Proposal Writing Tips for Non-Native English Speakers

February 2, 2016

Copyright 2015 Academic Research Funding Strategies.  All rights reserved.  Published with permission from Lucy Deckard, co-publisher.

Proposals often require specialized language, providing a special challenge for non-native English speakers even though they may be very proficient in English. Because grammatical errors and awkward phrasing can distract reviewers from the content of the proposal, PIs should make every effort to avoid these mistakes. Below are a few mistakes that are commonly made by PIs whose native language is not English.

Use of the articles “the” and “a”

Because many Slavic and Asian languages don’t use articles, native speakers of those languages often struggle to understand when to use articles in their proposals. The rules for when to use articles in English are admittedly convoluted, and most native English speakers couldn’t explain them if asked – they just know what “sounds” right – so it’s understandable that non-native speakers would find this confusing. However, incorrect use of articles can not only distract the reader, it can actually change the meaning of your sentence. So if you’re writing a proposal it’s worth the effort to get this right. Here are a few tips that may help:

  • Use “the” when you’re referring to a specific noun. For example, if you have been describing how you will prepare a specimen, you might then describe the next step as “We will then test the specimen to determine…” because you are referring to that specific specimen (the one whose preparation you just described). Similarly, if you have been describing a 700 MHz nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR) spectrometer that is available to you on your campus, you would then say, “we will use the NMR spectrometer to analyze…”
  • Use “a” when you’re referring to one of a general category. So, considering the example above, if you had been describing how you will prepare a number of specimens, and the next step is to test one of those specimens (and it doesn’t matter which one), you would say, “we will then test a specimen to determine…” Similarly, if you have not been discussing a specific spectrometer but want to convey that you will be analyzing a specimen using spectroscopy, you would “we will use a spectrometer to analyze.”
  • Note that for all of the examples above, we did use an article (either “the” or “a”) since we were referring to a singular noun (either one specimen or one spectrometer). A common mistake is to omit the article altogether, as in “we will test specimen,” which is grammatically incorrect and distracting to the reader. It also omits the information carried by the article (whether you’re referring to a specific specimen or a general specimen that is one of a category), which may in some cases be important to understanding your procedure.
  • You can instead use the plural form of the noun without an article, if appropriate to your meaning. So, you might say “after preparation, we will then test specimens to determine…” if you will test multiple specimens. You may also say, “after preparation, we will test the specimens to determine…” if you want to emphasize that you will test those specific specimens. Because some languages don’t modify nouns to indicate the plural form, some PIs neglect to do this in English. This can add another layer of confusion for the reader, who may struggle when encountering “we will test specimen,” trying to understand if the writer meant to make the term plural, or meant for it to be singular but neglected to include an article.
  • Mercifully, there is one case where article use is clear. When you’re referring to the PI of the project, you should almost always use “the”. A common mistake is to say something like, “PI will oversee …” To avoid making this mistake, do a global search of your draft, and everywhere you see “PI” put a “the” in front of it. If you do this, you’ll be correct 99% of the time.

Avoid other common mistakes

Some of the usages listed below are grammatically incorrect, while others are just awkward or wordy. In either case, in the interest of clarity you’ll want to avoid these common mistakes:

  • British English usage. PIs who learned British English rather than American English often use “Britishisms” such as “researches” rather than “research,” “learnt” rather than “learned,” and “whence.” While this type of usage is not incorrect, it can be distracting to an American audience and is best avoided.
  • Overuse of the “ing” verb form. Non-native English speakers tend to overuse the “ing” form in their writing, as in “we will use the xyz test method for revealing..” Whenever you find yourself using the “for verb-ing” construction, consider instead using the infinitive (“to verb”) form, as in “we will use the xyz test method to reveal…” Similarly, instead of saying “Our objective is mapping…” it is better to say, “Our objective is to map…” and instead of writing “This method will allow overcoming…” you should write “This method will allow us to overcome…”
  • Using the wrong homonym. Some words commonly used in proposals that sound the same but have different spellings are “complement” (meaning “add to”) rather than “compliment” (meaning “say something nice”) and the always-confusing “affect” (verb) and “effect” (either a noun or a verb meaning “implement”).
  • Misplaced plural. If you have a compound noun such as “cell array library” or “nanoparticle property” remember that to make it plural, put the “s” on the noun not the modifiers. So the plural of the terms above would be “cell array libraries,” not “cell arrays library” and “nanoparticle properties” not “nanoparticles property.” If you place the plural on the modifier, that changes your meaning.
  • Overuse of “both.” While not incorrect, this can contribute to wordiness. So, for example, a PI may say, “We will conduct both mechanical testing and chemical analysis.” Unless it’s important to emphasize that you will do both things rather than just one or the other, it’s more concise to eliminate the “both” and just say “We will conduct mechanical testing and chemical analysis.”
  • Avoiding the possessive form. Non-native English speakers tend to use “of” rather than the possessive form, which can result in less direct and more wordy sentences. Instead of writing “The potential of the sensor to…,” consider saying “The sensor’s potential to …”
  • Overuse of “as well as.” When writing lists, many writers tend tack “as well as” onto the last item. This usage is appropriate when the last item doesn’t necessarily fit with the rest of the list, but if that’s not the case, it just contributes to wordiness. So, instead of saying, “We will conduct mechanical and chemical, as well as physical testing of the specimens,” consider saying “We will conduct mechanical, chemical and physical testing of the specimens.”
  • Informal usage. It’s best to avoid informal constructions such as omitting “of” in sentences, such as “All the specimens will be tested.” Since proposals are generally conceptually complex, it’s best to be as clear as possible and instead write, “All of the specimens will be tested” even though that construction requires an extra word. Similarly, wording such as “nowadays” is too informal for most research proposals; you should instead use more formal terms such as “currently,” or “to date.”
  • Use of “notice” when you mean “note.” “Notice” implies someone observes something that may or may not be important, whereas “note” means you are directing the reader’s attention to an important point. However, before changing that “notice” to “note,” consider whether you need it at all. It’s more concise to omit the “Note that..” altogether and just make your point. In addition, the shorter sentence is often stronger.
  • Use of “such as” when you mean “including.” Remember that “such as” is a weak term. So, for example, if you say “ We will test the unmanned vehicle in conditions such as high winds, rain, and hilly terrain” that means you will test the vehicles in various conditions, which may or may not include high winds, rain and hilly terrain. This implies you’re somewhat unsure about exactly what kinds of testing conditions you will use, and being vague is never a good idea in proposals. If instead you write, “ We will test the unmanned vehicle in conditions including high winds, rain, and hill terrain,” that communicates to the reviewer that you will definitely test under those conditions and may also test under additional conditions. This is a much stronger statement.
  • Indirect statements. PIs often use indirect statements that are more appropriate for journal articles, such as “It would be interesting to…” or “It is important to understand…” These statements communicate tentativeness. Remember that a proposal should communicate what you will do, and the more definite you are about your plans, the more confidence your reviewers will have that they understand what you plan to do.  So consider replacing those phrases with “We will…” (If you’re not sure if you will do those tasks, describe the factors that will affect your decision.)

As you review your proposal draft, try to eliminate these usage problems. As a result, your proposal will be more clear and concise, and easier to follow, which will likely make it more competitive.

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