I will try to formulate this question so that it makes sense for a wider audience and suits the style of the QA here. Feel free to suggest changes.

I am a non-native English speaker living in the US and the UK for several years now on and off, and have always performed very well in school with languages. I hold a master's degree and graduated from university a few years ago. This likely applies to many others as well.

Recently, I was offered (and have accepted) representation through a literary agent and will be starting work on a non-fiction book soon. In fact, this will actually be my second book (the first one was very technical and written in my native language; it also had very little narrative). The upcoming book, however, will be published (and edited) in English.

Here's what I am trying to understand and figure out:

In the process of preparing to write longer segments (the pitch and sample chapters were rather short), I am trying to learn as much as possible about writing correctly. Don't get me wrong, I fully understand that writing style and content are the defining characteristics of a great book. However, writing grammatically correct even short segments like this question without embarassing myself in front of the editor has become my biggest fear now.

Is it possible as an educated, grown-up, curious researcher and avid learner to master the art (science) of English grammar completely (so I could fool all of you into thinking I'm a native writer), within a reasonable amount of time? I have recently started to read a lot about core topics like commas, quotations, tenses, and a whole lot of other things randomly. My main concern is lack of understanding when it comes to defining the horizon. When will I know that my grammar is indistinguishable from any native writer? Of all topics at hand, which are the low-hanging fruit? Which are super-hard but really, really necessary to understand? For instance, what parts of this question might give away my non-native origin?

Is there anything that you as a native speaker can identify as classic non-native grammatical mistakes? I feel like starting with eliminating those, progressing onwards to the advanced mistakes (these include mistakes made equally frequent by non-natives and natives), and then simply investing a lot of time in finding style and a voice would be a worthwhile approach.

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    Couple things: (1) I love the question, but unfortunately I don't think it's appropriate for SE's format, and (2) there isn't a line. Different regional dialects would be considered "uneducated" to each other. And don't forget that lines like "lol, ru cuming to teh store 2day?" are written by native speakers. (And (3), if you hadn't told me you weren't a native speaker, I would never have guessed. Your writing is in immaculate English.) – Nick2253 Dec 10 '14 at 18:00
  • I was afraid someone would bring up the 'probably not suitable for SE' comment, but I understand where you are coming from. Do you see a way to edit the question to stay true to its core and better fitting this format here by any chance? – James Stone Dec 10 '14 at 18:05
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    This question appears to be off-topic because it is effectively "writing advice" (or "general advice on learning English"). – FumbleFingers Dec 10 '14 at 18:13
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    The only two issues I noticed while reading your question was (1) “writing grammatically correct” (should be “grammatically correctly”), which is something I daresay many, many native speakers would say, too; and (2) the spellings “grammer” (grammar) and “embarassing” (embarrassing), which I know for a fact are both extremely common in native speakers (more so than in non-native speakers, probably). Like Nick, I would have taken you for a native speaker if you hadn’t pointed out that you’re not. Any further polishings of your English … well, that’s exactly what your editor is there for! – Janus Bahs Jacquet Dec 10 '14 at 19:14
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    A classic non-native speaker grammar mistake is a result of interference, or negative transfer from the mother tongue. Hence, a French native speaker will tend to make different mistakes than a Japanese native speaker. You might wish to investigate the typical mistakes of native speakers of your language as the next step in perfecting your already excellent English. For example, your use in the second paragraph of have graduated instead of graduated, and frequent instead of frequently in the last paragraph may be indicative of the fact that you are German native speaker. – Shoe Dec 10 '14 at 19:17

The most obvious mistake in your question is equating correct English with native speakers' English. There have been many discussions here about what constitutes "native speakers' English", largely inconclusive: eg What makes a non-native speaker sound foreign? . The answer to that question is probably "a host of small things, most of which are beneath the threshold of perception." The answer to "What constitutes correct English grammar?" is easier to get an answer to: whoever you are speaking to, it boils down to "The way I myself speak and write English." (Example in the last sentence: whomever is technically correct by the rules you refer to, but probably has not been used by any native speaker for some years save for effect. Do you really want to use it?)

At present your English is good enough not to draw attention to itself, which is the only important criterion. Beyond that, it really is a matter of style and experience.

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    Thanks Tim! Your answer definitely makes sense assuming that a writer is above a certain minimum threshold of understanding common grammar rules. Many bloggers are native speakers but still terrible "grammarians", which is basically what you were referring to if I understand correctly. Their "native advantage" doesn't help other than with avoiding typical non-native (style) mistakes like mentioned in a comment above (i.e. from @Shoe, who immediately identified me as German-speaking). Your last point in drawing attention also makes sense and is very helpful to keep in mind. Thanks again. – James Stone Dec 10 '14 at 22:56

You are at a level where you will do better by trying to let go of your worries, stop studying grammar directly, except to the extent that you love doing so over reading or studying other things, and read for its own sake.

You will almost certainly never learn all the grammar rules that a moderately highly literate native speaker has learned incidentally. But the idea that it will embarrass you is irrational or maladaptive. Most editors will be very happy that you have some errors so they can feel value for doing their work!

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  • Thanks for the calming response, Jim. You address one point in particular that I noticed quite a bit once I had started digging through heaps and heaps of grammar literature: With every further grammar rule I started to understand and apply, my writing slowed down tremendously (and even more so the creative drive). It felt really limiting and restrictive. There weren't that many errors to begin with, but adding all those grammar-related worries certainly pushed down on the writing flow. So that was a helpful comment, thanks again. – James Stone Dec 10 '14 at 22:46
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I recommend The English Tenses Practical Grammar Guide by Phil Williams. His book really helps get a handle on learning proper grammar. We use it to teach people to speak, write and use proper English. His site is http://www.englishlessonsbrighton.co.uk/, great info and great blog too.

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