Avoiding unlear and noniodimatic sentences and phrases


Errors with unclear and nonidiomatic sentences and phrases are not specifically grammatical but rather reflect the writer's inability to express a particular idea or concept clearly or idiomatically in English. This sort of difficulty is part of learing a new language; such errors are minimized through exposure to the language over a priod of time.

Sentences marked nonidiomatic or unclear indicate to the ESL writer that he or she is not expressing himself or herself idiomatically (as anative speaker would) or clearly in English. Writers who must write at a high level of proficiency will need to write clearly and idiomatically.


In nonidimatic writing (nonidiom[1]), the message of a phrase or sentence is clear, but a native speaker would not phrase the idea that way.

For example:

  • In the sentence: When I write under pressure, I feel that I lack of knowledge of expressing myself with sophisticated English words,…

The underlined part is not written in idiomatic English.

A native speaker might pharse the sentence in this way: When I write under pressure I fell that I cannot use sophisticated English words to express myself or I lack the knowledge to express myself in sophisticated English.

"Nonidiomatic" differs from "unclear" in that the reader can usually grasp the meaning in a nonidiomatic phrase or sentence but not in an unclear phrase or sentence. Nonidionmatic errors are usually local (less serious); however, if too much of a piece of writing is nonidiomatic, the error can become global (more serious).

Errors with idiomatic expressions differ from nonidiomatic writing. Indiomatic expressions are set words or phrases that are commonly used and that can be found in a dictionary of idioms or a text that focuses on idioms. Various errors can occus with idiomatic expresstions.

For example:

  • In this sentence: I would rather use a computer than write by a hand,

by a hand should be by hand, an article error.

  • In the sentence: I make the same mistakes in English times after times, times after times

Should be time after time, asingular-plural error.

Importance of mastering idiomatic English in writing

When reading nonidiomatic phrases or sentences, the native speaker’s reading often is: “I can understand what the writer is saying, but it sounds award to me.” ESL writers need not only to master idiomatic English so that their writing does not sound foreign to a native speaker, but they also need to keep in mind that the closer their writing is to idiomatic English, the easier it will be for the reader to understand.

Suggestions for mastering idiomatic English

Improving your mastery of idiomatic English is a difficult task because idiomatic English is not based on rules; rather, it is based on usage. Therefore, the degree to which you master idiomatic English depends to a great extent in your commitment to using English and your desire to write like a native speaker.

Although mastering idiomatic English may seem like an enormous task, you can make this task much easier by attemping it in small chunks. For example, you could first focus on using more idiomatic English in your major or your field of interest, the field in which you are most likely to be doing the majority of your writing.

Five concrete suggestions for improving your command of idiomatic writing are as follows:

1. Read in English as much as possible.
2. Listen attentively to the way Enlish in used.
3. Think in English as much as possible, rather than translating from your native language.
4. Realize that learing a language involves more than studying rules. The more you interact with native speakers, the more you will acquire idiomatic usage in English – that is, using the language the way native speakers do.
5. Ask a native speaker how he or she would say a phrase or sentence of a phrase or a sentence has been marked nonidiomatic in a paper you have written. Rewrite that sentence or phrase and memorize it for later use. Writing or saying it three times in a row will help you learn it.


In an unclear (unclear[2]) sentence, the reader cannot understand the message the writer wants to convey. The error is global (more serious) because it affects more than a clause and may affect whole parts of a text.

An unclear message may or may not be related to problems with grammar in a sentence.

For example,

Unclear sentences like:

  • Pressure is one of equipment to bring up our skill by ourself


  • I can experienced the truth of studying by a coffee are grammatically incorrect and have an unclear message.

On the other hand, unclear sentences like

  • Waiting for these negatives to grow is not a particular way

[1] nonidiom = grading symbol for nonidiomatic writing
[2] unclear = grading symbol for unclear sentences

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