Review by Mike Unwalla.
Rachel McAlpine, 2005. Global English for Global Business, 2nd edition. Wellington, New Zealand: CC Press. 140 pages. ISBN 0-476-01386-0.
International readers have problems with standard English. Global English for Global Business helps people to write and to speak English that their international customers can understand.
- People who use English as a foreign language (EFL).
- People who use English as a second language (ESL).
- People who use English as a first language, "but it's a different kind of English—perhaps they live in India, for example."
First, I give a general opinion of Global English for Global Business. Then, I discuss each of the 13 chapters.
Global English for Global Business is a mix of guidelines and information about three related topics:
- The problems that international readers have with standard English.
- Guidelines about business writing, specially for an audience of international readers.
- Information about international business procedures.
Most of the guidelines are good, but they are high-level guidelines. The 'Global English checklist' near the end of the book has only 25 guidelines. For detailed guidelines about grammatical structures, a better book is The Global English Style Guide by Kohl.
The 'try this' exercises and the answers are a good feature of Global English for Global Business.
Global English for Global Business does not have an index to help readers to find information.
Usually, the content is good, but I have a criticism about the quality of the language. McAlpine tells writers to avoid literary language, to avoid idioms, and to use language literally. The advice is good. But, McAlpine does not obey the advice:
- "Just keep on your toes, and at the slightest hint of confusion consult your international dictionary."
- "I love reading letters to the editor from people who are feeling really hot under the collar."
- "Then bind the wounds so that each sentence makes sense."
- "When communicating with international clients, the advice applies tenfold."
- "When you find you have written a longer sentence, you can often fix it by using the axe: simply chop the long sentence into two or three parts."
- "Negative questions are dynamite".
In one example, McAlpine suggests the text, "We expect body temperature to fall and pain to diminish." However, both 'fall' and 'diminish' mean 'decrease'. Therefore, a better alternative is, "We expect both body temperature and pain to decrease."
Some of McAlpine's ideas are pseudo-scientific nonsense. Chapter 8 is about the structure of documents. McAlpine writes, "Structure is a little tricky because thoughts begin in the brain, which is three dimensional. In the brain, ideas rush along many paths simultaneously, they explode and high-jump and divaricate at phenomenal speed. Thinking is a three-dimensional activity. When we convert our thoughts into print or speech, we have to squeeze them into a two-dimensional queue."
I reviewed a PDF version of Global English for Global Business. I found the following problems:
- The size of the examples is too small compared to the size of the primary text.
- The size of the primary text and the size of the subheadings are not sufficiently different.
- When the document is printed, the text is too large.
- The top of each page does not have a header. Usually, a header shows the chapter, which helps a reader to navigate a document.
The next part of this review discusses each of the 13 chapters in Global English for Global Business.
After McAlpine returned from a 2-year visit to Japan, a friend said, "Your voice has changed. You've got that international voice." McAlpine explains that the 'international voice' is a style of English that everyone can understand. People speak slowly and carefully, and they use simple sentences. International speakers do not use phrasal verbs, idioms, or complex sentences.
Global English simplifies the parts of standard English that are difficult for international readers. McAlpine writes, "In this book, Global English refers to a form of English that is customized and simplified for an international audience. In Global English you select words with care, structure your writing a particular way, and avoid other specific linguistic traps. Any document written in Global English will be grammatically correct and relatively easy for your international readers to understand."
Important differences exist between plain English and Global English. McAlpine gives the following example:
- Plain English: I should very much like to get out to your head office soon, if that is not a problem for you.
- Global English: I plan to visit your head office between 21 January and 24 January. Will these dates suit you?
McAlpine gives 12 reasons why the plain English version is difficult for international readers. I agree with McAlpine's reasons, but her example of plain English is not good. The first sentence is not as clear as possible, and is not plain English. (A problem with plain English is that no standard specifies plain English. My plain English is not always your plain English.)
The McAlpine EFLAW Index measures the readability of a document for people who do not read English as a first language. Global English readability is dependent on the following two things:
- The number of words in a sentence.
- The number of miniwords in a sentence. McAlpine specifies a miniword as word of one, two, or three letters.
Long sentences and miniwords cause many of the problems that international readers have.
The McAlpine EFLAW Index is different from other readability indexes, because of the emphasis on short words. Usually, for native English readers, long words cause problems, not short words.
EFLAW score = (number of words + number of miniwords) / number of sentences.
An EFLAW score less than 25 is good. The McAlpine EFLAW Index is not scientifically tested. Therefore, use the EFLAW score as an approximate guideline.
The name EFLAW comes from a combination of 'EFL' (English as a foreign language) and 'flaw'.
Native English readers and international readers have different problems. A native English reader knows how to use an 'easy' word such as 'get'. However, many native readers struggle with a 'difficult' word such as 'microcosmic'. For international readers, 'microcosmic' is simple. A bilingual dictionary gives one meaning. However, the word 'get' [in combination with other words] has hundreds of different meanings.
Many words have more than one meaning. Think about the word 'since' in the following sentences:
- Since the government promised increased spending, building industry shares have soared.
- Since the government has promised increased spending, building industry shares have soared.
In the first sentence, 'since' means 'after'. In the second sentence, 'since' means 'because'. To prevent confusion, do not use words such as 'as', 'while', and 'since'.
Pronouns can confuse readers, because readers must identify each pronoun. Some languages have few pronouns. In other languages, pronouns do not refer to a person's gender, but to a person's status. Therefore, the use of English pronouns can be a waste of time. A better option is to use the name of a person or of a thing, instead of a pronoun.
Other good guidelines are to avoid jargon and to avoid unnecessary words.
Instead of nouns, use 'action' verbs, for example, 'to run', 'to answer', and 'to say'.
If possible, use a verb instead of an abstract noun. For example, instead of the noun 'adjustment', use the verb 'adjust'.
For people who are learning English, two types of verbs cause problems:
- Phrasal verbs. A phrasal verb is a multi-word verb. Examples of phrasal verbs are 'break off', 'put off', and 'run up'. Phrasal verbs are difficult for people who are learning English. English has more than 3,000 phrasal verbs. Special dictionaries of phrasal verbs are available. For international readers, the meaning of a one-word verb is easy to find in a dictionary. For example, in one dictionary, the verb 'construct' has five lines, the phrasal verb 'put up' has 14 lines, and the verb 'put' has 135 lines.
- Modal auxiliary verbs (McAlpine also uses the term 'helping verb'). Examples of modal auxiliary verbs are 'may', 'will', 'might', 'shall', 'can', and 'should'. Frequently, the meaning of a modal auxiliary verb is not clear. For example, for the sentence, "You should finish today," McAlpine gives the following possible interpretations:
- Please finish today.
- We prefer you to finish today.
- We advise you to finish today.
- You must finish today.
- You will probably finish today.
- It is your duty to finish today.
Other good guidelines are to keep parts of a verb together and to avoid the passive voice.
A businessman ended a meeting with the words, "So it will all be plain sailing from now on!" The businessman's Chinese colleagues were confused. The Chinese people thought that the businessman meant that all the goods would be sent by ship.
Use language literally and do not use idioms.
If possible, use less than 16 words in a sentence. Use a maximum of 20 words in a sentence. McAlpine does not explain why 20 words are better than 18 words or 22 words.
Complex ideas can be given in short sentences. McAlpine gives an example that explains the principles of neurobiology. The text has an average of 18.25 words in each sentence and an EFLAW score of 23.87.
Frequently, a long sentence can be separated into two or more smaller sentences. To join the sentences, use words and phrases such as 'Firstly', 'Secondly', 'Then', 'Consequently', 'Therefore', 'For this reason', 'Thus', 'As a result', 'However', and 'Nevertheless'.
In principle, the advice to separate a long sentence is good. However, the words 'consequently', 'therefore', 'for this reason', and 'thus' all mean the same thing. For the clearest text, do not use different words and phrases to mean the same thing.
Bulleted lists are a good method of making some long sentences shorter. McAlpine recommends that a bulleted list has no more than six items.
Usually, making text as short as possible is good. However, a noun cluster is an example of short text that sometimes is not clear. A noun cluster is a sequence of nouns. Frequently, technical terms are noun clusters, for example 'Application Management System'. Usually, a writer must not change a technical term. However, other noun clusters can be made clearer. In the following example, the second list item is clearer than the first list item:
- power company customers
- customers of power companies
Kohl suggests that an alternative method of making a noun cluster clear is to use a hyphen:
- power-company customers
The sequence of words in a sentence is different for different languages. For example, in German and in Japanese, verbs are the last items in a sentence. Therefore, to make a sentence as clear as possible, use the simple 'somebody-does-something' structure. (In grammar terms, use subject-verb-object, or subject-verb-complement.)
McAlpine explains that clarity is more important than literary value. "Your English teacher probably graduated in English literature, and has a literary sort of English in mind. Subconsciously your teacher was always trying to teach you how to write a short story. However, elegant prose is not required for our purpose. We are trying to communicate successfully with people with a different language background. They don't want to read fine sentences—they just want to know what we mean. Given a choice of clarity and elegance, we must choose clarity every time."
Put important information at the start of a sentence. If possible, do not start a sentence with 'it is' or 'there is'. For example, instead of the first sentence, use the second sentence:
- It is now 190 years since Roget first proposed his system of verbal classification.
- Roget first proposed his system of verbal classification 190 years ago.
To avoid complex sentences, put only one idea in each sentence.
McAlpine recommends that writers do not use the words 'that' and 'which'. Her advice is too simple. Sometimes, sentences can be simplified by changing the structure, or by removing information that is not important. However, sometimes, words such as 'that' increase clarity. In The Global English Style Guide, Kohl gives detailed guidelines about when to use the word 'that'. For example, with relative clauses, use 'that'. The second sentence is clearer than the first sentence:
- The page you requested was not found.
- The page that you requested was not found.
In business, positive language is better than negative language. In some cultures, to say 'no' is not polite.
Sometimes, a sentence has a hidden negative implication. To make text as clear as possible, remove the hidden negative implication. McAlpine gives the following example:
- Your application will be processed only if you send the prerequisite forms.
- Your application will be processed after we receive the prerequisite forms.
Although the second sentence is clearer than the first sentence, a better alternative is, "After we receive the forms, we will process your application."
For international customers, a negative question can be very difficult to answer. In many languages, the logical answer to a negative question is 'yes', but in English, the answer is 'no':
- Question: "Aren't you busy?"
- International customer: "Yes." ("You are correct: I am not busy.")
McAlpine explains that the structure of a document is important. However, "Different cultures structure their documents in different ways. Americans favour getting straight to the point. Russians are said to be even more blunt. Some Asian cultures favour subtle allusion and a lateral approach to structure."
To help international readers to use a document, do the following things:
- If a document is longer than approximately three pages, include a list of contents. A list of contents helps a reader to see the structure of a document.
- Include a glossary. A glossary helps to make sure that people know the meaning of the terms that you use.
- Give all paragraphs a number. A simple sequence of numbers is sufficient (1, 2, 3…). You can easily refer to a particular paragraph. I do not agree. For many of the technical documents that TechScribe creates, numbered paragraphs are not useful. Some readers are not comfortable with numbered paragraphs. Therefore, you need to know the audience.
- Organize the contents. Use clear headings. Put the most important information first. For example, make sure that the first sentence in each paragraph shows the topic of the paragraph.
- Use clear headings, subheadings, and keywords. A good heading is not neutral. For example, a good heading tells a reader what the following text is about, or tells a reader to do something.
- Repeat keywords. Always use the same word for the same thing. McAlpine gives the following example: "Last week's seminar on Global English was oversubscribed. The workshop will be repeated on 5th June to accommodate those who could not attend. If you would like to attend the next Global English presentation, please contact YesWrite Ltd on telephone (04) 123 4567." Possibly, some international readers will think that the seminar, the workshop, and the presentation are different types of event.
All McAlpine's guidelines about order are good. Her guidelines apply to all documents, not only to documents that are for an international audience.
The same date is written in different ways in different countries. For example, '05/04/03' can mean all of the following dates:
- 3 April 2005
- 5 April 2003
- 4 May 2005.
To make sure that a date is not ambiguous, write the month fully. TechScribe uses an alternative format of YYYY-MM-DD, which conforms to ISO 8601.
The same number is written in different ways in different countries. In some countries, a comma is used instead of a decimal point, and a full stop is used to separate thousands.
Measurements, symbols, and currencies can all cause problems for international readers. A writer must make sure that text has only one meaning.
Speak slowly, speak clearly, and do not shout.
Pause between each word. When English people speak, the words are usually a continuous sequence of sounds. Frequently, international audiences are better at reading English than listening to English. For examples of speaking to international audiences, TechScribe recommends the news from Voice of America (www.voanews.com).
Adapt your body language. When you give a presentation, make sure that you do not have bad habits such as swaying.
Use translations wisely. Learn how to work with interpreters. For example, give an interpreter a copy of your presentation some days before you speak.
Chapter 11 has useful guidelines about how to create a good website. Some of the guidelines are a repetition of the information that McAlpine gives in other parts of her book. For example, start each page with a clear heading.
Some of the guidelines are more about website design than about how to write global English.
If possible, supply a website in the language of the readers. However, do not use a flag to show the language. "A Singapore citizen does not identify with the Chinese flag, and Australians do not identify with the British or US flags. Instead, create link to the other language site by using the target language. Link to the French language site with the word "français", not the French flag."
Culture has an effect on global business. Business practices are different in different countries. Therefore, McAlpine says that she gives only general guidelines.
Learn about the countries in which you do business. Learn the language. Learn the local practices. McAlpine lists 12 things that business people must know about. For example, the treatment of time is different in different countries. "The most important thing is your attitude. In any language, sincerity and goodwill shine through."
If your organization deals with people who do not speak English as a first language, only your skill with Global English is not sufficient. Your colleagues also need to use Global English. Your organization needs to use Global English for all its communications.
People need to be trained to use Global English. Management must support the training. The principles of Global English are easy to use after some practice.
TechScribe agrees that for effective international communication, people need to be trained to use Global English. (TechScribe uses the term 'international English'.) The basic principles of Global English are simple. However, unlike McAlpine, Kohl gives hundreds of guidelines. Some of the technical details can be difficult to remember.