Hack English when it’s not your first language

How to solve English problems

Writing in a second language can be daunting.

Are you in a content team where speakers of other languages contribute content in English? Do you do this yourself?

Do you find that sometimes the language needs a polish – but you’re out of time?

A client called me yesterday with this exact problem. He is a communications exec in a company where the business language is English, but where most employees don’t have it as a first language. This is pretty usual across central Europe, where I live (Switzerland to be exact).

No matter how well we speak a second language, it’s not so easy to write it clearly, concisely and correctly.

(Believe me, I know this from experience … you should see my written French even after 9 years living in a French-speaking region.)

My client wanted some help solving the problem short and long-term, so I’m sharing my suggestions here.

The obvious answer: hire a proofreader

If you go this route, I recommend finding a professional writer. Journalists are very good at this and are used to working quickly. There are plenty of journalists looking for freelance work as so many print media have laid people off.

Hire someone from a country where freelance rates are reasonable, like the UK and US.

There are ultra low-cost services like Fiverr where you can hire people for $5. But check people’s past projects carefully for quality work.

Another option is to find a freelance by posting a message on one of the many LinkedIn groups for writers, editors and journalists. I have found high quality freelances in the past through LinkEds & writers but you need to become a member. Try Sub-editors and production journalists  or BRAND JOURNALISM. Or just post an update to your LinkedIn status.

But … the drawback of hiring someone is that you’ll have to keep on fixing the problem

Use software

If you or your colleagues write in Microsoft Word, just use the spelling & grammar checker. In Word 2012 it’s under the Review tab, at the far left. There’s also a thesaurus (next to spelling & grammar). The Word programmes work well for me.


If you don’t have Word, Grammarly claims to be the best online grammar checker available. It says that it proofreads, gives alternative vocabulary suggestions, and detects plagiarism. It costs $29.95 a month (less if you pay for 3 months or a year up front). A 7-day free trial is offered (but you have to register your payment card). I haven’t signed up so I can’t say how useful it is. You could try it for a month to see.


This is another spell-checking site, which says it works on a groundbreaking algorithm developed by a team of expert computational linguists and developers. It has won a number of awards, so it could be the best solution.

I downloaded the free version and used it to check a document. It worked fine, but no better than the built-in programme in Word.

There’s a premium version with features like a personal learning centre and the ability to have texts read aloud. It costs $89.

Grammar Girl

Grammar Girl’s Quick and Dirty Tips is a useful website for checking out things like whether you should write “allright” or “alright” or “all right”. She explains grammar and vocabulary clearly, although some of her rules seem a bit pedantic to me. Language is a living thing, and I don’t really care about split infinitives.

Coach and correct

If you want to help colleagues yourself collect some of the most common errors that you see over a few weeks. Put them into a mini style guide with the correct word or phrase alongside and share it.

I did this with a client recently when I proofread a 30,000-word annual report with sections contributed by different people. It was surprising how many of the same errors came up.

Hire a teacher for a language hack

A qualified English language teacher will fix many of the problems quickly. Again, I recommend collecting examples and giving them to the teacher so she can design a targeted session.

Textbook courses can waste a lot of time and they are so boring…

A creative teacher can design a course that uses visuals to help people remember. She can deliver it live via a Skype video call, Google Hangout or webinar. Or she can create a video or presentation to be watched on demand.

Find a teacher through a language school in your area, or try LinkedIn.

Create some cheat sheets

Where are the language mash-ups happening? In blog posts, updates from senior managers, or content for your customer website?

When you know the problem areas you can create materials to help, if you have time.

Let’s say you have colleagues in different functions writing about environmental activity for your website. You could produce a list of key phrases for them to pick from, or a template for them to fill in.

If that’s not possible give them guidelines: a title of 6 words maximum, sentences of 10-15 words, total length of 250-300 words.

Make a simple style guide if you don’t already have one. You could include things like using short words rather than long ones, and using bullets rather than long paragraphs.

This way, you limit the size of the problem.

My best advice: write and read a lot

Everyone gets better at writing with practice, whether it’s their first language or another one. So write! Facebook updates, tweets, or get a blog.

Another way is to read more ‘good’ language. Time and Newsweek magazine and the Daily Mail online are great for this, because the writers use very short sentences and paragraphs, and clear language.

And if it’s the Mail, you’re sure to  be entertained into the bargain.

What common writing problems do you or your colleagues have? Have you solved them? If so, how? Share and questions or tips in the comments.

About Liz Wilson

Liz Wilson has been writing for eons as a copywriter, blogger and journalist. She's even published her first novel as an ebook. This is her blog where she likes talking about content, copywriting and social media. Say hello and leave a comment.


  1. Thanks for stopping by and sharing that Doris. It is never easy expressing ourselves in another language as I know to my cost.

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