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November 06, 2009


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Janet Whitfield

I taught Business English in China for six years, including writing emails. I recommended my students write short sentences and short paragraphs. That way it's easier to to be understood and easier to write grammatically. I would say this rule should apply also to westerners writing to non-native English speakers.

Lynn Gaertner-Johnston

Janet, I agree completely. Both native and non-native writers of English often stumble over the structure, punctuation, and grammar in long sentences. The solution? Short sentences!



We just updated a rule in our writing styleguide. Originally it suggested using simple language to avoid causing confusion to our international audience. We changed that to choosing the word with the least amount of alternate meanings.

As an example, I had an experience in Brazil on a boat where I asked a crew member who spoke very good English, "What kind of fish is that?" He was very confused. I finally figured out it was over the word "kind", which he thought of as "to be nice." So I tried "type" and "sort" - simple words but with several meanings. It wasn't until I used the word "variety" that he understood what I was asking.

So sometimes choosing a lightweight word may make the situation worse.

Lynn Gaertner-Johnston

Anne, your point is so important! On this blog I have written about how I must use "seminars"--not "classes"--when I address an international audience. The most precise word is the best one.

Thanks for the valuable reminder.



Phrasal verbs like "to come up with" (which seem "easy" to native English speakers) are often misunderstood by non-native speakers of English. So the "lightweight" (or the ones we think are lightweight, anyway) are often the ones that are the most confusing to international audiences. It's worth taking a little time to learn what *your* readers' likely stumbling blocks are (not necessarily the same for the French and the Chinese, for instance).

Lynn Gaertner-Johnston

Thanks for your example and suggestion, Sara.

Jargon can be difficult to understand too. Yesterday someone wrote to me about customer-facing messaging. What will global readers think of that expression?


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