Working with Non-Fluent Texts
  • 19-minute read
  • 27th August 2023

Working with Non-Fluent Texts

The term non-fluent, when used to describe a written English text, describes content that is affected by spelling or grammatical errors that you would not generally find in fluent written English. This is most often due to English not being the writer’s first language.

Non-fluent English can span the spectrum from broken text with many grammatical and comprehension issues to near-perfect text that is probably better than most native speakers could write (but perhaps with some idiomatic inconsistencies).

In this microlearning, we’ll look at:

  • The three-step process to proofreading non-fluent English
  • How to deal with unclear text
  • Commenting strategies
  • Examples of issues seen in non-fluent English

Launch the microlearning module below to learn more about proofreading and editing non-fluent English and to test your knowledge using our interactive quiz.



Alternatively, read on for a text-only version of the microlearning.

The Three-Step Process: Skim, Edit, Check

Proofreading and/or editing non-fluent English text is a three-step process.

There may be some overlap (i.e., you don’t need to deliberately ignore an issue because “it belongs in the next step”), but you should bear these three stages in mind to do a thorough job of proofreading and/or editing non-fluent text.

Step 1: The First Pass

On your first pass through the text, check for grammatical or spelling errors and sentence construction. Basically, the mechanical part of proofreading or line editing.

Watch out for any repeated quirks the writer has—verb tense errors, misuse of certain terms, misconstruction of certain phrases, etc. Recognizing these will help you edit the customer’s work (and means that you may be able to use ctrl/cmd+F to find any further instances of that error).

Correct any style guide issues that you spot: things like passive voice misuse, capitalization errors, the spelling of brand names, or the punctuation of bullets.

If there are any sentences you don’t understand, leave a comment identifying them as unclear.

In addition, check that the dialect (such as UK or US grammar/spelling conventions) matches the client’s stated preference.

Step 2: Edit Your Own Work

At this point, you should be working on text that is comprehensible (except those passages you have identified as unclear) but perhaps a bit clunky and containing errors.

If you are editing, on this second pass through the text, focus on making sure the author’s arguments and main points read clearly and concisely. If it is part of the service, make suggestions to improve the structure and organization of the writing.

On your second pass, now that you’re more familiar with the text as a whole, you might have a better understanding of the “unclear” sentences you commented on in the first pass. If that’s the case, make changes according to the level of proofreading/editing required.

Step 3: A Final Check

Do a final check for fluency and correctness; if necessary, by reading the text aloud. Ideally, the text should read as though it was written by a fluent English speaker.

You do need this final check, as it’s very probable that you have introduced some errors yourself. You may also notice some final tweaks and improvements you can make to the text.

At the end, run a final check for any double spaces—it’s always possible that one or two will have crept in!

Note that this three-step process is written for proofreaders and editors who will not see the document again after they have worked on it.

Of course, you may have clients that will work on the document again and send it for further revisions. If this is the case, you should follow this process with any further edits that you make.

Dealing With Unclear Text

When working with non-fluent English writing, you may need to take steps to improve the overall clarity of the document.

It’s generally fine to restructure or rephrase entire sentences, as long as you preserve the writer’s intended meaning. If you’re unsure of the meaning of a particular section of the text, or the writer has used a word incorrectly and you’re not sure what they mean, you have a few options:

  • Make the edits (with track changes turned on) and ask the client to check them, explaining that the original meaning was unclear.
  • Highlight the unclear text and explain that you are unable to make changes to the text because you are unsure of the meaning. Do not say that the text “makes no sense” or similar – be diplomatic!
  • Leave a comment explaining that the meaning is unclear and suggesting alternative phrasing(s). This approach should generally be reserved for when there are two or more potential meanings to the text or for when the meaning is very unclear but not completely indecipherable.

More than One Type of Unclear…

If there’s any comment that you’re going to need, in pretty much any document, it’s how to say that something makes no sense is unclear.

It’s fine to politely tell the customer that something is unclear – after all, that’s why they’ve come to us, and there’s no point trying to be too delicate about it. However, where at all possible, you should make a suggestion as to how to resolve the issue, and you should always be courteous and understanding.

Here are some examples of “unclear” comments you could leave and when or why you might leave them.

This Is Unclear. Do You Mean...?

This comment is used to offer an alternative in the comment box, normally when it could be one thing or another: “Do you mean ‘three apples’ or ‘four apples’?”

It’s a good idea to restrict the number of times you offer alternatives in this way, as it’s time-consuming for the editor and the client both. It’s often better to use the comment below…

This Is Unclear; Please Check My Suggested Changes Carefully

This is the easiest, quickest, and most effective “unclear” comment in most situations. It should be used when you have a pretty good idea what the client is on about but don’t want to presume.

You will use this comment when you’ve made your changes directly to the text but have had to exercise a bit of professional judgment to make the sentences clear.

This Is Unclear; Please Review

This should be used only when a sentence is utter word soup: you have absolutely no idea what the author is trying to say and can’t even think of a way to hazard a guess.

It’s likely that you’ll find one or two sentences like this in most non-fluent English texts (and in some fluent ones as well!). However, you should aim to use this comment very sparingly, as it does not add any value for the client.

If you find yourself needing to use this comment more often, then it may be that the text is unproofreadable or uneditable, and you will need to refer it back to the client.

This Paragraph Is Rather Unclear...

The full recommended comment here is:

This paragraph is rather unclear. I have made changes to promote clarity, but have had to use my professional judgment in some instances. Please review and check my suggested changes carefully.

This comment can be used when you’ve had a whole paragraph requiring some more heavy-handed changes. We all get them sometimes!

This is just to ask the client to check your changes, so they don’t think you’ve just run roughshod over their text.

Other Unclear Scenarios

The four comments given in the previous section are the ones you’ll find yourself using most often to deal with unclear text. However, there are some outlying scenarios where you’ll need some alternative comments.

Comment Explanation
Unclear; you may wish to clarify or expand on your ideas This is fairly unusual, but you may have an instance where the customer has said something that you think might make sense, but there’s not enough context to tell.
A web search does not show this term used anywhere else—please review This is to be used when you find an unfamiliar word or phrase, you’ve Googled it or checked it with an AI client (this is good practice, please always do so!) and it hasn’t come up in use anywhere.

Note: Be very careful (for privacy and confidentiality reasons) about what you put into AI chatbots. Snippets of sentences and individual sentences that are common knowledge are fine, but do not drop in large chunks of text or any confidential or sensitive information.
I'm not sure this is correct. Do you mean [INSERT TEXT]? USE THIS COMMENT WISELY. It is to be used when a client seems to have written something that is factually wrong, as a result of basic issues with their English. For example, they may have said something is “not x”, when they actually mean it is.

You should avoid telling a client that their content is incorrect unless it is specifically part of the editing service or unless it is a basic and apparent editor. Do not stray into tutoring or offering opinions on the content if you are proofreading or line editing.
You may wish to translate this for your audience Sometimes clients translate some non-English terms and not others. Generally speaking, it’s good to be consistent.

Remember that foreign terms that are in the English dictionary (i.e. in common use) do not need to be translated. You should also avoid using this comment in regards to Latin words used in legal documents.
Is this a typo? Please review Sometimes typos are obvious, sometimes they aren’t (e.g. pervious/previous, causal/casual, form/from). This comment should be used in relation to these types of possible errors.
I am unfamiliar with this term; please consider defining it This comment is a better alternative to saying “I don’t know what this term means” (which you should avoid at all costs!).

However, you should still use it carefully, as otherwise it can betray your unfamiliarity with the topic and cause the client to lose confidence in your editing skills.

Ideally, you will be able to Google the term and its meaning/usage. This comment is for those instances when this isn’t possible or has been unsuccessful.
This appears to have been machine translated—please review It’s likely that machine translations will get swiftly better with the rise of AI; however, as at 2023, the quality can sometimes be a bit iffy. This is a comment that you can leave on “word soup” machine translations.
It is unclear what the pronoun you have used here refers to—please review This is used when you would otherwise comment “What is ‘it’ here?” That is, when a pronoun’s antecedent is unclear or absent.

Commenting Strategies

We’ve just looked in detail at how to use comments to address various contributors to unclear text, and we cover commenting in general in the Editorial Feedback to Clients microlearning.

Here, we’ll focus on the commenting scenarios that are likely to crop up when proofreading or editing non-fluent English.

Too Many Comments

When you finish editing a page, take a look at your comments objectively. Is your page overloaded with repeated or unnecessary comments? Too many comments will make your editing look messy and overwhelming for the client. Generally speaking, you should aim to comment strategically and effectively.

Pinpoint the error as specifically as you can. It’s usually not helpful, for instance, to highlight an entire paragraph and comment to the author that its meaning is unclear. This is overwhelming to unconfident writers (who might not know what exactly is wrong) and irritating to confident writers (who want to fix the issue as quickly and economically as possible). As such, it’s better to highlight the specific issue and quickly explain what needs to be done to fix it.

Gauging Your Tone

When working on non-fluent English, some editors fall into the trap of overestimating their own cleverness and underestimating that of their client. This can lead to a misjudged tone of voice (ToV) in their comments:

  • Too basic: For example, if the client has missed a definite article somewhere, this doesn’t necessarily mean they don’t know or understand the rules around definite articles in English. It’s not necessary to leave a comment explaining this in depth.
  • Adopting a “tutoring” ToV: Coupled with the above is the risk of adopting a didactic, professorial ToV. Some clients value comments that help them improve their English, but these should be written in a neutral, professional but friendly ToV.

When leaving comments to explain English language issues, should this be required or appropriate, it helps to imagine you are talking to someone you know by association, but with whom you’re not that familiar—for example, a friend’s respected older sibling. They have their own knowledge and expertise; your expertise just covers another topic.

Remember that non-fluent English writers are writing about something (often quite technical or complicated) in another language to their native one. That’s something to be respected.

Issues Seen in Non-Fluent English

There are several common issues that come up with non-fluent writing, and being aware of them and knowing how to fix them can help streamline the editing process.

Here is some further information on some of these common issues.

Article and Preposition Misuse

You may find that non-fluent writers mix up or leave out articles or prepositions (e.g., using an where the should be, or leaving out to).

Whether to use a/an or the can sometimes be a little unclear in particular contexts. For example:

She worked for an organization for four years.
She worked for the organization for four years.

Out of context, both sentences work; you need to use your judgment and analyze the surrounding text to spot whether the client has used articles correctly or not. If it’s really not clear, then leave a comment.

You should pay particular attention to whether acronyms require articles or not. Writers can inconsistently or incorrectly use an article with an acronym; for example, “SEC says that…” should be “the SEC says that”).

Similarly, preposition misuse is often a tricky thing to spot. Sometimes the choice of preposition can appear arbitrary, and if you’ve been editing a document filled with incorrectly used prepositions for a while, you may even start to question your own understanding of the English language! At this point, it’s best to start reading the text to yourself out loud, or to stop editing for a few minutes to refresh your brain.

Verb Tense Issues

Writers might use tenses inconsistently or incorrectly, such as using the past perfect (“He had finished the report”) instead of simple past tense (“He finished the report”). The blog Found in Antiquity puts the issue facing learners of English very clearly:

English has twelve tenses … That’s approximately double the number of tenses which are available in Greek (which has seven) and Latin (which has six).

See if you can find a native speaker of English who can tell you how many verb tenses there are or give examples of more than six of them. They’ll be few and far between.

Non-fluent writers may also avoid or misuse gerunds (i.e, -ing verbs that function as nouns). For example:

Incorrect: She’s an athlete, so to swim comes naturally to her.
Correct: She’s an athlete, so swimming comes naturally to her.

Incorrect: A research plan was constructed for testing the pilot.
Correct: A research plan was constructed to test the pilot.

Idioms and Slang

Idioms are figures of speech (such as the expression “quit cold turkey”) that aren’t meant to be taken literally. This means they don’t always translate well from one language to another.

For this reason, you need to pay close attention to idioms you find in non-fluent writing. Non-fluent writers may use them inappropriately (e.g., in a formal business report) or incorrectly. You can choose whether to correct them or suggest an alternative, depending on your brief and your client’s preferred approach.

Sometimes you may find that the writer has innocently said something inappropriate through an unawareness of slang. For example, describing people who go for evening strolls as nightwalkers. Edit these out as appropriate, and if you feel comfortable doing so, leave a diplomatic comment to the client explaining why the term or phrase needed to be changed, providing a link to a dictionary definition if possible.

Filler Words

You may find that some writers use filler words that you can cut without changing the meaning of the text. Watch for the overuse of words such as actually, really, basically, just, furthermore, and moreover.

Transition words can often turn into filler words; for more on this, see the next example in the table.

Transition Words/Phrases

Transition words or phrases are used to connect ideas and improve the overall flow of writing. When editing non-fluent English writing, it’s important to check that these words are used correctly.

For example, non-fluent writers often use on the one hand … on the other hand to list (instead of to compare and contrast) two things:

Incorrect: On the one hand, the report was handed in late. On the other hand, it was poorly written.
Correct: The report was handed in late and was poorly written.

(Alternative correct: On the one hand, the report was handed in late. On the other hand, it was well written.)

This all usually happens because the writer has been given examples of ways to “make their writing flow” by using transitional words and phrases, without any further guidance regarding these words’ proper use. This can lead to them exploring the thesaurus for different alternatives (“forasmuch,” “hitherto”) or using common connecting words unnecessarily or incorrectly (“however,” “meanwhile,” and “besides” are good examples of this).

Levels of Formality

You may find that you have to make word substitutions based on the text’s tone and level of formality. Consider these sentences in a report on gas prices:

In May 2023, gas import prices became cheaper than in the previous month.
In May 2023, gas import prices were lower than in the previous month.

The alternative preserves the original meaning but in a more formal tone.

Another common issue is the use of contractions; these should not be used in academic or scientific texts. Whether to use them in business content depends on the tone and purpose of the business document.

Sentence Structure

Sometimes, the finer points of an argument may get lost due to the sentence structure the client uses. For this reason, some understanding of the client’s native language can be useful. It helps to be aware of common structural differences and localized idioms.

After a while, though, even if you don’t have any familiarity with the client’s native language, you’ll start to recognize certain habits in English usage among native speakers of certain languages.

Native speakers of some Southeast Asian languages, for example, can show a tendency to put the adverbial phrase at the end of the sentence, which can cause confusion when there are two things happening in the sentence.

Compare the following two sentences and note the change in meaning when a fronted adverbial is used:

She wished he would go away sometimes
Sometimes, she wished he would go away.

Another commonality is the habit of introducing the subject of the sentence before describing it:

Original: As for the ride comfort and road-holding improvement, the main strategies are as follows …
Edited: The main ride comfort and road-holding improvement strategies are as follows …

It’s likely that a text written by a non-fluent English writer will show a combination of these and other issues. For this reason, you might find a certain amount of sentence restructuring is required.

Here’s an example of text that incorporates several of the elements detailed above:

In the last months, we have noticed really much more asthma on the kids. On the one hand, this was possible potential result of pollution from the close clothing factory and the more cars in the road.

We could edit it to something like this:

In recent months, we have observed an increase in the number of children with asthma. This could be the result of pollution from the nearby clothing factory and more cars on the road.

Here, we’ve edited the statement to improve the fluency and reduce wordiness, while retaining its original meaning overall.

Subtler Issues in Non-Fluent Writing

Sometimes, the issues that result from non-fluency are a little more subtle. It’s impossible to list everything you may come across in a piece of non-fluent English writing, but here’s a quick overview of some of the more unusual things that can appear regularly.

Unnecessary use of can: The person can know understands …

Plural research: Researches Studies indicate that …

Describes that: The article describes that how …

Misuse of mention: Austen mentions analyzes social norms in depth.

Misuse of on the contrary: Results 1 and 2 showed significance at P > 0.05. On the contrary In comparison, Results 3 and 4 were not significant.

The x of the y (awkwardly constructed possessives): The ideas of the researcher’s ideas have contributed …

Repetition of noun/underuse of pronouns: Smith et al. discussed the matter; Smith et al. they said that …

Relation vs. relationship: We found a relation relationship between A and B.

Besides vs. in addition: I need to buy groceries; besides in addition, I need to fill the car up.

However vs. nevertheless: I was going to go to the beach; nevertheless however, the weather looks stormy.

Again: this is a non-exhaustive list of issues often contained in non-fluent text. Every writer will have their quirks, but being aware of these frequently seen issues can help you break down unclear and densely worded sentences.

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