I have taught people from all around the world to write better...in English. Just as each of us speaks with an accent, no matter what language we speak, we also write with an accent

Who owns the English language, anyway? Now that it's spoken throughout the world, which is the correct version? The British version? Which British version? The American version? Which American version? The Chinese version???

I have been hired to work on writing with engineers and auditors and many others who did not grow up with some version of English as their mother tongue. Their English is seen as somehow deficient when they must write on the job here in the USA--not always the right articles or prepositions or pronouns, not always the right verb-tense endings, not always the right spelling, etc....

I'm not at all trained in ESOL (English for Speakers of Other Languages). BTW, I find that appellation a tad academic and redolent with political correctness. It tiptoes around the idea that certain students/people need to be taught how to write better in English when English is not their mother tongue. So maybe we should call it English for Writers with Other Mother Tongues (EWOMT)???

Outside of the academy, things get practical. So I work with EWOMT "issues" first by explaining, as I explain to all workplace writers, that "writing" is 90% about CONTENT and only 10% about PRESENTATION--from the actual reader's practical point of view.

When we open an email, we don't stop first to admire the style. We check for content. If the content is not useful and the presentation is clear and correct, we hit DELETE as fast as our finger will move. If the content is interesting and the presentation is clear enough but maybe has some surface irregularities, we read on to absorb as much of the useful information as we can. When any workplace writing CONTENT stops being useful, the reader moves on. CONTENT is what we crave.

So here's a story about writing with an accent that I often tell in my writing seminars....

THE PARABLE OF THE CHINESE EXCHANGE STUDENT

AND THE ENGLISH MAJOR

I sometimes assign students to pick a specific problem they encounter on our campus, research it, craft a recommendation report to address the problem, and email the report to our university President. In addition to investigating the need for more purse hooks and book shelves in bathrooms and better signage in our new space-age building/Liberal Arts Space Colony, many students focus on the problem of parking: their conclusions always reveal that there's not enough student parking close enough to the new capacious building where most of the classes for our majors are held.

In a recent class, two students submitted their reports on parking. One earned an A- the other earned a C. I felt bad that I couldn't raise the A- grade to an A+, and I felt bad that I couldn't lower the C grade to a D. Here's why.

The first report was written by a student I'll call Wen. She had researched state regulations that define how many student parking spots are required by law--yes, such regulations exist. She created a map showing the number of student parking spots within easy walking distance of our building. She also produced a chart showing the availability of convenient parking hour by hour throughout the day. This would have been stellar research, but she went beyond this.

Wen analyzed the campus bus routes and schedules and suggested modifications. She looked at the parking situations at a few other very similar universities across the country to see how our university measured up. And, by the end of the report, she provided several very specific recommendations to students who had to park and to the university President, who might consider taking actions to improve the campus parking problem...which turned out to be legally compliant and not to be much of a problem compared with other similar universities.

I was amazed by her work. It was a very professional report. In fact, the university would have to pay a fair amount of money to have a professional organization do a similar analysis. Certainly their research would not improve the analysis or the recommendations by much if any.

However, there was one hitch in her report. Although Wen spoke English quite well but with an accent (to my ears), most of her sentences were encumbered with some usage/punctuation/grammar irregularities. I could easily understand what she was trying to say, but there were what most English professors would consider errors.

I could have marked each error. But I didn't see why I should. I knew that Wen wouldn't improve her writing much from seeing the "corrections" I could make on this otherwise fabulous report. I believe better writing comes mainly from a lot of reading and a lot of practice. In Wen's case, she might benefit from having an ESOL specialist talk to her about the errors in a way I was not trained to do. But I remembered having my French teacher mark all my errors in my French compositions. It was depressing and not helpful. Not until I improved my underlying facility with the French language would I be able to improve my writing in French. In fact, half of the comments my french teacher made I didn't even understand.

I did lower the grade a tad, to an A-. I told her to have a fellow-student or someone at the college writing lab proofread her assignments with her to help her improve the surface correctness. However, I recognized that Wen spoke with an accent, from my American point of view. Naturally her writing would reflect that accent. 

By the way, one of my sons recently went to South Korea with a friend whose family was from there. I asked if most South Koreans spoke English. He said that many did. But he told me that South Koreans speaking English to each other could understand each other perfectly. When he spoke American English, it wasn't always understood. And he couldn't always understand the Korean English they spoke to him. (Who owns the English language anyway?)

In the same class Wen was in, I had a student who also turned in a report on student parking. This student was an English major. His writing was clear and almost totally correct. However, the content was very weak. He had talked to some of his friends to get their views of parking. He and those he interviewed thought parking was horrible. His recommendation to the university President? Make more parking available to students.

As Gertrude Stein said about Oakland, "there's no there there." This report was perfectly vacuous. Having been an English major myself and a fairly good writer, I figured the student had left the report until the night before it was due and produced a report that was okay, mainly clear and correct...yes, it was a strategy I'd relied on more than once myself.

I gave this student a C. I wanted to give him a D, but I lost my nerve. He had met some of the assignment parameters to a small extent.

A week passed, and I was called into the Dean's office. She told me the English major in my class had brought her two reports--his and the report Wen wrote. The Dean was VERY curious to learn why I had given the English major a C and Wen's report an A-. I asked if she'd read the two reports. The Dean said she'd glanced at them and that it was fairly obvious that one was well written and one was not. The problem was, she thought Wen's report was the bad one.

I asked her to take five minutes to read the two reports in more detail. When she took the time to delve into the reports further, she smiled and told me she got it. True, the English major had written a nearly error-free report, but it had zero useful content. On the other hand, she acknowledged that we should encourage Wen to "fix" her report and send it to the university President.

LESSONS LEARNED

If you write English with an accent, don't worry. Don't shy away from writing. Understand that CONTENT is far more important than PRESENTATION. As I say, it's like a cargo ship: it's 90% about the cargo and only 10% about the ship (of course, if the ship sinks, all is lost...so that 10% IS important).

So who owns English? The reader does. It makes sense you should give the reader the kind of English writing she's most comfortable reading. If your "writing accent" will keep the reader from understanding your content, you do need to find a friend or co-worker who can help you edit out the surface-level errors. 

But be confident in your CONTENT. Work hard to make it as useful as it can be. That's by far the most useful aspect of any workplace writing. And if you read workplace writing that has an accent, ask yourself what you're really reacting to. So many of us see "writing" simply as surface correctness. IT'S NOT!

"Writing" is the critical thinking it takes to ascertain and then answer your reader's real questions about the issue in question. Useful answers = useful writing. "Writing" must be USEFUL before anything else. Look first for the useful content. If you find it, thank your lucky stars that the writing you're reading has helped you or whoever the intended reader is.

Bon chance! Bonne chance???

P.S. You can download our 200-page FREE e-book, Mindful Writing at Work (full of pictures) here:

http://qcgwrite.com/mindful-writing-at-work