The growth in global commerce means it is more likely than ever that your writing will have an international audience. Increasingly, we need to communicate with people who speak English as a second language, whether they are based in the UK or overseas.
But your words can easily get lost in translation when writing for this readership, especially if you aren’t adapting your copy. To ensure all your readers fully understand your message, it is essential to make your writing as clear as possible, and bear some rules in mind.
Emails between colleagues
Even informal emails between co-workers need thinking about. Here’s a reply to a colleague who has suggested you visit her office.
Thanks for the invitation. Phil and I are definitely up for it, but as it’s on the firm’s time, I’ll need to get the go ahead from Tony – I’ll talk to him asap and get back to you.
At first sight this seems to be a perfectly clear email, but Mariela is a second-language speaker of English. This means we have to re-examine our writing.
Let’s take a closer look at the language in the email to recognise the traps we can fall into:
- Clusters of meaningless words
‘Phil and I are definitely up for it’: the English language has hundreds of these clusters, eg ‘put up with’, ‘look up to’, ‘top it up’, which together have specific meanings. They are called phrasal verbs and we can often replace them with a one-word simple alternative, eg ‘tolerate’, ‘admire’, ‘fill’.
- Confusing words
‘On the firm’s time’: ‘company’ or ‘organisation’ are more recognisable words than ‘firm’ in the context of work. Also, ‘firm’ has more than one meaning, which could be confusing. And a literal translation of ‘on the … time’ wouldn’t make sense.
- Colloquial expressions
‘To get the go ahead’: second-language speakers often enjoy these expressions once they know them. But we can’t guarantee they know them yet. So, unless you’re sure, avoid them.
‘Asap’: again, unless you’re confident your reader knows the abbreviations, they will be meaningless.
Here’s a rewrite of the email:
Thanks for the invitation. Phil and I definitely want to come. I’ll need to get Tony’s permission as it’s during the working week. I’ll talk to him as soon as I can and tell you what he says.
It’s still informal and natural, but so much clearer to non-native English speakers.
Find out more about how our consultants can help with global English.