necessary to introduce "sky", and indeed we almost always consider only one possible sky. 
    It is not usually necessary to introduce "moon", and we mostly consider only one possible moon, except in the context of astronomy (e.g. "Whenever a planet has a moon, its orbit will exhibit a characteristic wobble").