Skip to content

Do You Like My Dressing?

If you write in English to an audience that speaks English as a foreign language (EFL, ESL), choose words that have few meanings. Or provide a context to help your readers understand the meaning.

In a writing seminar last week, a woman named Montserrat, who is from Spain, shared an example that illustrates the point: At a social event, someone asked Montserrat’s friend what type of dressing she wanted. Embarrassed, the friend wondered What is wrong with the dress I am wearing?

Dress, dressing. According to Montserrat, what made the question “What type of dressing do you want?” more challenging is the fact that Spaniards typically enjoy their salads with olive oil and vinegar–or  “undressed”–not with the many dressings North Americans use.

If the exchange had taken place in writing, a clearer version might be this: “Do you want ranch, blue cheese, or vinaigrette dressing on your salad?” That sentence provides examples (ranch, etc.) and a context (on your salad).

Simple words can create the most confusion. For example, I offer classes. Someone who reads English as a second, third, or fourth language, must translate classes to determine my meaning. Does class mean a set, group, or configuration of members? Does it mean a category? A division? A quality such as “first class”? A rank? A group of students? A time in which students meet?

When I saw an entry from this blog translated into German, it mentioned my Kategorien. But I teach writing classes–not writing categories!

The German Kategorien taught me a lesson. Now I mention my seminars–a word that, when translated, always conveys my meaning.

It is often not the most common word that works for a global audience. It is the word with the fewest meanings, used in a helpful context.

Posted by Avatar photo
By Lynn Gaertner-Johnston

Lynn Gaertner-Johnston has helped thousands of employees and managers improve their business writing skills and confidence through her company, Syntax Training. In her corporate training career of more than 20 years, she has worked with executives, engineers, scientists, sales staff, and many other professionals, helping them get their messages across with clarity and tact.

A gifted teacher, Lynn has led writing classes at more than 100 companies and organizations such as MasterCard, Microsoft, Boeing, Nintendo, REI, AARP, Ledcor, and Kaiser Permanente. Near her home in Seattle, Washington, she has taught managerial communications in the MBA programs of the University of Washington and UW Bothell. She has created a communications course, Business Writing That Builds Relationships, and provides the curriculum at no cost to college instructors.

A recognized expert in business writing etiquette, Lynn has been quoted in "The Wall Street Journal," "The Atlantic," "Vanity Fair," and other media.

Lynn sharpened her business writing skills at the University of Notre Dame, where she earned a master's degree in communication, and at Bradley University, with a bachelor's degree in English.

3 comments on “Do You Like My Dressing?”

  • Your document “Write for 1.4 Billion” reminded me of an event when I was working for a software company. They were writing a user manual for their text processing language and wanted to demonstrate how a particular option enable dates to be displayed differently. Unfortunately, they picked 4th April 1976 as the example. Which in US and UK formats reads 04/04/1976.

  • Ha! Sometimes our best efforts just aren’t enough.

    Thanks for the example, Tony.

  • Totally agree. We definitely have to be careful when using words that have multiple meanings as different words are interpreted differently in different cultures. We probably also need to learn what it may mean in “localized English”/slang.

    Best to look it up to find the various meanings that are attached to the word/phrase and if possible get advice from someone who is the audience you’re trying to address or someone who have worked with such an audience.

    In this technology age; you can get a lot of information with just a click. There are two really resourceful online dictionaries that I really like; they are:

    2. (A really good dictionary to look up slang used around the globe and its meaning)

Comments are closed.