Writing Well When English Is Your Second Language

If you are a writer for whom English is a second language, you probably have several advantages over native-English speakers. You may be more likely to write with short sentences, short paragraphs, and everyday words–these are choices that more people should make.

But you may also face writing challenges in these four areas:

  • Sentence construction. Many constructions that are acceptable in other languages–for example, putting a verb at the end of a sentence–are uncommon in English. Some constructions used in British English (for example, “Well done, you!”) sound odd to US ears.
  • Spelling. US English has borrowed words from many countries, yet rejected their original spelling (confidant/confidante or colour/color). Homophones are common: vein/vane/vain and they’re/their. Another problem arises with close spellings, such as effect/affect and compliment/complement.
  • Contractions. US writing includes lots of contractions, even in formal situations. Some contractions can be especially challenging: “I’d” could mean “I had” or “I would” or “I should,” depending on context.
  • Verb choice. The good news is that you don’t have to worry about gender when using English verbs. The bad news is that it is very easy to get tangled up in participles, gerunds, verb/noun agreement, and whether the past participle of lay is lain or laid (laid is correct).
  • Local differences. You probably know that US football is not soccer, but you may not know about US nonsmoking laws, wildly different climates from East Coast to West, or other legal, cultural, and geographic differences. In addition, every country has sensitive topics; failing to navigate them can detract from the message you intended to send.

Are you concerned that your message is being lost among problems with US or British sentence construction, spelling, contractions, verb choice, and cultural differences? Consider asking a professional, native English writer to review your written materials.

In the course of my career, I have helped individuals and companies from China, Russia, Italy, the Czech Republic, and Britain write in standard and idiomatic US English. I would be delighted to help you. Contact me at TWP Marketing & Technical Communications.

Your Grammar Questions Answered (More or Less)

The most challenging grammar question I was ever asked came from a friend who spoke English as a second language. She asked, “Why does English need ‘the’ everywhere?” I wanted a reply that made sense for English–something more than “we borrowed ‘the’ from other languages.” I finally decided on this: English uses so many words as both nouns and verbs (for example, “vent,” “fight” or “post”) that “the” serves as an early-warning signal saying, “here comes a noun.” I doubt if many linguists would back me up, but that’s my story and I’m sticking with it.

Here are answers to a few more “oddest grammar questions”:

  1. Why does US English place quotation marks outside the period (…saying, “here comes a noun.”) and UK English place quotation marks inside the period (…saying, “here comes a noun”.) Answer: Because we are right and they are wrong. As you might have noticed, however, colons and semicolons belong outside the quotation marks; commas go inside along with periods; and question marks are sometimes in and sometimes out. Don’t ask.
  2. When should you spell out a number (thirty-two) and when should you use numerals (32)? Answer: Spell out one to ten and use numbers for 11 and above unless that creates an inconsistent list (we bought ten donuts, 32 cookies, six coffees, and 11 teas) or unless you are talking about money, time, or measurements ($1 million, 3 feet, 6 hours). Lawyers ignore this convention and use both numerals and spell-out figures at the same time–“the property cost $23,000 (twenty-three thousand dollars)”–but no one else does.
  3. How long should a sentence be? Answer: Short. If you write many long sentences in a row (that is, over 25 words), you will lose your audience as no one can retain information from the start of a 35 word sentence to the end without beginning to wonder what the original topic was and why they were ever interested in it in the first place, and the same thing is true of even short sentences with many long words (over 3 syllables) in a row. Short is better.
  4. What is the best online grammar checker? Answer: Paper. Use your dictionary and The Little Brown Compact Handbook. Online grammar checkers are right about 0% of the time.
  5. How do you know when you need an apostrophe s and when you don’t? Answer: You need the apostrophe s when something belongs to something else (we welcomed John Smith’s dog); you omit the apostrophe when you are talking about more than one (we welcomed the Smiths and their dog). A phrase like “people love our apple’s” is just plain wrong–it needs the plural (apples), not the possessive (apple’s). Unfortunately, the possessive of “its” (no apostrophe) is the possessive of “it” and the word “it’s” means “it is” (a verb). That has led many a store owner to announce “Its on sale now!” when its isn’t.

Got grammar questions? I’ve got answers!

When Foreign Companies Write for English-Speaking Customers

A fellow blogger, whose first language is Spanish, recently shared the benefits of writing his personal blog in English. Among those benefits were reaching a larger (English-speaking) audience and accommodating search engines which prefer English. However, one of his reasons gave me pause: You get to practice English.

Practicing is a great thing to do on a personal blog. But when you are writing marketing copy for English-speaking customers, you do not want to practice. Here are three reasons:

1. When you make mistakes in standard English or colloquial English, native English speakers often infer that it will be difficult to communicate with your staff. Unfortunately, most native English speakers have only one language. They may prefer working with companies that are fluent in English.

2. Your English may be both standard and colloquial, but your marketing copy may mix up cultural and other clues. One off-shore copywriter described a service as “year round” that, in large parts of the US, would only be feasible in summer. Another off-shore copywriter unwittingly lauded a product that violated US electrical codes.

3. If your company is based in an English-speaking country, a struggle with standard English or colloquial English implies that it is based off-shore. Geography may be an issue with some of your customers; you need them to understand immediately that they are dealing with a local company.

Regardless of where your company is based, whether in the US or abroad, you should use a copywriter whose first language is the language of your customers. As a professional copywriter, I have helped many companies deliver a strong, culturally sensitive marketing message in standard and colloquial US English.

If the language of your customers is English, I can definitely help. Please contact me today.


“What Is the Right Way to Say….”

One of the joys–and exasperations–of English is that it gives you so many ways to say what you mean, and all of them are correct. Or in other words: No matter what you want to say, there are dozens of ways to say it right.

However, there are limitations. An engineer once asked me for a single word that meant cost-effective, high quality and efficient. No such word exists. If he tried to create one, he would be asking customers to read his mind.

So how do you decide on the right way to say what you want to say?

First, follow the rules of grammar. Grammar gives writing its spine.

Second, listen to your ear, and write like you talk. If you read something out loud and it sounds stilted, pompous, long-winded and confusing, then it probably is stilted, pompous long-winded and confusing. When we talk to our customers, we use clear, familiar language that lets our excitement about our product or service shine through. Good writing is good talking.

Third, don’t take everyone’s advice. Because English is so flexible, heated debates can arise over a single comma or a single synonym. Writing by committee is impossible. Limit yourself to one or two trusted reviewers.

Fourth, know when to stop. Endless revising keeps your marketing message out of the marketplace. Your brochure, website, newsletter, blog or success story can’t start working for you until you send it out.

If English is driving you (and your reviewers) crazy, contact TWP Marketing & Technical Communications. We’ll help you discover the best way to say what you most want to say.