In almost any paper there is an abundance of classical errors, such as omitting the "s" at the end of a third person singular verb. I am growing tired of painstakingly listing the page and line for each error. Is it acceptable to just write: "Please, have a native speaker fix your grammar?"

Usually the reviewer guidelines ignore the subject of grammar.

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    Just to point out that you don't necessarily need to oppose native and non-native speakers on this issue. It's true you can often guess the writer isn't a native speaker by the type of grammatical mistakes, but being a native speaker doesn't necessarily give any authority on grammar. If anything, non-native speakers are likely to be the only ones who've actually gone through grammar lessons at school (as far as I understand, grammar as such isn't always on the curriculum). Native speakers do make mistakes such as your/you're (or even witch/which) quite regularly. – Bruno Mar 25 '15 at 9:49

I usually list a few examples and suggest editing by a native speaker/writer. If it's really bad, I will do so as a request for major revision. I've never had an editor complain about my doing it that way.

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    This is what I do too for errors that would be caught by a professional copy editor. I do specifically point out errors in usage, spelling, or capitalization that would only be noticed by someone familiar with the field. – Michael Hoffman Mar 25 '15 at 17:34
  • This is what I do too. I'll pick a section (first paragraph, first page, introduction) and list all the errors I see in that; then I'll say that the rest of the paper is similar, but that I haven't listed all the other issues. I also always add whether this does or doesn't affect understandability (" ... making the discussion in the paper unclear", or "nevertheless, the paper is perfectly understandable". – iayork Mar 26 '15 at 15:08

In addition to the others answers given, I think that is it extremely important to state whether or not you consider the grammatical errors to affect the scientific substance of the paper.

Usually, grammatical errors don't actually effect your ability to evaluate the science in a paper. Even when phrases are fairly tangled or when a missing word makes a sentence say the opposite of what is intended, you can usually sort out what the authors intended, and judge them on their science, not their presentation.

This is an extremely important responsibility: do not judge a paper based on grammar and language issues.

Whatever grammatical issues you point out, be explicit that they are not the reason for your recommendation. Some reviewers will play language police, and recommend a paper be rejected because it is "sloppy." This is, in my opinion, inexcusable: grammar, no matter how tangled, can always be cleaned up, and should only be held against an author if they refuse to do such cleanup.

In those rare cases that things are so badly presented that you cannot understand the science, however, state clearly that is what has happened, and that this is why you are judging the grammar to actually affect the acceptability of the paper.

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    For example, your grammatical error in misusing effect when you mean affect doesn't materially harm my comprehension of your answer. – TRiG Mar 25 '15 at 10:27
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    @TRiG Exactly. I will now pretend that I did that on purpose. :-) – jakebeal Mar 25 '15 at 11:49
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    Oh, but to effect is a verb meaning "to cause something". I truly agree that "grammatical errors don't actually effect your ability to evaluate the science in a paper". – JiK Mar 25 '15 at 13:08
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    @JiK it would be more grammatically appropriate to say "grammatical errors don't actually effect a hindrance on your ability to evaluate the science in a paper" - your ability is affected (altered), an impact on your ability is effected (caused)... yes, I'm loads of fun at parties, why do you ask? – Jason Mar 26 '15 at 14:57
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    @Jason My point was that I interpreted the sentence as "grammatical errors are not the reason for the existence of your ability", which is clearly true (but obviously it doesn't make much sense to say it). – JiK Mar 26 '15 at 15:47

It depends on how bad the problem is. If the number of grammatical errors is reasonably small, I'd be inclined to point them out individually, but if there are errors all over the place, I'd point out a few (for example, those on the first page, or in the first paragraph if there are too many on the first page), say that there are many more, and recommend that the paper be repaired by a native speaker. (This assumes that the author is not a native speaker; if (s)he is, then I'd recommend careful proofreading. I have refereed papers that had obviously not been proofread even in the most cursory manner.)


I would stay away from the comment about having a "native speaker fix your grammar" since even though it is a valid comment its not exactly constructive or guiding the author back to the correct path.

Depending on the general level of errors, I typically would mention one or 2 instances of a given error specifically as a single item listing its locations in the paper, and then in the event that it appears a third time then change the review comment to a major item and change the text of the comment to reflect that these are limited examples and the paper contains more identical instances of the same issue.

One thing to remember is not to allow grammatical issues overshadow your review of the content.

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    Why is it not constructive to suggest proofreading by a native speaker? I think it's exactly the sort of thing that's called for, and today basically everyone has access to someone who actually knows the language well (in addition to there being commercial services that can do it for you for a rather reasonable fee). – Wolfgang Bangerth Mar 25 '15 at 2:32
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    because it is implying that the author is not capable of doing so themselves, and that their grasp of the language may not be adequate (even if that is the case). – Damian Nikodem Mar 25 '15 at 2:36
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    I've received the suggestion to have proofreading by a native speaker, despite quite careful proofreading by a colleague from Australia. The reviewer did not cite any specific examples and upon careful examination we found only a few minor typos. – gerrit Mar 25 '15 at 3:09
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    @Damian Nikodem: It's not implying that the author is not capable, it's bluntly stating it. My only quibble is with suggesting review by a native speaker. I've seen more than one paper by native speakers with too many spelling/grammatical errors. – jamesqf Mar 25 '15 at 4:56
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    Indeed. Just because someone has used this line of argument incorrectly does not mean that it is generally a bad idea. In all cases I can think of, it was easy to tell that the author's command of the English language was simply not good enough and that they needed external help. If there ever was a case where the author would have been capable but simply didn't care to proofread -- well, if I offended you by suggesting to get a native speaker, then you simply had it coming. – Wolfgang Bangerth Mar 25 '15 at 11:05

You don't need to list every mistake. As people have said, you can just give a few examples and ask the authors to look back over the whole paper. I also wouldn't say "Please, have a native speaker fix your grammar". You can make the same point that there are grammatical problems which need to be fixed without making assumptions about the authors which may themselves be offensive.

Where I would slightly disagree with some of the other answers is that I do think all non-trivial grammatical errors should be fixed before publication. This includes getting singulars and plurals right for example. An arguably incorrect semi-colon may be more forgiveable of course. I have read a number of papers with poor English where it has made it much harder to understand the content of the paper.

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    Yes, about poor English making it harder to understand the paper. I've seen instances where I thought the science was good, but couldn't be sure because I wasn't entirely sure what the authors were intending to say. – jamesqf Mar 25 '15 at 17:30

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