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Copyright by Stephen Wilbers, Ph.D.


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Avoid common errors when writing internationally

by Stephen Wilbers

Author of 1,000 columns
published in the Minneapolis Star Tribune & elsewhere



The spoiled American. 


When it comes to international commerce and travel, we expect our counterparts to speak English perfectly, yet relatively few of us have mastered a foreign language ourselves.


We laugh when we hear of the Bangkok dry cleaner’s sign that urges passers-by, “Drop your trousers here for best results,” or of the Acapulco hotel that reassures its guests, “The manager has personally passed all the water served here.”  (Well, you must admit, it is funny.)


But even when using our own language to communicate internationally, we native-English writers often give little thought to the problems we may be causing our foreign-language readers.  Here, according to John Kirkman’s article in Text, ConText, and HyperText:  Writing with and for the Computer, are some examples of how an “unthinking” or “unmindful” writer may cause confusion.


Inconsistent use of terms.  Readers in any language expect consistency.  Logic suggests that a variation in language signifies a variation in meaning.  If the “unthinking” writer, for example, refers in one instance to the “CRT,” in another to the “monitor,” and yet another to the “screen,” the reader will likely assume that the writer intends three different meanings. 


Similarly, the writer may confuse the reader by using a variety of expressions, such as “key in the data,” “input the data,” “type in the data,” and “enter the data,” to signify a single function.  Conversely, fuzzy words such as “enter” have multiple meanings:  “Sometimes enter means ‘type in’; sometimes it means ‘press a key, to transmit to a program file the data you have just typed in’; sometimes it means ‘both type in and transmit the data’; and sometimes it means ‘move into’ (as in ‘enter Program A from System X’).”


The solution:  Choose the most precise, least ambiguous word or expression, and use it consistently.


Culture-bound references.  Although cultural references lend color and personality to our writing, they should be avoided when alluding to ideas or entities that are not universally recognized, or when writing to readers in countries or cultures in which the allusions do not exist.  A playful reference to April foolery or to giving someone “the bum’s rush,” for example, may bewilder the reader who is struggling to arrive at a literal understanding of the language.


Colloquial expressions.  Conversational language poses special difficulties for the non-native reader.  Consider the potential misunderstanding created by a company whose slogan reads, “We understand your needs, because we’ve been there.”  “Been where?” the non-native reader is likely to ask. 


Kirkman also points out the problematic use of “weasel words,” such as “compromise” when used in place of “damage,” as in “To ensure that you do not compromise your system’s reliability” in place of “To avoid damaging your system’s components.”


Faux amis.  This French term, meaning “false friends,” reminds us that look-alike words, such as “actually” in English and “acutellement” in French, sometimes have very different meanings.  As a result, an expression such as “the actual program” is likely to be mistranslated by a French reader as “the current program.”  The thoughtful international writer will avoid the unnecessary use of English words that have faux amis in other languages.


British English and American English.  I remember my own experience in Colchester, England, where after five months as a Visiting Fulbright Fellow I thought I had pretty well acquainted myself with the differences between British English and American English.  I had learned to say “lift” for “elevator,” “lorry” for “truck,” “dear” for “expensive,” and “take a decision” for “make a decision.”  My young son and daughter were even beginning to speak with distinctly British accents (or – depending on your perspective –  to lose their distinctly American ones). 


You can imagine my discomfiture when on our last Sunday in England I walked down to the neighborhood bakery in Wivenhoe and asked for some “buns.” 


“Oh, sir,” the young woman behind the counter said, blushing.  “What you want are ‘rolls.’  We don’t call them ‘buns.’”




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