I use these notes on www.lang-8.com to give advice to Chinese writers of English on specific topics (and for other reasons).  They are useful to my readers so I've decided to post them here as a blog.  Most of these represent the most common errors made by Chinese people who write English as a second language.

Check for the topic you want in the index, if needed

(revised September 24, 2013).


1 - Active / passive verbs; 2 - A lot; 3 - And (to start a sentence); 4 - And (as a conjunction); 5 - Because; 6 - Besides / Aside from; 7 - Chinese and English fonts; 8 - Contractions; 9 - Corrections; 10 - Free English Class; 11 - Howdy!; 12 - Informal words; 13 - Intro to Little Things; 14 - Nowadays; 15 - Numbers; 16 - Numbers, part 2; 17 - pH; 18 - Plurals; 19 - Punctuation; 20 - Latin Plurals; 21 - Semicolons; 22 - Technology; 23 - That; 24 - Time units; 25 - Titles; 26 - Whole vs. entire ; 27 - Words in a Series and Respectively.

I use the following note to send the message below to various friends on the internet who are learning English.  Posting it here give me easy access to the note!

See my standard note(s) numbers(s) 13 at http://www.sedgehead.com/index.php/learn-english/73-8-lang-8 for more information on this (these) correction(s). I use these standard notes to keep me from writing the same message over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over.


Sedgehead's Standard Note Number 1

ACTIVE AND PASSIVE VOICE (a brief but advanced lesson in English):

Professional writers learn to use "active voice" and avoid passive verbs.

When I was 40 years old I finally learn the difference between active and passive voice.  Because you're an advanced English speaker I want to give you some details usually saved for professional writers.  In short, stories written and the active voice are much more interesting to read them something written in passive voice.  Active verbs shall action.  Pass the verbs show a state of being or existing.  Examples:

Active verbs: slept, jarred, stood, broke, rushed, grabbed, stabbed.

Passive verbs: was sleeping, was ringing, was standing, is, are, was, were, have been, might be, etc.  Active verbs are ALL the other verbs which never express the state of being (forms of the verb "to be.".

Active verbs: go, run, think, do, smell, taste, fly, ride, drive, answer, swim, sat, did.

I slept soundly last week when the doorbell's ringing jarred me awake.  A strange man stood at the door.

I was sleeping soundly last week.  But the doorbell was ringing.  A strange man was standing at the door.

Professional writers like newspaper reporters and authors strive to you've learned to use the active voice.

Learning to use active verbs will make your writing much more interesting to read. 



Sedgehead's Standard Note Number 2


The phrase "a lot of" is informal and should be avoided in formal English like letters and resume.  Replace it with: many, a considerable amount of, a large number of, etc.



Sedgehead's Standard Note Number 3

AND (part 1) at the start of a sentence:

"And" is considered to informal for starting formal English sentence in scientific papers, business letters, resumes, etc.

Starting a sentence with "And" is considered informal.  I try to teach formal English like you would use on a resume (=CV) or business letter.  What is better?

"Also," "Therefore," "Furthermore," "In addition," etc.  Scientific journals prefer "Also," because it is shorter.



Sedgehead's Standard Note Number 4

AND (part 2):


When using "and" to connect two things, do not use a comma.

Correct: Roy and I went to the store. We are good friends with the guys in the dorm and some people we go to class with. Sometimes, when I lay awake at night and look at the stars, I wonder what is out there in space. I can't sleep well sometimes and have to count to myself to go to sleep.


Roy, and I went to the store. We are good friends with the guys in the dorm, and some people we go to class with. Sometimes, when I lay awake at night, and look at the stars, I wonder what is out there in space. I can't sleep well sometimes, and have to count to myself to go to sleep.

A MORE COMPLEX USE OF "AND"... (see also "Words in a Series" below)...

Do use a comma with "and" when you use words in a series (see the other entry below, number 21, currently).

Correct: Roy, John, and I are good friends.

Also considered correct (but can be misleading at times): Roy, John and I are good friends.

If a sentence is long and confusing, use a comma before "and" to break up the sentence, or replace "and" with "as well as."

Correct example: Roy and I are good friends and we went to the store with Marcy and Melinda.

Correct AND easier to understand:

Roy and I are good friends, and we went to the store with Marcy and Melinda.

Roy and I we went to the store with Marcy and Melinda as well as went swimming later.



 Sedgehead's Standard Note Number 5


The word "because" sometimes creates problems for Chinese writers of English. For example, look at this "sentence."  I say "sentence" because it is not a complete sentence.

          Because I am busy treating some calculated data.

This is not a complete sentence because something else is needed.  Here are some ways to make it a complete thought and sentence.

          Because I am busy treating some calculated data, I've not sent you an email.

          Because I am busy treating some calculated data, my girlfriend feels neglected.

          I can't meet you for lunch, because I am busy treating some calculated data.

          My dog bit me, because I am busy treating some calculated data.

          Because I am busy treating some calculated data, I should be able to trick the bank into sending me some extra money.

Obviously, something is happening because of something else.  You can't have one without the other. 



Sedgehead's Standard Note Number 6


My Chinese friends sometimes use "Besides" when I know that "Aside from" works better.  In oral English, the two phrases are fairly interchangeable.  But in formal English, "aside from" often works better at the beginning of a sentence.  The two phrases are often interchangeable.  So, I'll just give an example of what I like and don't like.  It is somewhat a matter of style.


   Aside from football, I don't watch many sports on TV.

   Aside from her, I don't have any female friends.

   Aside from cats and dogs, I really like having pets.

   Besides, I don't like you very much anyway.

   Besides, I burned the cake.

   Aside from the guy that hit me, I also don't like you very much anyway.

   Aside from supper, I also burned the cake.

Sounds odd to me:

   Besides football, I don't watch many sports on TV.

   Besides her, I don't have any female friends.

   Besides cats and dogs, I really like having pets.



Sedgehead's Standard Note Number 7

Chinese and English fonts (also applies to other languages such as Japanese):

As a professional editor, Chinese writers of English often fail to put a space behind a comma, period, or other punctuation like we do in English. Instead, they pay me $10 a page to fix their errors, sometimes more and sometimes less. Chinese fonts have their own space made into the character itself. If you move your cursor over a Chinese or English character for punctuation, you will see English fonts need you to hit the space bar, but Chinese fonts for punctuation already provide extra space.  You don't have to hit the space bar. English punctuation:,;.!? Chinese punctuation:,;,!? In the English punctuation I provided, I have not added any spaces. English punctuation with spaces: , ; . ! ? As an editor of scientific manuscripts I'm constantly having to look for Chinese fonts that have been left in manuscripts written in English. Scientific journals will want all the Chinese fonts removed. It's a good lesson to learn in both languages. That is, use Chinese for Chinese and English for English.



Sedgehead's Standard Note Number 8


I often say "Contractions are our friends!"  Why?  Because my Chinese friends often neglect them and the contractions get lonely as a result!  Ha!

Seriously, use contractions to make your English sound more normal.  Example: I won't do that.

Do not use contractions if you want to emphasize "not."  For example: You want me to kill the kittens so we don't have to find homes for them?  I will not do that!"



Sedgehead's Standard Note Number 9


This note applies ONLY to Lang-8, an external website.  Always for me: Red = corrections; blue = suggestions or alternative wording.  That is, blue text usually replaces perfectly good English words or phrases and just gives you a new way of saying the same thing (or something similar).  Red text usually replaces something that is definitely incorrect in some way, even if the error is minor.  Feel free to ask me for details.


Sedgehead's Standard Note Number 10


NOTE: these classes have been postponed until March 16, 2013 for personal reasons.  I may occasionally wake up early enough to host a class before then, but I will based that decision on my health and wakefulness the morning of the class.  Between October and March, I do plan to host more classes on Saturdays at 8 p.m. Beijing Time, but only as my health allows.

Do you want to join my free English class at 8 p.m. Saturday on Skype? 

First, see: http://www.sedgehead.com/index.php/learn-english/35-free-english-lessons for more details.  If so,

I will add you to two groups.  One is the group for announcements (a larger group because the class group is small and I often create a new group for the class each week) and a smaller class group for next week.  For more details see: http://www.sedgehead.com/index.php/learn-english/35-free-english-lessons



Sedgehead's Standard Note Number 11


"Howdy" is an informal greeting use in the south central and southwestern parts of the U. S.  For example, cowboys in Texas still use it almost exclusively.



Sedgehead's Standard Note Number 12


Some words are too informal for use on resumes, in business letters, and in scientific journals.  They are fine for informal English or spoken informal speech.  They include: got, gonna, LOL, Ha!, and so on.



Sedgehead's Standard Note Number 13


Read this blog to learn to correct little errors (little things) in your use of English: http<colon>//www<dot>sedgehead<dot>com/ index.php/learn-english/8-little-things-are-important.

I use this note several times a day on Lang-8.  Rather than repeat the same information over and over, I found it easier to make a single webpage with the details about the "little things" of capitalization, punctuation, and spacing.

Chinese:,。“”!?《》%¥*()(space is added by the font itself; you do not add spaces). English:,.""!?<>%$*() (To have space, you have to use the space bar like this: With space: , . "" ! ? < > % $ ( ) As a result, in formal scientific papers I edit, I'm constantly removing Chinese fonts and replacing them with English for publication of research papers in scientific journals

You never make mistakes when learning a language.  You just create learning opportunities.  You'll have numerous learning opportunities here.






http://www.sedgehead.com/ index.php/learn-english/8-little-things-are-important



 Sedgehead's Standard Note Number 14


I've noticed many of my Chinese friends like to use the word nowadays. I consider this word archaic although the British folks may disagree with that. I rarely see it used by Americans and instead tend to say, "these days." 



Sedgehead's Standard Note Number 15


In formal English, such as in resumes, business letters, scientific and other research publications, the intergers (=whole numbers) one to ten should be written out.

Correct: On the Christmas Bird Count, I saw four Ospreys, two Bewick's Wrens, seven Harris' Sparrows, and about four and a half million Starlings.

Incorrect: On the Christmas Bird Count, I saw 4 Ospreys, 2 Bewick's Wrens, 7 Harris' Sparrows, and about four and a half million Starlings.



Sedgehead's Standard Note Number 16

1) Numbers with more than four digits should be written with commas:

   Correct examples: 2,143 and 5,382,000 and 19,003.

   Incorrect examples: 2143 and 5382000 and 19003. 

2) Numbers that are written is decimal which are less than zero should be preceded by a zero.

   Correct examples: 0.143 and 0.00000005 and 0.019.

   Incorrect examples: .143 and .00000005 and .019.

3) Reading large numbers. 

Reading large numbers is really easy.  Here's the rules. 

For three digit numbers, say "number hundred and numbery number."

    Examples: 345 is three hundred and forty five; 678 is six hundred and seventy eight.

For very large numbers, add (as needed) quadrillion, trillion, billion, million, and thousand, as needed.  You probably don't need larger numbers, since the national debt won't ready a hextillion dollars any time in the near future.

     Example: $123,456,789,012,345,678,901 is read as one hundred and twenty three quintillion, four hundred and fifty-six quadrillion, seven hundred and eighty nine trillion, twelve billion, three hundred and forty-five million, six hundred and seventy eight thousand, nine hundred and one dollars.

Note that I didn't say "no hundred and twelve billion." Just combine those two rules (in green and red) and you can read any large number easily.



Sedgehead's Standard Note Number 17


In high school, I didn't like my initials, PEH for Philip E. Hyatt, but when I took chemistry I learned about pH (hydrogen ion concentration).  Since it was scientific, I started signing my signature as pH on some things.  I've used it ever since (1960s).  In 1990 I took biochemistry and learned that everything in biology is controlled by pH.  So since pH controls everything, I really like my name now!



Sedgehead's Standard Note Number 18


Some plural forms of words never take an added S.  As a scientist I run into several such words, which I'll list here.

Correct singular AND plural forms: advice, furniture, research, shrimp, slang, stuff.

Rarely (or never) used as a noun: advices, furnitures, evidence, researches, shrimps, slangs, stuffs.  Correct plural uses (to emphasize the plural: kinds of advice, stacks or types  or rooms full of evidence, styles of furniture, types of research, slang words, kinds of stuff.

Correct uses (but not has nouns): He stuffs the bag full of walnuts. 



Sedgehead's standard note number 19

Chinese and English fonts:

My Chinese friends have often not been taught to avoid the use of Chinese fonts when writing English.  I get paid RMB 65 to edit English research papers written by Chinese scientists and much of the work often involves removing the Chinese fonts. What do they look like?

Chinese fonts:?,》,《,“,:,},{,】,【,=,+,_,),(,*,&,^,%,$,#,@,!,~,(note that I’ve coreectly added NO space with the Chinese symbols)。

English fonts: ?, >, <, ",:, }, {,], [, =, +, _,), (, *, &, ^, %, $, #, @, !, (note the correct use of a space after every symbol.

As you can see, they are often quite different.  Chinese people who write English often forget to put a space after a period or comma,for example,like I just did.This makes their writing look childish (see my "Little things" blog for details). Chinese periods and commas have extra space,and also look different,(like you can see in this sentence)。The Chinese period is a circle and looks like this 。so avoid using it with English.  It looks really bad on resumes to mix Chinese fonts with English.  It immediately shouts to the reader “I'm not really good at writing English。”Avoid mixing Chinese fonts with English like I did intentionally in this paragragh.  Also, use a space after a period or comma (and before and after parenthesis) as required.



 Sedgehead's standard note number 20


As if things were not bad enough (see last note), scientists have to deal with the plural forms of Latin word.  A few hundred years ago biologists got together trying to decide which language should be the language of science internationally.  Latin was chosen for two reason.  Educated Europeans studied Latin at that time and no one could agree on anything else.  Germans wanted German, the English wanted English, and the French wanted French to be the language of science.  Nobody spoke Latin, so they chose it.  This complicates the plural forms for scientific words.  I'm not going to give you the Latin rules, only a few examples.

Singular form: bacterium, herbarium, aquarium, genus, species.

Correct: bacteria, herbaria, aquaria, genera, species.

Incorrect: bacteriums, herbariums, aquariums, genuses, specie.

Why?  I can answer that in two words.  It's Latin.



Sedgehead's standard note number 21


Use a semicolon (;) to separate two "independent clauses."

An independent clause is a clause that can be a sentence.  Examples:

Dependent clauses (cannot be sentences by themselves):

     The boy in the blue hat . . .

     . . . sat on a log.

     . . . because he was lonely.

     . . . and then it started to rain.

Independent clauses:

     The boy sat in the blue hat sat on a long because he was lonely.

     And then it started to rain.

     The boy sat in the blue hat sat on a long because he was lonely; and then it started to rain.



Sedgehead's Standard Note Number 22


One of many reasons I retired early was because of technology.  Many of my coworkers complained, "I can't get my field work done because everyone wants to send me email and expects me to respond."  Technology has its benefit, but it also consumes a terrific amount of time.  If you can't get your work done because you are on the computer, something is wrong.  For example, The U. S. Forest Service released their computer support staff and now makes everyone manage their own computer.  While I like computers and had accepted a writing job within the agency, I ended up spending too much time doing non-productive "work."  That was a big part of my decision to retire early from my government job.  I was getting less and less real work done and spending more and more time on my computer doing things that were not productive.



Sedgehead's Standard Note Number 23


The word "that" can often be deleted without changing the sentence's meaning.  Professional writers for magazines and scientific journals tend to remove it.

Compare these sentences.

I don't believe that!  The study included a method that used freezing temperatures.  I do believe that rich people are usually not that happy.  I think that you should learn from this experience.  He did it so that his girlfriend would be happy.  I have something that will keep you smiling.

I don't believe what you said!  The study included a method using freezing temperatures.  I do believe rich people are usually not very happy.  I think you should learn from this experience.  He did it so his girlfriend would be happy.  I have something which will keep you smiling.

Note: The word can be used.  But often it is not needed or the meaning is clearer if some other word is used.  Professional writers avoid it.  Editors cut it out to save space.



Sedgehead's Standard Note Number 24


What is a time unit? Anything that describes time  can be considered a time unit. Some words that represent time units are quite obvious:   today, tomorrow,  yesterday,  in a few minutes, in an hour or so, and so on.   Other time units are not as obvious.  For example, I also consider the following phrases to be time units: anyway,  some time, after a while,  later, and so on.  When writing in English  you should separate time units from the rest of the sentence by a comma. Time units usually go at the  beginning or the end  of a sentence, but are often correct anywhere in the sentence. Here are some correct examples:

Yesterday, I went to the store.   I went to the store, yesterday. I went, yesterday, to the store. Tomorrow, I will go to school. Anyway, I'm waiting for the weekend.  Someday, I hope to go to China.



Sedgehead's Standard Note Number 25


Title format: short and sweet!  Long titles are tedious. My Chinese friends use a variety of informal titles for blogs. I tend to teach the formal use of English. Formal titles  are what would be used for scientific journal articles, magazine articles, and newspaper headlines. the rules are fairly simple.  Titles should be short, rather than long and should usually not ask questions.  There are exceptions to every rule.  The major words in a title should be capitalized.  Here are some examples from today's newspaper.

Israel Strike Kills 11 Civilians (contains an error!)

EPA Turns Down States' Request for Ethanol Waiver

School Official Loses Appeal on Sexual Abuse Reporting

Norfork Council Sets Meeting Agenda

Library to Close for Thanksgiving

Consumers Hesitant to Upgrade to Windows 8

Note the use of capital letters on most, but not all, words.  The error?  It should be Isreali Strike Kills 11 Civilians. 

The rules are never set in stone, and this is especially true for poetry.  Some people will capitalize the first letter of ALL words in a title.  Others will only capitalize the first letter of the first word and of proper nouns.  It is your choice, since it is a matter of style.


Sedgehead's standard note number 26


Sometimes I have difficulty explaining why one word works and another does not.  This is true for "whole" and "entire."  I think the concept is one of informal vs formal English.  In my editing of scientific research papers I often find myself replacing "whole" with "entire" simply because "entire" sounds better.  I don't know why!  Example:

This whole group of species is crepuscular.

This entire group of species is crepuscular.

When I'm talking about a group of anything in scientific writing, I tend to use "entire" and not "whole" although both words work fairly well.  I come across this often enough on Lang-8 that I added to my list here.  While it is partly my style, I think "entire" is used more frequently in this context.  I hope my entire group of Lang-8 friends enjoys this list of suggestions for non-native speakers of English. 



Sedgehead's standard note number 27


Words can be written in a series correctly in two ways.  The last comma in the second group is called "the serial comma" but I only say that in case you are an English teacher or want to search for more info on this topic on the internet.

My preferred method: Dogs, cats, and mice eat meat, mice, and grain, respectively.

Also considered correct (but sometimes confusing): Dogs, cats and mice eat meat, mice and grain, respectively.

Why do I prefer the first method?  You could read it to mean "Cats and mice both eat mice and grain" which is not the meaning you intended.


Note the word "respectively" allows you to match up two series of words.  Based on the sentence you know dogs eat meat and mice eat grain.

Why not say "Dogs eat meat, cats eat mice, and mice eat grain?"  The word respective is used to save space and make the meaning more clear. This is especially true in long and complex scientific writing.  Consider the following example, with and without the use of "respectively."

Shorter, clearer, and better: The results show the Arkansas Ozark Mountain, Arkansas River, and Missouri Ozark Mountain plant communities received 35, 30, and 43 inches of rain each year and 4-10, 0-2, and 4-10 inches of snow each winter, respectively.

Longer, confusing, and not as good (but still correct): The results show the Arkansas Ozark Mountain plant community received 35 inches of rain each year and 4-6 inches of snow each winter, the Arkansas River plant community received 30 inches of rain each year and 0-2 inches of snow each winter, and the Missouri Ozark Mountain plant community received 43 inches of rain each year and 4-10 inches of snow each winter.

Both sentences use the same ideas, but one is much shorter.  BUT be careful to not use "respectively" if you are not using a series. 

Incorrect use of "respectively: The results show the Arkansas Ozark Mountain plant community received 35 inches of rain each year and 4-6 inches of snow each winter, respectively.

In the incorrect example, there is no series of items that is being connected.