Global English for Global Business: a review

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.

I use the term 'international reader' instead of McAlpine's term 'EFL reader'. McAlpine uses the term 'EFL readers' for three types of reader:

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:

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:

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 next part of this review discusses each of the 13 chapters in Global English for Global Business.

1 Global English: a secret code

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:

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.)

McAlpine EFLAW Index

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:

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'.

2 Choose the right words

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:

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.

3 Exploit the mighty verb

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:

Other good guidelines are to keep parts of a verb together and to avoid the passive voice.

4 Remove mysterious metaphors

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.

5 Use short sentences

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:

Kohl suggests that an alternative method of making a noun cluster clear is to use a hyphen:

6 Use simple sentences

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:

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:

7 Negatives are a no-no

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:

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':

8 Order, order

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:

All McAlpine's guidelines about order are good. Her guidelines apply to all documents, not only to documents that are for an international audience.

9 When, where, how many, how much?

The same date is written in different ways in different countries. For example, '05/04/03' can mean all of the following dates:

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.

10 Speaking to international audiences

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.

11 Global English on the World Wide Web

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 "fran├žais", not the French flag."

12 Global English for Global Business

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."

13 Changing your company's international communication style

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.

See also

Articles about language

Globish the World Over: a review

The Global English Style Guide: a review

International English pages on the TechScribe website

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