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Should You Help People Who Use Odd Language?

What would you do if someone who speaks English as a second, third, or fourth language used an odd expression–repeatedly–in messages to you?

What would you do if someone from another English-speaking country regularly used an odd expression in messages to your company?

These questions came up In the Better Business Writing class I led last week. A Spaniard who now lives in the United States told us that she used to use this close in her messages:

Please let me know if you have doubts.

An American told us she regularly receives this close in her messages from India:

Please do the needful.

Both expressions are odd. “Please let me know if you have doubts” suggests that readers should have doubts. “Please do the needful” makes no sense in U.S. English.

So what would you do? Would it be appropriate to let people know their language is odd, especially if they use it frequently?

I believe it is appropriate. People want to communicate effectively, not awkwardly. Francis, the Spaniard in our class, said she wished people had corrected her unusual expression. She would have changed it immediately.

Here is a polite way of making the suggestions in writing:

Francis, I noticed you use the sentence “Please let me know if you have doubts” as a close in many of your emails. In American English, one normally writes “Please let me know if you have any questions.” The use of the word doubts suggests doubts, whereas the word questions is neutral.

Anu, when you close your messages with “Please do the needful,” I am not certain what you mean. I am not familiar with that expression. I believe you mean “Please take care of this” or “Please take the necessary steps.” Am I correct?

If you visit this blog often, you probably know I do not recommend giving feedback when it has not been requested. (See my post “Should I Share My Wise Criticism?”) But I think the language issue is different. If handled warmly and positively, such feedback will improve communication.

Of course, each situation is different. You notice that in my examples the individuals had ongoing communication. I would not correct a client who wrote to me once or twice.

How would you handle awkward expressions across cultures?


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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.

8 comments on “Should You Help People Who Use Odd Language?”

  • Great post, Lynn! Before I correct anyone’s awkward phrasing, I’ll ask myself, “Do I know this person well enough?” And further, “Do I know this person well enough to correct them by EMAIL?” Email so often comes across as cold and impersonal, I would worry that correcting someone’s awkward phrasing via email could come across as mean-spirited or hurtful.

    If I know the person well enough to broach the subject, I’ll look for an informal, private occasion to discuss their writing, preferably in person.

  • As an American who has been working overseas for thirteen years and interacting with people of diverse nationalities in English, my first language, and in other languages where I might be the one with the “odd” phrasing, I find this proposition a bit risky.

    There’s a huge difference between asking for clarification if you *genuinely* don’t understand something (by all means, ask away!) and feigning ignorance as a pretext for correcting someone’s non-native-English phrasing.

    Obviously, “Please let me know if you have doubts” is just a slightly unidiomatic way of saying “Please le me know if you have any questions/are unsure about anything.”

    Asking for “clarification” or giving feedback that was not requested risks sounding downright rude and damaging the relationship. Even more so if you are venturing into culturally murky waters (which you probably are if you “misunderstood” your colleague in the first place — many of these non-native English tics are pretty standard and you get to know them as you get more familiar with the language and culture of your foreign contacts).

    Unsolicited corrections risk doing way more harm than any good that might result.

  • I agree that it can be difficult to help without offending, and you would have to judge the situation and your phrasing very carefully. What about making a point to end your own emails with the accepted American version of whatever phrase was used? If someone wants to improve their language skills they pay attention to cues from native speakers.

  • I agree with Sara. Treat others as you would want to be treated. If someone corrected your e-mail sentence structure, would you come away from the experience feeling better or worse? Sometimes it’s better to just acknowledge that there are people in the world who speak other languages and realize their English is probably not going to be perfect. Hey, there are many native speakers who could use some help with awkward phrasing.

  • This is a very good article, Lynn. It calls to attention a point that goes beyond grammar, and going beyond grammar is important in the development of both written and spoken communication skills.

  • Thank you to all for your thoughtful comments. I agree that one should think very carefully before correcting others. If the correction is likely to offend, we should not offer it. Offending is never the goal.

    I was inspired to write the post because of Francis’s wish that her colleagues had corrected her. Perhaps situations like hers can be resolved effectively if people regularly ask for feedback.

    Many years ago I was told rather harshly that a Spanish verb tense I was using made no sense. All I remember is that the correction hurt–I don’t remember the correct verb!


  • I was e-mailing with a woman from Lisbon and she was using odd phrases and words throughout, but I knew what she meant. It actually brought a smile to my face to see her choice of words. As in your example it was the wrong choice of word, but you could make sense of the sentence and figure out what she meant. I thought she was brave to tackle a business e-mail with limited English. Another woman from Brazil e-mailed me through my blog. She was Spanish, but corresponded in English. She knew she was probably using the wrong words so asked me to correct her when I noticed. The first instance, I understood, so no big deal, the second, she asked me to correct her, so I did. It depends on the circumstance. I hope when I use another language the recipient is patient with me.

  • Being a teacher, I sometimes have to hold me back when receiving emails from my students with some mistakes.
    Of course they want corrections in the classroom, but when it comes to actually communicating something specifical,unless it is clearly stated, I would not correct the other person. The only instance of “correction” would happen if I didn´t understand what the person meant, instead of assuming, I would ask and in that way, either the person would correct himself/herself or the correction would come up by itself.

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