Editing English: Why English? Which English?

Susan Holzman

The official languages of my country are Hebrew and Arabic. However, Israeli academics are required to publish in English when being considered for tenure and promotion. In fact, the push for publication in English is a worldwide phenomenon. The power and hegemony of English is pervasive and undisputed.

The idea that language is power is not new. The theme of language as a source of control and domination, conflict and struggle appears repeatedly throughout the history of humankind. The Biblical story of the Tower of Babel is familiar to most of us. The descendants of Noah all spoke one language and decided to unite and work to enhance their power and name. But, it was not to be (GENESIS CHAPTER 11).

  1. And the Lord said, “Lo [they are] one people and they all have one language and this is what they have commenced to do. Now will it not be withheld from them, all that they have planned to do?
  2. Come, let us descend and confuse their language, so that one will not understand the language of his companion.

The dominance and power of the people, enhanced by their common language, was foiled and disrupted when their language was “confused.” The people were then scattered over the face of the earth, speaking different languages, isolated from each other by the barrier of language. According to the story, it was not meant to be that there would be one language. Whether one accepts this reason for the linguistic variation existing in the world today or not, the simple fact is that there are thousands of languages and dialects today, using varied orthographies written from right to left, left to right, horizontally and vertically.

Over the years, languages have been changing, mixing, and dying and one (Hebrew), amazingly, has been resuscitated. In each case, social, geographic, economic, political, and religious forces individually or in combination have influenced and shaped a long history of innovation and diversification in ways of communication.  On the other hand, with this divergence there has been a parallel convergence. The same forces that shaped the divergence have influenced an opposite tendency eased by technology and the general trend of globalization. Now, at the beginning of the 21st century, has the time come when one language is spoken by all again and power and control and strength is mandated by this use of one language?

It might be possible to imagine a utopia where everyone is equal, communicates freely, and obtains access to opportunities available due to the ease of communication afforded by the use of one international language. The present reality does not support this utopic ideal. There are the “haves” and the “have nots.” It is ironic, but the “have nots” are often plurilinguals, speaking several languages as well as English, while the “haves” are western  monolinguals, having varying degrees of proficiency in their native language, English, yet glorying in their status as “native speakers.”  These language deficient individuals, in many cases, control the dissemination of knowledge and information and actively maintain the global hegemony of English speaking countries.

This situation has had a ripple effect. For example, in Malta, English and Maltese are official languages and most people there are bilingual and fluent in both languages (often knowing Italian as well). In schools, English dominates over the Semitic-Maltese indigenous language. In Japan, English is recognized as important for business and academics, but not seen by the general population as a priority. In Turkey, many of the best state and private universities are English medium, but students cannot begin their disciplinary studies because but they need a year intensive study of English first. So in this jumble of communicative needs and levels of knowledge and exposure, what English should be used what is right and acceptable and intelligible to conduct the business of the world? What is right and acceptable and intelligible to share scientific knowledge of the nations? And what is right, acceptable and intelligible to discuss peace and disarmament and prevent violence?

English as a Lingua Franca

In My Fair Lady, Professor Higgins sings:

One common language I’m afraid we’ll never get.
Oh, why can’t the English learn to
set a good example to people whose
English is painful to your ears?
The Scotch and the Irish leave you close to tears.
There even are places where English completely disappears.
Well, in America, they haven’t used it for years!

From such popular allusions and the occasional “/program/programme” or “center/centre” or “color/colour”  that we run into, most of us are aware that there are some differences in British and American Englishes. However for the most part, we are ignorant of the differences. Even Harry Potter has British and American editions so the American child does not have to figure out what crisps are or what form of clothing a jumper is.

Recently I read an excellent novel, the Sea of Poppies by Amitav Ghosh. The Indian English, laced with bits of creoles, pidgins and local slang from the 18th century, made the reading a challenge, but this again brought to the fore the fact that English is not this monolith that is identifiable, canonized and immutable. The truth is that we can understand even if the spoken or written text is not exactly what we are used to; we want to comprehend and the message comes through often enriched by the voice of the one who delivered the text.

The voices of the speakers or writers might come from someone from India, Nigeria, Mexico, Argentina, or Norway. The authors (here used for both spoken and written text) may have learned English at home from family, at school as the medium of instruction or in some other way: in classes, from film and TV, from reading, from contact with English speakers; the possibilities are endless. With these voices, the authors can share information and knowledge. They can travel, shop, conduct business, and negotiate. They use one language that is English. But what English is it?

This one language is ELF, English as a Lingua Franca. Barbara Siedlhofer (2005) explained the concept:

In recent years, the term ‘English as a lingua franca’ (ELF) has emerged as a way of referring to communication in English between speakers with different first languages. Since roughly only one out of every four users of English in the world is a native speaker of the language, most ELF interactions take place among ‘non-native’ speakers of English…. what is distinctive about ELF is that, in most cases, it is ‘a contact language’ between persons who share neither a common native tongue nor a common (national) culture, and for whom English is the chosen foreign language of communication…(p. 339).

ELF opens doors to all kinds of possibilities. Furthermore, many pedagogical approaches have been revised with ELF as a foundational premise. The idea is that English should be taught for communication, to learn and share and to get things done:

It’s a world of laughter

It’s a world of laughter
A world of tears
It’s a world of hopes
And a world of fears
There’s so much that we share
That it’s time we’re aware
It’s a small world after all..(Sherman & Sherman for Disney)


A door has been opened because there is “so much we can share” using ELF. The only problem with this open door is that it is not the entrance to everything. Gatekeepers at certain doors are not so welcoming. These gatekeepers will not listen to voices that do not conform to their ideas of what language should be, what language should look like, what forms should be used. This sounds cruel, no doubt, but the phenomenon is common and it comes at a crucial “door.” The gatekeepers stand at the door of dissemination of research and science and theories through academic publishing.

The Gatekeepers

The information in the following table is copy-pasted from the websites of various well-known publishers of academic literature as well as one sample of a journal from each. The mission statement (the “about us” section) from the journals paints a pretty picture: “There’s so much that we share/That it’s time we’re aware/It’s a small world after all.” Elsevier says: “Our goal is to expand the boundaries of knowledge for the benefit of humanity.” Wiley talks about “partnerships with the world’s leading societies.” Taylor & Francis “partners with world-class authors, from leading scientists and researchers, to scholars and professionals operating at the top of their fields.” However, the underlying message is that: “humanity” had better know “good English;” the “world’s leading societies” should have their writing checked by a “native English speaker;” and the “world class… scientists and researchers… scholars and professionals operating at the top of their fields” must be aware of the fact that: “Papers that do not meet basic standards of English usage will be rejected without review.”

Publisher Mission statement Journal Language guidelines
Elsevier We help researchers make new discoveries, collaborate with their colleagues, and give them the knowledge they need to find funding. We help governments and universities evaluate and improve their research strategies. We help doctors save lives, providing insight for physicians to find the right clinical answers, and we support nurses and other healthcare professionals throughout their careers. Our goal is to expand the boundaries of knowledge for the benefit of humanity.” Bioresource Technology publishes original articles, review articles, case studies and short communications on the fundamentals, applications and management of bioresource technolo gy.


Language and language services

Please write your text in good English (American or British usage is accepted, but not a mixture of these). The Editors suggest avoidance of usage of first person (we, us, our) in the text. Authors who require information about language editing and copyediting services pre- and post-submission please visit http://www.elsevier.com/languageediting or our customer support site at service.elsevier.com for more information. Please note that poor language may cause the rejection of the manuscript

Wiley Wiley is the international scientific, technical, medical, and scholarly publishing business of John Wiley & Sons, with strengths in every major academic and professional field and partnerships with many of the world’s leading societies.


Chemical Engineering & Technology: This is the journal for chemical engineers looking for first-hand information in all areas of chemical and process engineering. Papers must be written in English. Use American spelling. Please use a simple, clear style, and avoid jargon. Manuscripts should be checked by a native English speaker prior to submission. Please inform us in the cover letter if your manuscript has been professionally edited before submission, such as by Wiley English Language Editing Services.


Taylor and Francis Online Taylor & Francis partners with world-class authors, from leading scientists and researchers, to scholars and professionals operating at the top of their fields. Together, we publish in all areas of the Humanities, Social Sciences, Behavioural Sciences, Science, Technology and Medicine sectors. We are one of the world’s leading publishers of scholarly journals, books, eBooks, textbooks and reference works.


 Materials and Manufacturing Processes deals with issues that result in better utilization of raw materials and energy, integration of design and manufacturing activities requiring the invention of suitable new manufacturing processes and techniques, unmanned production dependent on efficient and reliable control of various processes including intelligent processing, introduction of new materials in industrial production necessitating new manufacturing process technology, and more. Your submission will be evaluated for language quality and may be screened for duplicate submissions and plagiarism through CrossRef. Papers that do not meet basic standards of English usage will be rejected without review


American Chemical Society


ACS Publications stands alongside Chemical Abstracts Services in supporting the American Chemical Society’s goal to be the most authoritative, comprehensive, and indispensable provider of chemistry-related information, in keeping with the ACS’s Vision of Improving People’s Lives Through the Transforming Power of Chemistry. Energy & Fuels : Energy & Fuels publishes reports of research in the technical area defined by the intersection of the disciplines of chemistry and chemical engineering and the application domain of non-nuclear energy and fuels. This includes research directed at the formation of, exploration for, and production of fossil fuels and biomass; the properties and structure or molecular composition of both raw fuels and refined products; the chemistry involved in the processing and utilization of fuels; fuel cells and their applications; and the analytical and instrumental techniques used in investigations of the foregoing areas. Assistance with Improving Your Manuscript

Authors may want professional assistance with improving the English, figures or formatting in their manuscript before submission. ACS ChemWorx Authoring Services can save you time and improve the communication of research in your manuscript. You can learn more about the services offered at http://es.acschemworx.acs.org.

The Gatekeepers Have Spoken

There is lip service to “to expand the boundaries of knowledge for the benefit of humanity” (Elsevier) but also the warning” Papers that do not meet basic standards of English usage will be rejected without review.” (Materials and Manufacturing Processes). The question is then what are the basic standards of English usage. What is English? Widdowson writes: “The concept of a normal or standard idiom is a statistically-based fiction” (2012, p. 7):

In other words what is standard is decreed by authority, although which authority is left unspecified: the language “has been subjected to a process . . . has been selected, codified and stabilized” by some unmentioned agency. In effect, the standard is a construct based on what linguistic tradition has deemed to be worth codifying, which is then carried over and assumed to be valid in subsequent linguistic descriptions. The public recognition of this validity is then assured by publication in what are conveniently called standard works of reference. And so a convenient construct becomes an established convention. For one needs to note that the grammar books and dictionaries that are referred to here are not newly compiled each time from scratch from empirical data, but are adapted versions of previous grammars and dictionaries. Thus, the illusion is perpetuated that these descriptions are the empirically substantiated accounts of the actual language, whereas what they represent is essentially versions of conventionalized constructs that are sanctioned by linguistic tradition


Widdowson argues that there is no Standard English, but this “convenient fiction” is accepted and adhered to and believed in by the gatekeepers of science and by those who want to pass through the gates. The science, research, and theories may not be heard unless they are expressed in good Standard English. Rozyci and Johnson (2013) conducted research on the use of “non-canonical grammar” in published research articles. In order to find a “standard” of what was canonical and what was not, they consulted the “comprehensive grammar” by Quirk et al. (1985)

We chose the comprehensive grammar by Quirk et al. (1985) as the canon for grammatical usage. The compilers of this comprehensive grammar of English take great pains in the front matter of their grammar (pp. 1–34) to disavow any intention to make prescriptive judgments. Nevertheless, the compilers make clear that they are presenting ‘‘Standard English’’ (p. 18) which they see as comprising educated, national (rather than regionally-based) versions of both British and American English, with a range of usage that can be labeled from ‘‘acceptable’’ to ‘‘unacceptable’’ (p. 33). In addition to acceptability judgments, they report studying three corpora for frequency of use, namely the Survey of English Usage, the Lancaster-Oslo/Bergen corpus for British English, and the Brown University corpus for American English. (p. 158)


While scholars, grammarians, linguists, and researchers debate and define, discuss and deliberate, there is, unequivocally, an arbitrary and well-guarded wall, undefined and amorphous, and unless academicians and scholars and scientists can breach that wall, it is unlikely that anyone will even consider reading their contributions.

There are some chinks in the wall; De Gruyter Mouton (based in Berlin), “one of the world’s leading publishers in the fields of linguistics and communication science” has a style sheet that says “If you are not a native speaker of English, please have your contribution carefully checked by a native speaker.” However, The Journal of English as a Lingua Franca, a De Gruyter Mouton journal states in the submission guidelines that “the editors of JELF simply expect authors to submit manuscripts written in English that is intelligible to a wide academic audience, but it need not conform to native English norms.” Philosophically politically correct, but a very small chink in a very large wall.

Where do I Stand?

I love the idea of communication being a priority. I believe that the voice of the author should be heard clearly and not blended out into something innocuous and faceless. However, that being said, the language of an academic text should not be reason to pause, consider and reread.

When I think of my work as an editor, I see “native speaker norms” or “Standard English” as a given but not my priority. When “less” (less deductions) or “amount” (amount of differences) is used with count nouns or there is a dangling modifier in a text, these things will be “fixed” to my satisfaction and, on occasion, accompanied by grammar explanations for the author. But the truth is that the only time I ever told a client that, in my opinion, the article would not be published had nothing to do with language and everything to do with organization and content.

I believe that proofreading (things such as correcting verb agreement, spelling and prepositional use) is superficial and easy and should not be the reason for a journal editor not to send an article to review. On the other hand, when things are published, there should be some representation of the “convenient fiction” of native speaker norms. Editors and teachers of academic writing should conform to what is conventionally called Standard English, but at the same time should emphasize content, meaning and coherence.

References supplied by the author on request: holzms@zahav.net.il


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