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From Plain English to Global English
Make your documents easy for EFL users to read and understand, and communicate successfully with people all over the world.
More than one billion people use English as a foreign language (EFL). You can avoid most pitfalls of cross-cultural communication by using global English.
Short sentences give international readers confidence and minimise the risk of cross-cultural misunderstandings. Long sentences tend to:
Limit the length of sentences to 20 words in international business documents. For advertisements, direct marketing documents and instruction manuals, I recommend sentences of 16 words maximum. (In academic articles, some sentences can be longer.)
International readers may read slowly, one word at a time. Therefore their short-term memory is strained by long sentences. (By contrast, native English speakers usually read in phrases.)
EXAMPLE (27 words)
The Fixed Securities Fund portfolio has reduced the term of its investments to match the average length to maturity of the government bond market as a whole.
BETTER VERSION (2 sentences, 12 and 15 words)
The Fixed Securities Fund portfolio has reduced the term of its investments. The term now matches the average length to maturity of the whole government bond market.
Sentences starting with phrases like 'It is' and 'There are' can confuse international readers, especially if the sentence is long. In these cases, the words 'it' and 'there' usually have no meaning. They are called false subjects. Try to start every sentence with a word or phrase that means something.
If you occasionally use a false subject, make that sentence very short.
1. It is extraordinary how warm the weather is for July.
1. The weather is extraordinarily warm for July.
Miniwords are short, common words of one, two or three letters.
Miniwords are essential to English. But if a sentence is mostly miniwords, the sentence may confuse people who are learning English.
Examples of miniwords: get, go. lot, by, for, it, he. the, a, of.
Some miniwords have many meanings, so they are hard to decipher from a dictionary. Other miniwords have no meaning, or have no grammatical equivalent in other languages.
Miniwords cluster in certain expressions that confuse international readers:
1. The Marketing Team is authorised to select a consultancy firm.
Negative questions are often impossible to translate, and are notoriously difficult for international readers. In many languages, people answer 'yes' where the appropriate English answer would be 'no'. Even one negative word in a question can destroy communication.
When you ask a question, keep it very simple. Make sure you ask only one question at a time.
1. You don't have the courage to acknowledge that your allegations have no factual basis whatsoever, do you?
1. Do you admit that you made false allegations?
Double negatives are doubly difficult for international readers. In English, two negatives make a positive. In some other languages, two negatives emphasise the negative. Thus an international reader may assume that 'not unusual' means 'very unusual'.
The 1995/96 turnover is not displeasing. (International readers may assume this means it is very displeasing.)
The 1995/96 turnover is pleasing.
By negative words I mean:
Negative language is hard to translate and often causes grammatical errors. Negative language is confusing, because it is hard to think about non-existent things.
Negative language has psychological effects that can be damaging in an international context. Some cultures regard negative language as insulting, embarrassing or shameful.
If you must use a negative word, keep that sentence extremely short.
1. The shipment will not arrive until late January.
1. The shipment will arrive in late January.
Phrasal verbs consist of at least two words — usually a verb plus an adverb or a preposition. Phrasal verbs are notoriously difficult for EFL users.
Examples of phrasal verbs: put up with, get into, keep up. There are at least 3000 English phrasal verbs.
Minimise the number of phrasal verbs in international documents. Most phrasal verbs can be replaced by a simple one-word verb.
1. We are looking at all possibilities.
1. We are considering all possibilities.
Helping verbs (modal auxiliary verbs) suggest the mood of a verb: is this something that may happen, might happen, should happen, can happen, could happen, must happen or will happen?
Helping verbs are used very casually by native English speakers. Each helping verb has several possible meanings.
Check all sentences where you have used a helping verb. Is your mood absolutely clear? If not, I suggest you rephrase the sentence.
Abstract nouns refer to things that do not have a physical form - examples: peace, tension, communication. English sentences with more than two or three abstract nouns can confuse international readers. If you must use abstract nouns, make sure your sentence is very short.
Titles often contain abstract nouns - for example, Ministry of Research, Science and Technology. Fortunately, titles are unlikely to confuse international readers.
EXAMPLES (abstract nouns in bold)
Use literal language: say exactly what you mean. Either avoid idioms or explain them, because EFL users often interpret them literally.
Idioms are common phrases, often metaphorical, that have no obvious logic. We say these things just because we say them. They mystify and confuse EFL users.
The scale of the problem is massive, because everyday English is saturated with idioms:
The following pronouns can sometimes confuse international readers:
Whenever you use one of these pronouns, check that your meaning is obvious. (Many languages do not use pronouns, or use different pronouns.)
Although property loss figures may tend to make the recent earthquake appear to be a relatively minor event economically speaking, other data suggest that its impact in the medium term might be significant. (People who are learning English as a foreign language may not know what 'it' refers to.)
Property loss figures suggest the recent earthquake will have relatively minor economic effects. However, other data suggest that the earthquake's economic impact will be significant over the next five to ten years.
The word 'which' can confuse international readers.
When you use 'which' in a sentence, check carefully. Is the meaning obvious? Is there too much information in the sentence? Cutting the sentence in two will often improve clarity. Sometimes this means repeating certain words. That's OK: repeating key words is helpful to international readers.
Other Ambiguous Words
Many English words have multiple meanings. Some words are used differently in Britain and the USA. Some English words are similar to words in another language, but have a totally different meaning. (The Cambridge International Dictionary of English lists these words as 'False Friends'.)
Whenever you discover ambiguous words or phrases in your own field, add them to your personal or company style guide.
Use 'because' whenever you mean 'because'. 'While', 'since', 'as' and 'whilst' all have several different meanings.
While manufacturing changed from a one-shift to a two-shift operation, the top management decided to borrow the money to build a new factory. ('While' could mean 'at the same time' or 'although'.)
Manufacturing changed from a one-shift to a two-shift operation. At the same time, the top management decided to borrow the money to build a new factory.
Long paragraphs can be intimidating to people who have little experience of reading English. Make it easy for your readers by using short paragraphs. Vary the length of your paragraphs, but don't write any paragraph longer than ten lines.
The following strategies also make your text more legible:
PAGE DESIGN & LAYOUT
Fonts and design for print documents
Reading English text can be difficult for people whose own language does not use the Roman alphabet. The following strategies will help EFL readers to decipher your text on paper.
For some international readers, any English font is a challenge. (Perhaps they learned to read in Cyrillic script or Chinese characters.) For printed documents, help your international readers by using a font similar to those in conventional English books and magazines: for example Times, Times New Roman, Garamond or Palatino.
If the document will be read on-screen (e.g. Web pages and intranet documents) use Verdana, Trebuchet MS, or Georgia, which are fonts designed expressly for on-screen reading.
Avoid the Narrow versions of conventional fonts: these are difficult to read.
Use a maximum of two fonts per document.
Keep format simple and conventional. Avoid printed watermarks, or any other device that distracts from the text. Separate graphics from text with white space. (Ingenious graphic design is confusing when the reader is not very familiar with English print.)
Capital letters, underlining and italics
Words in these styles are difficult to read, and especially difficult for people learning English as a foreign language. Underlining, caps and italics distort the reader's mental picture of a word. Words in capitals lose their up or down strokes, and every letter is the same height. Underlining cuts through the downstrokes of g, j, p, q and y. Italics generally slow down reading by 40%, and are totally unreadable on many screens.
For international documents, emphasise words by using bold and larger font sizes.
Long series of bullet points
Bullet points are often helpful to international readers. However, if you use more than five or six consecutive bullet points, your document may lose its focus and structure. EFL readers may miss the point of the list.
To list more than six short items, try breaking the list into subgroups. Interrupt the bullet points with more headings or prose. Numbering items is an excellent alternative.
You can avoid all confusion by writing the month in full.
Consider this date: 3 February 2004.
People in the United States write month, day, year. (2/3/04)
International readers cannot guess whether the dates as written above mean 2 March 2004 or 3 February 2004.
Therefore always write the month in full: 3 February 2004.
In international documents, always write complete phone and fax numbers. Include the international code and the area code.
EXAMPLE OF CORRECT PHONE NUMBER
Telephone +64 4 189 7016
It's easy to make mistakes with international addresses. I strongly advise that you copy names and addresses exactly from your correspondent's letterhead. Copy the punctuation too.
When you get a letter from abroad, don't trash the envelope immediately — the writer's address may be on the envelope alone.
Use the correct title and position of the person you are writing to. In Asia this is especially significant, and errors can be insulting.
Some automated sorting systems reject addresses containing full stops and commas. Others reject addresses without a zip code.
EXAMPLE OF CORRECT ADDRESS
Dr Georg Arunssonn
Sums of Money
In international documents, specify the currency when you write sums of money. At least 24 different countries have their own dollar. Many different countries have their own dinar, franc, peso, rial or pound. Example: write US$100.00 or AUD100 - not $100.00.
Be consistent in the way you write numbers. When writing large numbers, use a space or a comma to mark off thousands (1 000 000 or 1,000,000).
There are no absolute international guidelines for the writing of numbers. Be aware of local conventions. For example, German people may use a comma to signify a decimal point; some countries count in ten thousands, not in thousands.
McAlpine EFLAW Readability Score
The McAlpine EFLAW Readability Score is based on two significant flaws: long sentences and a high proportion of miniwords. Both these flaws bamboozle EFL readers.
The lower the score, the fewer the flaws. Aim for a score of 25 or lower.
Why the name EFLAW?
EFL = English as a Foreign Language
EFLAW Score effect on international readers
1-20 very easy to understand
Calculate the EFLAW Score of a paragraph or document
1. Count the words
How to lower the EFLAW score of your document
1. shorten all sentences to 20 words maximum
Take these two steps early, because they often automatically eliminate many other problems.
(c) Rachel McAlpine 2004, updated 2006.
Feel free to copy these guidelines for teaching purposes, but you must clearly acknowledge Rachel McAlpine as the sole author.
For the full story, read "Global English for Global Business" by Rachel McAlpine (2005). Wellington: CC Press. ISBN 0-476-01386-0.