The Elements of International English Style: a review

Review by Mike Unwalla.

Edmond H. Weiss, 2005. The Elements of International English Style: a guide to writing correspondence, reports, technical documents, and Internet pages for a global audience. New York, M. E. Sharp. 162 pages including appendices. ISBN 0-7656-1752-X.

Weiss does not write The Elements of International English Style in International English, because International English is "dull and colorless". First, Weiss explains what International English is. Then, Weiss gives 57 tactics that can be used to write International English.

I discuss only some of the tactics that Weiss gives. The tactics are good, but they are high-level tactics. For detailed guidelines about grammatical structures, a better book is The Global English Style Guide by Kohl. Unlike Kohl, Weiss discusses both culture and business ethics.

The language of global business is International English (chapter 1)

English is a language for international business.

International English Style is "an approach to English that reflects an appreciation of its global uses and sensitivity to the needs of the E2 reader." (Weiss uses the term E2 to mean "people who read English as a second language".) The tactics that are in The Elements of International English Style are based on two general guidelines for communication:

Near the end of Politics and the English language, George Orwell supplied six rules that help to make text clear (http://langs.eserver.org/politics-english-language.txt). Weiss writes that Orwell's three most important rules to help people who read English as a second language are as follows:

Sometimes, a clear International English document does not conform to usual standards. Weiss gives the following example:

  1. Reading is hard; writing is harder.
  2. Reading is difficult; writing is more difficult than reading.

Weiss thinks that most professional writers probably prefer the first sentence. However, people who use English as a second language probably have more problems with the first sentence than with the second sentence, for the following reasons:

Sometimes, to write clearly for people who read English as a second language, you must make a document less interesting to people who read English as a first language.

The two strategies for International English are not clear. In the section 'The two strategies: culture-free, culture-fair', Weiss writes that to adapt a document for international readers of English, two types of change are necessary:

Later in the section, Weiss writes, "Writing in an International English Style, then, requires a complementary use of both strategies… (globalization strategy)… (localization strategy)."

Culture-free writing is a part of globalization and "culture-fair communication is called localization". Therefore, I do not understand how an International English document can be culture-fair. A document cannot be both globalised and localized. Although a localized version of English can be useful, a localized version of English is not international English.

Principles of simplicity (chapter 2)

Usually, to make a text easy to understand, make the text more difficult to misunderstand.

Usually, the best words to use are the words that people learn in the first years that they study English. For example, use the word house. Do not use domicile or residence. Use simple tenses. For example, do not write, he did run. Restricted vocabularies and simple tenses are used in controlled languages. Controlled languages are based on some of Ogden's ideas.

In the 1930s, Ogden developed Basic English. Ogden wanted English to be used as a global language. The primary problems with English were the difficult spelling and the large vocabulary. To solve these problems, Ogden developed a subset of English, to which he gave the name Basic English. Basic English has approximately 850 basic words, and a simplified grammar. Usually, the basic words, the prefixes, and the suffixes are sufficient to speak about many topics. "Ogden's argument is that, somewhere in the list of 850, there is a close enough equivalent word or phrase to stand for the forbidden word—'dog doctor' for 'veterinarian, for example'."

Controlled language have both a restricted vocabulary and a subset of permitted tenses. Many companies use controlled languages to make sure that text is as clear as possible. For example, Caterpillar has 'Caterpillar English', IBM has 'Easy English', and General Motors has 'CASL'.

As an alternative to a 'locally invented, controlled English' (tactic 1), 'adopt a reduced dictionary' (tactic 2). For example, use the Beginner's Dictionary of American English. If a word is not in the dictionary, do one of the following things:

Another alternative is to 'adopt an industry-sanctioned controlled English' (tactic 3) such as AECMA Simplified English. (AECMA Simplified English is now ASD Simplified Technical English.)

Simplicity is applicable to the sounds of a language. Usually, when people read silently, they speak the words silently and they hear the words. The technical term is subvocalization. Subvocalization means that words that are difficult to say are difficult to read. In 1996, General Instrument Corporation changed its name to NextLevel. In 1998, NextLevel changed its name back to General Instrument Corporation, because most Asian customers struggled to say the l in NextLevel. Therefore, tactic 8 is 'choose words that are pronounceable'.

Principles of clarity (chapter 3)

Writers can never be sure that their text is clear. Words that are clear when they are isolated can confuse readers when the words are put together. (Weiss does not mean phrasal verbs, which he discusses in chapter 2.)

Weiss gives an example from Newton's Law of Gravity: "Every particle of matter in the universe attracts every other particle." For many years, Weiss thought that the sentence was clear. However, a customer said that every other has two meanings in English (all others and each alternate). To make the two meanings of Newton's sentence as clear as possible, I created the picture that follows:

Two rows of circles. Each row has 7 circles. Each circle represents a particle. The first particle in each row is P. The other particles are P1, P2, P3, P4, P5, and P6

Newton's text can mean two things:

Weiss does not explain that possibly, the ambiguous text is because of a bad translation. Newton wrote in Latin. Possibly, Newton's Latin text is clear.

Some people will say that Weiss' example is nonsense, because "no sensible person could possibly believe the universe is so constructed that each particle attracts every second particle." The problem is that you can only interpret the sentence correctly if you know the information before you read the sentence.

The remaining part of chapter 3 contains tactics that help to make text clear. For example, 'use standard spellings' (tactic 17), 'be aware of the several Englishes' (tactic 19), and 'avoid humor and wordplay' (tactic 31).

The last tactic that is in chapter 3 is interesting. All the other tactics in chapter 3 help writers to create a culture-free globalised text. Tactic 32 is 'suit your English idiom to the local language'. If you know that readers speak a particular first language, you can sometimes write English that has a similar structure to the readers' first language. For example, possible text in a software manual is, "There is a way to save several passages at once to the Clipboard." Weiss gives alternatives for readers who have German as a first language and for readers who have Hebrew as a first language:

Reducing burdens (chapter 4)

A writer must make a text as easy to read as possible. People can become better writers if they think about the things that they do not like to read. For example, most readers do not like small fonts, narrow margins, and long sentences. Therefore, do not write this way.

Chapter 4 contains some of the usual guidelines for plain English. For example, International English has short sentences and short paragraphs.

In English, some words are optional. (Kohl calls these optional words syntactic cues.) Tactic 36 is 'retain certain optional words'. In chapter 2, Weiss explains how to remove unnecessary words. However, not all optional words are unnecessary. Sometimes, the optional words help people to understand the structure of a sentence. Weiss gives the examples that follow:

With the first sentence, readers see 'We do not believe the management' before they understand that the sentence has the opposite meaning.

Sometimes, pronouns such as this, these, which, and who are not clear. Instead of a pronoun, repeat the noun. (Weiss does not discuss search engine optimization. If a noun is a search term, using the noun instead of a pronoun helps to increase the search engine rank of a web page.)

Correct punctuation is important. "Just as a well-designed mechanical device discourages operators from using it inappropriately, a well-punctuated sentence makes itself harder to misunderstand." Weiss gives three tactics about commas, quotes, and hyphens.

The readability of the page is dependent on the layout of the page. To increase readability, use left-aligned text, short paragraphs, bold text to emphasize important phrases, lists, and tables.

Writing for translation (chapter 5)

In chapter 1, Weiss tells people to "write for translation, that is, for the reader who might consult a bilingual dictionary." In chapter 5, Weiss writes that most International English is translated by those readers who use English as a second language.

Most tactics that help readers also help professional translators. However, additional work is necessary. For example, acronyms and abbreviations must be specified. A translator must be told about text that must not be translated.

Weiss discusses machine translation. This part of the book is not very good.

Weiss gives an example of a bad machine translation from Babel Fish, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Yahoo!_Babel_Fish. However, Babel Fish is free. Weiss does not explain that commercial machine translation software can be customized to give better translations.

In a different example, Weiss writes, "Among other problems, the software translated Board (as in Board of Elections) as tablero, which is a board made of wood, rather than consejo, junta, or comisiĆ³n." Weiss does not explain that to achieve good results from machine translation, all the technical terms and their translations must be specified before the software translates text.

A controlled language such as AECMA Simplified English can help translation software to give accurate results. Weiss writes, "A very brief Internet search suggests that there are several Simplified Chinese systems also available, presumably mapped onto their Simplified English counterparts." However, Simplified Chinese is not a simplified language. Simplified Chinese does not have a restricted grammar or a restricted vocabulary. Simplified Chinese is a set of characters (http://people.w3.org/rishida/scripts/chinese/).

Principles of correspondence (chapter 6)

Dealing with different cultures is difficult. For example, "One person's bribe is another's sales commission or broker's fee. In the United States, for example, bribes to government officials are usually in the form of campaign contributions."

Chapter 6 explains how to write letters and e-mails to people who speak English as a second language. Writers must "think strategically about the mix of culture-free and culture-fair tactics in their messages."

Chapter 6 is more about culture than about English. In some cultures, the cost of goods and services are not included in business letters. If a cost is in a letter, then people cannot bargain about the cost. 'Emulate the receiver's content restrictions' (tactic 52) gives many interesting examples of how culture affects content.

Principles of cultural adaptation (chapter 7)

Two good reasons to adapt to the culture of international readers are as follows:

Much of chapter 7 is about ethics. "Is a disagreement a sign of disrespect? Can a woman lead a team of men?"

American business culture puts a high value on time and resources. In many countries, people think of American business culture as "uncouth, immature, and impolite". Therefore, writers must be polite and formal.

Usually, in business, a seller adapts to the buyer. Weiss thinks that to adapt to a buyer is not always good. I agree with Weiss. Weiss writes:

See also

Articles about language

Reviews of books that are about English for international readers

International English pages on the TechScribe website

Writing for people who do not read easily: workshop review

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