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Austin's Editing Marks

This is a guide to the symbols I use when marking up your writing assignments. Each symbol stands for a particular kind of error. By marking the types of errors you're making, my aim is to help you identify the areas on which you need to focus to improve the accuracy of your written English.

Important: When I mark up your assignments, I will not necessarily mark every single error you make. Instead, I will mark those errors that seem to occur most frequently in your writing, or those that cause the greatest difficulties for the reader.

When looking over my feedback on your writing, look for patterns. Which symbols do you see most often on your writing? Make sure you understand that particular category of error (ask me if you're unclear!) and in your future writing, focus on that specific issue.

Note: This guide is a work in progress. As I gather more examples I will add them to this guide, and add more detailed descriptions as well. If you want know more about a type of error I haven't documented very extensively, please ask me!

Standard editing marks

These are marks and symbols that are widely used in the English-speaking world when editing documents. I use them when marking up your papers, and you may well see other teachers using them as well.

Austin's special editing marks

These are symbols and abbreviations that I've invented. You won't necessarily see other people using these marks.

wc (word choice / collocation)


If you see this mark on your paper, it could mean one of two things:

  1. this word doesn't mean what you think it does; or
  2. this word doesn't "go with" the words around it.

In practice, these two problems are often one and the same.

Possibility #1: Doesn't mean what you think it does

Consider the following example:

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The student who has written this sentence means 让美国人说英式英语. However, "let" has a narrower meaning than 让. It can only mean 允许 -- i.e. "permit" or "allow." So this student has unintentionally written 允许美国人说英式英语, which is not what they mean!

(What the student actually means is "make the Americans speak British English.")

Possibility #2: Doesn't go with the words around it

Consider the following example:

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The student who has written this sentence means 拥有这种能力. However, in English you cannot "own" an ability. You can own possessions: own a car, own a house, own 30,000 DVDs, etc. But you cannot "own" an ability. Instead, one has an ability, or possesses an ability. 

In any language, certain words regularly "go with" some words but not other words. This is a matter of convention (habit, custom) rather than grammar or meaning. Take the Chinese word 细微 for instance. You can say 细微的区别 or 细微的变化 but not 细微的零件. (Instead, you'd say 细小的零件.) Linguists call this phenomenon -- that certain words "go with" others -- collocation, from Latin roots col- ("together") and loc- ("place").

But how do I know what words "go together"?

This is very difficult if you're not a native speaker of a language. Most native speakers learn what words "go together" through years of reading the language or hearing it spoken. If you see lots of "wc"s on your papers, you're not going to solve this problem overnight. The first step is just being aware that it's a problem. As you study, you'll gradually develop an intuitive sense for which words go together: what Chinese speakers sometimes refer to as "language sense" 语感.

But in the short term, if you're writing something and want to figure out what words "go together," here are a few tricks you can use:

Trick #1: Google it

The Internet is a huge database of natural language. Just put a combination of words into a search engine and you'll immediately see whether other people often use those two words together.

For searching English word combinations, use a search engine optimized for English, like Google or Bing (国际版). Don't use Baidu, which is optimized for Chinese. Make sure you put the words in quotation marks 引号 so it searches those exact words in that exact order.

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For example, if you put "invisible pressure" into Google you'll find only about 24,000 results and most are the phrase "invisible pressure plate" from the computer game Minecraft:

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By contrast, if you search a common word combination like "subtle pressure," you'll get a lot more results, and most are "normal" language (from books, articles, blog posts, etc.):

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Trick #2: Use a corpus 

Coming soon . . .


TRICK #3: Ask a Native Speaker

In an ideal world, we'd all bring our language questions to a native speaker for help. Of course, that's not always practical. But take advantage of this option if you are lucky enough to have it!


More examples:

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Austin Woerner