Having read the writing of non-native English speakers on several occasions, it has always struck me how easily I can identify what is 'wrong' about a particular sentence without really determining why. For example, in this sentence:

You see the man clamp his fists hard, like he is trying to suppress some strong emotions.

I recognise on a basic level that clamp is improper usage and should be replaced with clench, but I'm not sure why I find "suppress some strong emotions" odd. It doesn't look grammatically incorrect to me, and yet it doesn't sound naturally phrased either. The use of 'like' here also feels strange--perhaps because the informal register of 'like' clashes with the literary tone of the sentence? (This was taken from a written narrative.)

Furthermore, there seems to be a difference between the naturalness of native and non-native English writing regardless of accuracy / correctness. Native speakers make grammatical mistakes that still register as ones made by native speakers, for instance. In contrast, the above sentence reads very much 'foreign'. So when a sentence doesn't sound natural, where does the problem lie?

Are there linguistic concepts and terms that allow me to properly discuss this phenomenon? (e.g. The lack of natural flow is due to "semantic confusion". "Syntactical errors" are also at work.) I would appreciate suggestions.

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    The some doesn't sound right. It should either be strong emotions or some strong emotion; if you write some strong emotions, it weakens the sentence. May 23, 2017 at 18:44
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    So if we correct it to You see the man clench his fists hard, as if he were trying to suppress some strong emotion, does it still sound foreign? May 23, 2017 at 18:46
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    One concept that is useful is collocation. clench a fist versus clamp a fist would be in your context what is called a collocation error. (An easy way to understand collocation is: you don't expect to find the word shit in a mathematical treatise.) Had it been, "you see the man clamp his fist around his son's wrist", that would have been fine.
    – Lambie
    May 23, 2017 at 19:07
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    @HotLicks Nonsense. Everything is wrong with "clamp". To clamp something means to hold something in place. The grammatical object of the verb to clamp would be the object that is clamped. "clamp his fists" thus implies something like a need to restrain his fists from going berserk, perhaps with handcuffs or by standing on them with his feet. Amusing, but certainly not intentionally so.
    – Will
    May 23, 2017 at 22:54
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    @HotLicks In Br.E, if I read that somebody "clamps his fists" my first question is "whose fists did he clamp?" - i.e. somebody else's, not his own - and possibly "what did he use to clamp them?". Also, in the OP's quote "some strong emotions" might suggest the writer didn't have a wide enough vocabulary to tell us what emotions were being suppressed.
    – alephzero
    May 24, 2017 at 1:45

7 Answers 7


I am not a native speaker, but the problem you described is true for any language. Having learnt English for a few years and still having hard time speaking idiomatically, I am starting to understand the key reasons behind it.

Neglecting semantics and being unaware of well-established and fixed phrases and collocations while finding target language counterparts of our native words and phrases

Let's suppose I want to say to put pressure on sb. I don't know how it would be in English. In my native tongue, this verb phrase is one single verb. I look it up in a dictionary and get: push, squeeze, jam, crush etc. If I were an ideal student I would do more research to find a verb or a phrase with the closest meaning possible, but doing extensive research for every single word takes much time. Laze and self-confidence overcome. I wishfully think this one is correct and I have seen it used in this context. Voila! I clamp my fists hard and hope it will pass and nobody will notice.

The rest ensues from the aforesaid.

Why does it happen?

Each language has its own established word use rules and fixed phrases which are not always logical and do not necessarily have direct counterparts in other languages. When it's your mother tongue, you absorb these peculiarities for years, you read a lot of books, listen to good language everyday - much more than a learner does. A learner's contact with the language is limited. It begins at school and boils down to a few hours a week at best. We have much less opportunities to embrace huge amount of language material a native speaker contacts with over the course of, say, first 15-20 years of their life when personality is formed and basic mental skills are developed.

  • _ I am not a native speaker, but the problem you described is true for any language _ you speak very true, it is the real challenge of learning a new language. _ Laze and self-confidence overcome. I wishfully think this one is correct and I have seen it used in this context. Voila! I clamp my fists hard and hope it will pass and nobody will notice _ your insight, humor and verve is simply sooperb: 3 cheers and 1 upvote for this brilliant answer! May 24, 2017 at 10:09

I'm not an expert in psychology or neurology, but I believe the reason is that effective reading (and listening) depends on the text following common grammatical patterns. The brain is constantly making unconscious predictions about where the text is going, and priming itself with the expected concepts. You don't have to read each word consciously, you read whole phrases at a time. When the text does not go where the mind is predicting, it forces more conscious attention to decode the meaning.

In the language of Daniel Kahneman, this is a System 1 versus System 2 distinction. Well written text can be read using the fast, intuitive methods of System 1; poorly written text requires use of the more deliberative System 2.

There are situations where this is intentional -- many forms of jokes and wordplay are based on using words and phrases in unusual ways. But in the case of normal prose, it simply gets in the way of easy understanding.

To see the normal process in action, try reading a book. When you're about to turn the page, guess what word or phrase will be at the beginning of the next page. If the book is well written, I expect you'll be correct the vast majority of the time. When you're reading normally, your mind has already assumed this continuation while you're turning the page, and all it has to do is confirm its assumption as you start scanning the next page.

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    Very true indeed! I tried the 'prediction test' with a native writer and found you are absolutely right. But I have not yet tried it with a non-native writer. May 23, 2017 at 23:57
  • Brings to mind a teacher back at the university. His English was so atrocious that I could either understand what he said or hear the next thing he said, not both. At the time I never understood how that could be but you just answered it. (Fortunately, his material was no more informative than understandable. Not being able to follow him didn't make the class impossible.) May 24, 2017 at 11:29
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    I do not think this answers the question at all.
    – Lambie
    May 24, 2017 at 14:11
  • @Lambie This dwells on grammar patterns and common use which non-native speakers may not be enough aware of thus producing speech which cannot be followed "smoothly" without striking one's ear.
    – olegst
    May 29, 2017 at 7:35
  • @olegst No, it is a completely different topic. The idea that native speakers of any language "fill in" words and do not always listen to phrases in their entirety has zero to do with the subject of clench/clamp here and improving "native speech" utterances and production. So, I really cannot understand why so many thought it was related to the topic.
    – Lambie
    May 29, 2017 at 13:36

HAVING MADE made many small changes to replace those elements in your sample sentence that have odd word choice or syntax and thus hinder natural flow, this is what I think a native writer of English would produce:

He clenched his fists, as though (he were) attempting to suppress some strong emotion.

This sentence is itself rather old-fashioned, and reminds me of the dramatic/gothic style in Dr. Jekyll, Dorian Gray and Sherlock Holmes. If you compare this with the original sentence, you could figure out where the writing of non-natives can differ from that of native English speakers.

As I am a non-native speaker of English myself, your question is indeed intriguing, and I think I am in a unique position (relative to native speakers) to provide not only personal insight but also some context as to how a non-native speaker learns the language very differently from native speakers, which leads to a different style of writing and possibly 'lack of natural flow.'

Please note that I am from India, which has been closely associated with Britain for over 300 years, and has therefore become very much an anglophone country, where English is the second language of a vast section of the population, an official language of all arms of the government, and the medium of higher education. Therefore we have had unique opportunities to learn the language at a higher standard from a relatively young age, with all its attendant benefits including the chance to improve our vocabulary and language by wide reading from an earlier age, and thus for more years.

The biggest difference between native and non-native learners is (usually) that the native learner learns the spoken language first, absorbing all its nuances from infancy, while the non-native learner starts with the written language, not speaking English at home (or even at school other than as part of learning grammar or reading aloud from textbooks) except in rare cases.

This difference affects 'natural flow' in the writing of non-native speakers as follows:

A. Even with extensive knowledge of book English and the ability to maintain correct grammar and usage, their writing can appear stiff, formal and 'stilted', lacking the nuance, 'ear for dialogue' and natural grace that native speakers easily bring to their written work.

B. The syntax and grammar of non-native speakers and writers is often strongly influenced by the syntax and grammar (and even idioms) of their native language(s), so that a lot of of artifacts/ minor errors/ odd usage can creep into their written work in a subtle way. In effect the person is likely to be unconsciously thinking in the native language and simultaneously translating into English, which affects both speech and writing.

I think this is sufficient to affect the natural narrative flow and create linguistic unease in the reader, thereby obstructing an immersive interaction with the written work.

[This is not a quotation; I have simply highlighted the most important part of my answer for easy reference.]

Members are invited to critique the text, writing style and 'natural flow' of this answer, treating it as a sample of written work from a well-educated and well-read non-native speaker of English for the purposes of this question, and provide your invaluable insights in comments.

(Note 2: The development of our spoken English is badly affected by the lack of opportunity to speak English at an early age, the dominant culture of the mother tongue, and the severe lack of exposure to native speakers; thus my own written English is much stronger than the spoken form, but that is a very different topic which is beyond the scope of this question.)

  • As a native British English speaker, I certainly don't consider the influence of native languages an "error" in Indian English. The fact is that In.E is a different language, with its own grammar and vocabulary, though most other English speakers can understand it easily enough. Just two examples: "Thrice" is common in In.E but almost obsolete in Br.E and Am.E - and on In.E business cards you often find the word "residence" to identify a home phone number or email address, though in Br.E only ambassadors, aristocrats, etc., have a "residence" - everyone else has a "home"
    – alephzero
    May 24, 2017 at 1:40
  • Very true. Indian English has its own identity. We just feel so comfortable reading a good Indian author writing in English because they are in sync with our 'pulse' -- but maybe a native English speaking audience may find the writing 'different' from the accustomed style of American or British English? The 'errors' that I said might creep into their writing under the influences of Indian languages are not the distinctive self-confident features of Indian English, but artifacts or confusions or even syntax/grammar carried over from the native language itself (not from Indian English! ) May 24, 2017 at 1:55
  • @alephzero - I believe you're focusing on the wrong aspects of the languages. Yes, there are idiomatic differences, but the bigger influence is language differences which naturally result in a different sentence structure. Then, in an attempt to correct for that, the non-native-English speaker overcompensates by rigorously conforming to simplistic syntax rules.
    – Hot Licks
    May 24, 2017 at 2:06
  • @Hot Licks that's right. Whereas one of the many accomplished, really talented non-native writers may well spectacularly skate close to the edges of established usage (or even beyond, but in creative ways) I feel that many other non-native writers would find their imagination and style 'constrained' by the need to maintain proper form and avoid syntactic / grammatical error under the unconscious influence of the mother tongue -- and this stiffness is often perceived as 'lack of natural flow' by the native English reader (though maybe not by non-native readers!) May 24, 2017 at 2:23
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    @Hot Licks in short the regional flavor or even the unique characteristics of a foreign language enlivens and enriches the writing as long as the basics of the language are well understood by the non-native English writer; and we have a right to expect a high level of quality from a professional writer (whether creative or technical) because indifferent or incompetent writing is bad in any language! May 24, 2017 at 12:38

Fundamentally, the lack of expertise with English language limits the effectiveness of narrative techniques and, thus, fails to draw the reader in. Possibly the three biggest factors that contribute to this failure to achieve an effective narrative technique are:

  1. the consistently clumsy use of language which is distracting to the reader, and greatly limits the effectiveness of techniques like conversational language and vernaculars which are often used by authors to make readers feel at ease and draw them deeper into a story;
  2. language struggles naturally lead to less effective use of description and metaphor which authors use to provide details which help make the reader more intimately connected to a story; and
  3. a general inability to connect with the reader intimately often leaves the reader feeling like he is observing the story from a much more distant place than a native author would be able to pull him into.

Briefly reviewing evidence supporting the existence of the issues above:

  1. You've already pointed out some grammatical errors;
  2. I think the bland level of description speaks for itself; and
  3. Notice what the impact the words "You see the man" have - this description not only puts the reader outside the man, observing the man from a distance, it also puts the reader outside himself, so the reader is asked to distantly observe himself observing the man. The reader is so far outside the description that it's hard to connect with anything.

(It wasn't clearly stated but I'm assuming that this was part of a creative writing exercise - it doesn't change my fundamental points but I would certainly use a different style in the example below if I thought this was part of an essay as opposed to part of a story.)

Just off the cuff, as a native writer I might make edits such as:

"See the man's hands suddenly tighten into small balls, like his fingers are attempting to dig their way into his own skin, until the bright red is creeping up from his hands to his forearms and every vein is visible. What is he hiding in his eyes - what is it that he is trying so hard to hold inside of him?"

Basically I said the same thing, but with a lot more language expertise that allowed me to:

  1. write without distracting (and non-native sounding) errors;
  2. apply my energy to greater detail which helps bring the reader deeper into the story; and
  3. write with a much deeper level of intimacy and familiarity with the reader than the version in the question - notice in my example there's an effect like the narrator and reader are both very close to the person, so close that the narrator is whispering in the reader's ear - notice also that I don't just come out and tell the reader that the man is hiding strong emotion, but instead give the reader enough information to connect those dots himself, which is another example of the techniques that a writer with better language skills can use to pull the reader more intimately into a story.
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    this description not only puts the reader outside the man, observing the man from a distance, it also puts the reader outside himself, so the reader is asked to distantly observe himself observing the man. Yes, that captures the problem quite well. I'm in a writer's club of sorts and I see this problem all the time in others' writing (of course my own is perfect!) even though these are "American born" writers. It's a trap one often falls into due to over-analysis of the mechanics of the language.
    – Hot Licks
    May 23, 2017 at 21:47
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    No offense, but I find this answer itself to be overly verbose to the point of unreadability. Although it does demonstrate you are a native speaker, it certainly doesn't "jump off the page" and is far from an example of exemplary prose. Redundant word use contributes to this: the first paragraph could be compressed to a quarter its length with no loss of meaning and much gain of expressiveness.
    – Wildcard
    May 24, 2017 at 2:51
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    Your answer is quite insightful regarding the problem in question, hence deserves to be read - may I only suggest that you subtly jazz up (improve and make attractive) its text formatting with a few important points in bold and a few other notable sentences in italics, even possibly highlighting a key paragraph or quotation in yellow, in order to break up the visual monotony that often dissuades somebody from starting to read a long answer. May 24, 2017 at 10:27
  • Wildcard the free market doesn't agree with your assessment of my writing skills. Still, I've reformatted my answer above per the suggestion of English Student to make it more visually appealing for those who become intimidated when they look at a long text of, as he puts it, "visual monotony" (same text though - nothing was ever wrong with that). Seriously, it's called reading. Pick up a scientific journal sometime. People do read other pages in a newspaper than the comics. Not everything has to be formatted for your visual amusement before it becomes possible for you to appreciate it.
    – Brillig
    May 24, 2017 at 14:11
  • The lack of expertise with the English language? Ho hum. Not sure I would call native speech "expertise" with regard to any sociolect or idiolect.
    – Lambie
    May 24, 2017 at 14:16

The fundamental reason is that words have more meaning associated with them than just a literal, dry interpretation of the exact dictionary definition.

Connotation is a beautiful thing. Words carry so many connotations which may or may not be mentioned in most dictionaries and which are very unlikely to be mentioned in cross-language dictionaries (in my experience).

Full understood, words are wonderful tools for expressing slight shades and subtle nuances of meaning. Almost any concept may be precisely expressed with proper word choice.

This isn't limited just to fiction writers. Even advertisers must gauge the connotations and associations which words carry to their target audience if they are to successfully market a product. Successful advertisers use surveys, as these associations change over time and from audience to audience.

Connotations can also be deliberately misused, as for comic effect. But even this requires an understanding of the words and associations and a deliberate choice to violate expectations.

So to answer your original question:

What is precisely the problem when a non-native English writer lacks 'natural flow'?

The problem precisely is an incomplete or incorrect understanding of the words being used.

Sometimes it is obvious, such as in casual conversation: "Can you lend me a five?" "Sorry, I have no funding." This would sound very odd and is factually a misuse of the word. But even with the technically correct "Sorry, I have no funds," it carries with it a connotation that the money would come from elsewhere as an allocation. "Funds" does not just mean "money"; it means "financial resources" and comes from the Latin word fundus meaning "bottom, piece of landed property." Other synonyms for "money," each with their own connotations or additional meanings and their own appropriate uses, include: finance, wealth, budget, cash, greenbacks, grease, lucre, dough, allocation, and many many more.

These words all refer to the same exact item, but for different purposes or with a different attitude.

In your example sentence the misunderstanding of the words is less obvious than in my example, except perhaps for the word "clamp" as you noted. However, I would say that the word "like" is being used without a full appreciation of all of its other meanings, as is the word "some." "Hard" is redundant with "clamp" (though it should really be "clench") and it isn't clear that the author understands that; the word "clamp" is being used as a synonym for "close" as though it conveyed the exact same concept.

The effect of words and their meanings on people's understanding and behavior is an intensely interesting study.

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    Good answer -- you have pinpointed the main problem! {upvote} After reading your answer and correlating it with some elements of my own answer, and then re-reading OP's sample sentence, I now get the impression that this sentence may have been a translation by a non-native translator, of something written in a foreign language -- that would explain the stiffness, odd choice of words (possibly from a dictionary or thesaurus) and the rather peculiar syntax & expressions. May 24, 2017 at 10:42

In addition to all the answers already given, there may be one more factor that influences how prose & diction coming from a non-native speaker sounds.

I believe that every human being has one base language, which they absorb unconsciously during their childhood, and which effectively becomes the base framework for abstracting thoughts and feelings into words.

Hence there is the typical Russian manner of expression in English, which seemingly sounds alike in all Russians. Similarly the German way, the Indian way, the Japanese way and so on. The base language is, consciously or unconsciously, reflected in the new "foreground" language.

I do not know if there is a name for this phenomenon, but it certainly plays a role in what you describe. Note that this is not the same as accent. And note also that this is not true for everyone: some polymaths and artisans who are fluent in multiple languages may master the dictions of each individual language they pick up, so that the influence of a base language is lessened.

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    This 'base language' is the pervasively influential 'native language' or mother tongue! I think one of the ways to reduce the tyrannical linguistic predominance of the base language would be to teach children at least 2 different languages with equal emphasis from a very young age, which in my experience provides a better balance and even possibly allow greater flexibility to learn more languages in future! May 24, 2017 at 16:35

I am a non-native English speaker and although I can(or think I can) read almost any English literature, I may write sentences in English which are totally effed up even after my first reread.

I think that has more to do with the way grammar is 'represented' in a non-native's mind than it is in a native's. It's a mix of English rules and those of his own native language(s). So many a times, certain rules, if not conflict, provide an alternative interpretation.

Most of what I've said above comes from my reading(which could be wrong) of the generative tradition of linguistics. They explicitly say that a child growing up in a multi-language environment does not see himself speaking different languages. He sees them as ways of talking to his mother, neighbors, father, each of whom may talk with him in a different language. He has one internal grammar.

So yes, "trying to suppress some strong emotions" sounds perfect to me too, but I do see how "trying to suppress some strong emotion" is grammatical on after a reread. I think it's a particular surface idiosyncrasy of the English grammar that's the cause of this feeling in a native, though intuition gets you the correct/intended interpretation - "a few strong emotions".

  • Thanks for sharing! Each language has its own conventions of usage that non-natives must learn either through rigorous study of grammar rules and constant practise of composition, or through wide reading, my preferred method. I was reading fiction continuously outside school hours from kindergarten to high school, and what I learned in English classes was reinforced by my reading books written mostly by native speakers. Thus I began to habitually think in English rather than in my 2 native languages. Being trilingual really helped me to escape the 'tyranny of the mother-tongue', IMHO! May 26, 2017 at 23:57

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