Many writers, myself included, are guilty of using language full of industry jargon and colloquial English. Yet, for so many of our readers, English isn’t their native language, and slang can be a confusing barrier to their understanding our pithy articles. English happens to be the language used in about 80 percent of all Web site content. I did read somewhere, however, the dominant online language in 2007 could be Chinese.
But such a statistic ignores the underlying power of English as the modern world’s lingua franca. The pervasiveness of the language as a second or third tongue has already surpassed the critical mass needed to perpetuate itself. A child’s mother tongue is most often an accident of geography, but, for much of the world’s population, English is a skill acquired purposefully.
So what do you do if your business has a global reach and you have to make sense to nonnative readers of English? You write simply!
If you need to communicate effectively with those for whom English is a second language, here’s what you do:
- Use short sentences of 15 to 20 words; 20 words puts you close to the danger zone. Writing concise, direct sentences is the primary goal. Compare the sentence you just finished reading with the first two paragraphs of this article, and you’ll see such a difference!
- Use simple sentence constructions of subject-verb-object, followed by any extra information. You start confusing folks when you insert lots of clauses among your subject, verb, and object. Linguists call those insertions subordinate clauses. (Can you imagine the problems a nonnative speaker might have if I used a subordinate clause to joke about one of the elves at the North Pole?)
- Use the active voice. When you use passive verbs, you risk making your meaning ambiguous. In many languages, in fact, there are no such constructions. For example, in French the phrase “French is spoken here” — an entirely legitimate passive construction in English — is rendered as “On parle français ici” — literally, “one speaks French here.”
- Avoid phrasal and modal verbs. Phrasal verbs have two or more words. Some examples are “call up,” “pull in,” “pick at,” and “drop out.” Choose a one-word verb that says the same thing. Modal verbs express the mood of the main verb. They include words such as “should,” “could,” “can,” “would,” “might,” and “may.” Use these when there is no other way to make these quite subtle distinctions. Certainly avoid combining both phrasal and modal verbs without a specific reason.
Here’s an example: “A representative should contact you within 48 hours.” Does that mean he will? That he has a moral obligation to do so? That it could take longer than 48 hours? Native English readers understand these words based on the context. They usually confuse nonnative English readers.
- Use pronouns clearly. Notice the last two sentences in the previous section. The “they” in the last sentence refers to a noun in the previous sentence, but which one? “These words”? “Native English readers”? Or did I make a grammatical mistake and refer in the plural to “the context”? See what I mean?
- Use simple, common words with clear meanings. Avoid oxymorons such as “authentic reproduction” unless you’re making a humorous comment like “military intelligence.” Highbrow phrasing such as, “We are in receipt of your missive of Friday last,” will be better appreciated as “Your letter arrived last week.”
- Use positive language. Stay away from negative constructions (which can be hard to translate) and negative images (which are depressing and can be insulting). “Don’t you just hate it when…” is a negative construction (don’t) with a negative image (hate). Double negatives (as in “not uncommon”) are doubly troublesome.
- Avoid clichés and slang. Think about “I make no bones about it.” Can you imagine what that means to this audience? Nothing.
Cease using the American slang “got,” which can mean anything from “receive” (“I got your gift!”) to “must” (“Gotta go!”) to “understand” (“Get my drift?”). Many nonnative English speakers stand there with dull looks in their eyes when they encounter such phrases. They understood every word yet have no idea what you mean.
- Proof your copy very carefully. Grammatically correct and typos-free writing is enormously important with this audience! These folks are generally good with English grammar, and, if you break the rules, you risk confusing them.
- Get some help. If you know people who speak English as a second language, ask them to read your copy for clarity and help you identify potentially offensive language. This is especially important if you are using humor.
P.S. If you want to study a good model for international English, look at a copy of the Herald Tribune, a newspaper that writes in English for a global audience.
Bryan is off this week. Today’s column ran earlier on ClickZ.
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