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I'm a team lead at a startup. Part of my job is to do code reviews and ask other developers to correct their own work. In my spare time I mentor students learning the same type of work.

A few of my coworkers and many of my students are non-native English speakers. When I am reviewing code or helping students get their presentations together, there are often many simple mistakes. When is it appropriate to ask them to correct their spelling and grammar? How would you suggest I do this in a way that is respectful of their current English skills?

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Does being a non Native Speaker subsequent the reason why someone cant spell correctly?. According to the U.S. Illiteracy Statistics 14% of U.S. adults can’t read. That's 32 million people. And i presume most are natives. And I assume they cant write either if they cant read. -- statisticbrain.com/number-of-american-adults-who-cant-read –  Tasos Jul 24 at 10:47
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@Tasos - in my experience the native speakers are more likely to spell incorrectly. My partner (a native speaker) sometimes asks me how to spell a particular word. When my daughter went to a school in UK at age of 13, she was shocked that they were spelling simple words like 'father' during the English language lessons. She was the only non-native speaker in the class and there were kids that couldn't spell correctly. –  greenfingers Jul 24 at 11:11
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Get used to it - for a non-startup example, bad English is the de facto language of global science. –  Peteris Jul 24 at 11:43
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Would it be off-topic if I recommend Tasos to use a spell-checker? –  RedSonja Jul 24 at 14:02
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Why is this commentary shifting focus away from grammar and only toward spelling? Spelling may often be trivial to fix, and spell-checkers may help, but the question asked about spelling and grammar. Arguing about whether native or non-natives are better spellers is irrelevant. Even if you would argue that non-natives use better grammar (clearly false in my experience, though I've heard that claim many times) it's not the case with the people Ari is dealing with. And that's what matters. –  iconoclast Jul 24 at 14:48

13 Answers 13

up vote 50 down vote accepted

When is it appropriate to ask them to correct their spelling and grammar? How would you suggest I do this in a way that is respectful of their current English skills?

Ask them first. I have worked with many non-native English speakers from around the world. The following are normally true, from India to Europe to Mexico:

  • Most are somewhat self conscious about their English
  • Most are very interested in improving their English
  • Nearly all will not actively solicit feedback
  • Nearly all will be interested in help/guidance if offered appropriately

How do you get there? It's really pretty simple.

  1. Be respectful overall. It takes a lot of vulnerability for someone to basically say, "I don't know your language very well but am wiling to receive help." Being universally respectful goes a long way towards making someone feel ok with this.
  2. Ask in a non-threatening way. Make sure that when you ask, you give the ultimate choice to the non-native speaker. This is especially important when talking to people from less direct cultures such as India.
    • "Is it ok if I correct your English?" <-- bad, you imply the answer
    • "This is wrong." <-- bad, very confrontational and likely to humiliate/embarrass
    • "Do you want me to point out any stylistic differences I'd make in English?" <-- good, this is more open ended
    • "Can I change this comment slightly? It's not 100% clear to me." "Sure" "By the way, do you want me to be more proactive on this sort of thing?" <-- Good, lets them decide
  3. Respect their wishes. Unless it's a business issue be respectful of what the answer is. Keep in mind everything customer/external facing is a business issue.
  4. Don't overwhelm anyone. Sometimes people are... not as good at English. You could find yourself continually "fix this" if pointing out mistakes during code reviews/etc. Make sure you have the appropriate level and quantity of instruction.
  5. Show interest in their culture/language. This is optional but if you are actively trying to learn about their culture, language, etc, you are going to have a lot more success in helping them out.

Over the past years multiple groups and teams I've worked with internationally have solicited my help with English in some form. Often this comes in the form of proof reading documents.

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Good point on learning their culture!! –  Diego Sánchez Jul 24 at 12:42
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As a non-native speaker myself, this is exactly what I'd like to hear from native speakers! Spot on, and people will actually be quite happy to be able to improve their English. –  dirkk Jul 24 at 13:09
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I have often asked non-native speakers if they'd like me to offer corrections, and as far as I can remember they have always welcomed such corrections, and even sounded excited that I was offering. The problem, however, is that it's very hard to have a conversation where I am both listening to content and paying attention to grammar. I gave up on correction because I found it impossible to offer without sidetracking every conversation. In the OP's case the matter in question is written, which makes it much easier to deal with without this problem. –  iconoclast Jul 24 at 15:03
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I'm a non-native speaker too. I'm thankful if I get corrected from UK/US people, especially when they rephrase my stuff to make it sound better. I believe if you do it in a friendly way you will just earn sympathy:-) –  gsharp Jul 25 at 6:45
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"Can I change this comment slightly? It's not 100% clear to me." .... As a non-native speaker and from a different culture, I hated when my boss used this exact phrase. I would have preferred very much if he had told me "your English/grammar/style/spelling sucks, I can help". The problem with his very polite wording is that it was stressing the miles of difference in etiquette and culture that he had over me. Not to mention that I may miss the point entirely, because without the cultural translation layer I couldn't go from phrase I to phrase II. –  dsign Jul 25 at 7:16

We live in a world where English is everywhere. It's, arguably speaking, the language of business. To succeed in business, there's a very good chance one will need to speak and write clear English. To some degree this is changing, and some positions even require employees to be bilingual, but English is still the most widely recognized language around the world nor is it going away anytime soon.

From my experience, people in first world countries, such as the United States, including myself, tend to judge the legitimacy of a particular resource based on subtle cues in the grammar and spelling of the body of work, especially if it's a published work such as a website, pamphlet, book, news article, or other artifact designed to be more permanent. Many of us look at lack of attention to detail in these areas as a sign that other, more important details, may also be lacking.

Therefore, based on this experience, it's important that your coworkers and students put care into doing what they can to fix problems in spelling and grammar. Fortunately, we live in a world where we don't all have to be grammar and spelling experts. These are skills that are perhaps less important than they were in the days of the typewriter. In today's world, simply knowing that grammar and spelling are important can get you a lot farther than being completely ignorant of the fact.

English, being a tough language to learn and master, can be daunting for people who didn't grow up with it. So it's best to coach your colleagues and students to be aware of their spelling and grammar and to ask for help when needed. Also, explain to them that, while for things like in-house emails and chat grammar and spelling might not be important, writing copy for the company website is essential and absolutely cannot be overlooked.

Here's what Charles Duncombe, CEO of JustSayPlease, has to say about it, from a PracticalEcommerce article, "Can Spelling Mistakes Impact Ecommerce Conversation":

one spelling mistake on TightsPlease.co.uk, JustSayPlease’s retailer of socks and hosiery, had an 80 percent impact on conversion.

So, fixing grammar and spelling errors doesn't just make us all look and feel smarter, it's actually critical to the bottom line. Your colleagues and students absolutely must understand this; otherwise, someone will lose a lot of money and opportunity.

Also, you might emphasize the technology. Tools like grammar/spellcheckers can catch a lot of errors that might otherwise be overlooked. Even if they aren't perfect spellers or may not have memorized William Strunk's Elements of Style, you can still point them to this resource so they can learn or answer questions they may have about how to properly adhere to the rules.

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Very nice, +1 - especially for the observation that "simply knowing that grammar and spelling are important can get you a lot farther than being completely ignorant of the fact." –  Stephan Kolassa Jul 24 at 8:54
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"English, being a tough language to learn and master," that is simply not true. Ask basically anyone from a non-English speaking country and they'll tell how much easier English is than their native language. –  Crembo Jul 24 at 14:35
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@Crembo: um. You realise you're describing a perfectly symmetrical situation in which jmort253 (a native English speaker) claims English is hard and those other people claim their native language is hard? It proves nothing either way. Ask someone with two or more second languages of which one is English, which was easier to learn, and we might be on to a useful source of information ;-) –  Steve Jessop Jul 24 at 15:27
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@SteveJessop I speak 3 languages - Hebrew, Lithuanian and English. English is definitely the easiest one out of the three by far. –  Crembo Jul 24 at 19:03
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@Crembo - I didn't mean to imply English was by far the toughest to learn. Japanese, from what I've heard, is incredibly tough to learn and master, much more difficult than English. On the other hand, folks coming from Asian countries learning English later in life seem to have a lot of trouble learning the pronouns, past/present/future tense, and other details than someone who comes from a European/Latin-based language background. Learning a language is of course subjective, and the results will differ from person to person based on their unique situation. Hope this helps clarify. –  jmort253 Jul 25 at 0:58

Well, if you don't point out where their English skills need work, who else is going to do it?

I think you should really go out of your way to point out grammatical mistakes, because English is one of the languages where a comma or plurals that are out of place can change the meaning of a whole sentence. I know some immigrants and refugees whose command of English grammar is atrocious. And frankly, they got their college degree by bulldozing through. I have no clue how they managed not to seriously misunderstand what they were reading.

As a grad student at MIT, my little brother's command of written English and its grammar seemed to be stuck at young and stupid 16. His adviser took a personal interest and brought my little brother's written English up to par after six months of unrelenting effort. My little brother is still benefiting from having his written English cleaned up back then.

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It's funny that a post about correct English has three minor typos: chanfe -> change; m -> my; english -> English. –  Rob W Jul 24 at 8:22
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And "you should really go out of their way to point out"... ;-) –  Stephan Kolassa Jul 24 at 8:53
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Fixed - I hope you enjoyed my temporary discomfiture :) –  Vietnhi Phuvan Jul 24 at 12:29

The answers so far are more about the importance of using correct English that about the OP's questions. From my point of view as a non-native English speaker living in UK:

1) What do you mean by "asking them to correct their spelling and grammar"? If you simply ask them, I doubt they would be able to do this on their own, they've already done what they could. I would suggest that you ask them something like 'Would you mind if I correct ... (whatever they wrote)?' or if there are too many mistakes, offer to correct the ones that are most annoying/changing the meaning/making the text difficult to understand. If possible do it straight away, in front of them, telling them what was wrong. The odds are the they will remember and wouldn't make the same mistakes next time.

2) If you have concerns that they might see it as a disrespect, you can start with 'I realize English is not your first language and I can imagine how difficult it is to work in a non-native language environment.'

I personally have never felt offended if somebody suggested a correction to something I wrote or told me the right word/phrase to use in a conversation.

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Correct English is important in many situations. One, if you want to convince people of your point of view, bad English tends to reduce the impact of your message. That's true for typos (which indicate that you are careless, so the contents of your message might have been created in a careless way). Bad grasp of the language can convince people that you likely have a bad grasp on the subject as well. Many people will recognize typical non-native errors; this may lead to forgiveness (a French person's knowledge of English and quantum physics are not related), or it may open you to (unfair) prejudices.

Two, you may actually make mistakes that make your message misunderstood or not understood at all. Imagine posting here and people say "I have no idea what you mean". At that point you have to improve.

Third, if people use your written English, spelling errors can be very inconvenient. As a software developer, I will often search for some text. If I can't find it due to spelling errors, that's quite inconvenient.

There was the question of being "disrespectful" to people's language skill. I remember a journalist on TV complaining about a tennis player's language skill. Another journalist then told him "English isn't her first language. It's her fifth language". As long as you realise that English isn't someone's first language, helpful criticism isn't disrespectful. And most people will appreciate if errors are pointed out not to criticise their skills, but to improve their skills. They will surely appreciate it if a presentation gets turned from something that the audience will ignore to something that the audience will take seriously.

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If you are reviewing their work, then they will expect corrections. That includes corrections to their English even if what you're "really" reviewing is their code. It's all part of the same work. As a matter of code quality, variable names should be spelled correctly, comments should be grammatical, etc.

Presentations should always be proof-read, so you should point out such errors at that stage. You can also point them out earlier if you spot them, provided doing so doesn't stray from the main topic. If you're commenting on someone's bar chart then it's simply not helpful to distract from your remarks on the visualization by saying, "the font is too small and these labels are spelled wrongly". Do one thing and then the other, as separate points.

So the answer to "when should I correct them?" is "along with all other corrections and remarks", and how to be "respectful of their current English skills" is that you assume they are willing and able to accept correction in any context where your role is to correct them.

When I'm reviewing and I encounter spelling errors, typos or other very minor faults, I usually don't ask the author to correct them. Rather, I make a change and the author examines a diff of what I've done. A non-native speaker might be more likely to want to apply the correction personally, as an aid to learning, so you could certainly ask them what they want. This also depends on the tools you're using, though. Naturally if you were reviewing in pen on a printout then you'd hand it back to them to apply the correction whoever they were. So you just have to make a decision whether this "author makes the corrections" policy really should extend to spelling errors in cases where the author isn't demanding to make them personally. I'd say that it probably does extend if and only if it applies to one-character typos.

Correcting someone while they're speaking is very different. If someone is comprehensible then don't correct their speech unless:

  • You know they want corrections, that is to say they're keen to improve their English at any moment of the day or night. Some non-native speakers are, and will say they are when asked, but once you consider yourself basically fluent I imagine it feels like nit-picking eventually. Especially if it's something where you know the rule and know what you said was wrong, and someone just highlights an error in your delivery. Drawing attention to a known fault becomes impolite.
  • They aren't delivering important content that would be derailed by discussing pronunciation or grammar.
  • Native speaker or not I try to avoid correcting someone's English at the same time as disagreeing with the content of what they're saying. At least, not unless I want an argument rather than a discussion. Much like the derailment risk I mention above, it's just not productive to raise a relatively unimportant issue along with the real issue.

And if someone isn't comprehensible, then "correct" them by asking questions:

  • "Sorry, when you said 'I'm hardly working' did you mean 'working with difficulty' or 'working hard'? 'Hardly working' means 'only working a little bit'."
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Practically every knowledge-worker job description ever written requires some variant of "skill in spoken and written communication."

In your startup, and your teaching work, you need to establish an expectation of quality that encompasses correct spelling and grammar. If you don't do that you're cheating yourself, your company, your students, and your investors. Seriously.

Then you need to work out ways of achieving that quality. You've suggested one good way: do the editing yourself.

There may be other ways to get the editing done. For example, you could ask your students to edit each others' work, or you could hire a professional editor.

Anyone who becomes insecure or offended when their words are edited, or when any work product is inspected or tested, has no imaginable role in a 21st-century workplace. Sorry to be so blunt, but you have the right to expect excellence and the duty to offer ways to achieve it.

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I'll preface this answer with pointing out that it is by no means limited to English texts written by none-native English speakers, but rather applies to any texts written by non-native speakers.

Generally, when learning and practicing a language, mistakes can most effectively be fought by permanent repetition. By not pointing out a mistake, you may create an erroneous memory of the form "They didn't say anything, so it was correct." Therefore, I'm always in favour of pointing out and/or correcting even the tiniest of mistakes.

These corrections should not happen in a reproachful way ("Stupid you, you're committing so many mistakes!"), but not in an apologetic one, either ("I'm sorry, unfortunately, I need to point out a few mistakes to you."). You don't want to make the other person feel embarrassed about their mistakes (and thereby also about asking for more info), neither for themselves nor for your effort. Just treat the corrections like a standard thing you'd always naturally do that essentially does not mean any special effort to you.

One thing that is certainly not helping is acting as if there weren't any mistakes. It doesn't help them with their language skills, it may even convince them they're right and spread their incorrect knowledge to other non-native speakers (or maybe even to linguistically-uncertain native speakers?), and lastly, it can even come across as rude, because you're conveying something like "You're too stupid to get it 100% correct, so I'll just politely smile because I know you can't do any better."

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It is appropriate when it is in in code or unclear; it may or may not be appropriate in general depending on the particular personalities involved and how they react to correction.

You should not allow misspelt words in code - for example, method or class names - to go unchallenged because spelling errors in these reduce the usability of the interface since everyone has to learn the misspelling to use the code.

Poor grammar or spelling in comments, on the other hand, can be let slide providing the intention is clear and unambiguous. If it prevents the comment being properly understood then, again, it needs challenging since the quality of the comments will prevent others from probably understanding it in future if it is left in the code.

In other cases, then it depends on whether the individual involved would prefer to receive correction (some people are eager to improve their English skills, others prefer to get on with their jobs at a functional level of competence) and whether picking up on the errors will unacceptable slow the review and distract from the real issues that the code review is intended to handle.

Of course, in all situations, it is up to you to do this is an appropriately polite and tactful manner.

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[updated]

As a non-native that live in a country speaking a romantic language, I expect to commit all sort of grammar and spelling mistakes in English.

I know that half of my accent just sounds funny, and other half is painful to read/hear. I would not be offended at all about tips regarding the later, few people like to sound illiterate. For students, you are the boss - just point out some of their mistakes and ask them to fix their work.

For coworkers:

  1. first, do it privately - making someone "lose face" is one of the worst things you can do (specially for latinos and orientals).
  2. keep it constructive, suggest corrections and explain (or give references) for the rules involved. If you just say "Hey, Jamal, could you please fix the your spelling on the docs and send the pull request again?" you will sound like a jerk.
  3. some people will have strong accents forever, some people will improve - live with it or let them go.
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Hey Paulo, welcome to the Workplace SE. We're not really a discussion forum but are a Q&A site. As such, we look for answerers to answer the question. How can one offer corrections on the spelling and grammar? Would you mind editing to include this info. Thanks and good luck! –  jmort253 Jul 25 at 8:08

I am the only Brit around, so I do a lot of this. You have to be tactful; Oh dear, there are some typos in here, would you like me to have a look? It seems to work, they keep coming back. I have been doing this for so long that it is almost my second job. I keep a dictionary and a grammatical guide and a thesaurus here and show them the problem, and say a lot of Brits get this one wrong too. It's got a lot better since spell-checkers arrived.

When I write something important in German I ask someone to proof-read it for me, and say; I'll do the same for you sometime.

As a matter of fact it can be a bind if the students want me to proof-read their dissertations, but if it's too long I just do the first chapter and tell them to extrapolate.

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Ask them for technical help. Give them a place where they can help you (even if you don't need it). Offer help, if they want it, with their reports. Offer to proofread their submissions. Don't be pushy, befriend them. Corner your supervisor and explain to her/him that there are some very good spelling/grammar checkers out there, and why the company would be the better if they were adopted as a standard, for everyone's submissions. I'm native born with 6 years of college, and I'm shaky here because my grammar checker isn't installed on this loaner machine.

My Spanish is "kitchen" level. When I email South America, I wouldn't think of letting an email go without first having it proofread by my South American guy. I wouldn't want to take a chance looking that bad.

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Are these user-facing messages? You really shouldn't have developers making these up on the fly, even if everyone has perfect grammar you'll still end up with a mishmash of "Error: File could not be saved." and "Warning: Could not save file." Yuck. Instead you should just have one person who creates all of the application strings (probably just a normal developer who has some talent for this and spends a small part of their time on it). Design the strings you know you'll need as part of your initial planning, and when developers find that they need some new message just have them put in a placeholder and then you go through everything as a batch and create nice/uniform/pretty messages. You should review this, too, but since the person who's task this is should be pretty good at it you will probably only have the occasional typo to correct.

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