Wiliam Hazlitt

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FOXTROT © 1996 Bill Amend. Reprinted with permission of UNIVERSAL PRESS SYNDICATE. All rights reserved.

FOXTROT © 1996 Bill Amend. Reprinted with permission of UNIVERSAL PRESS SYNDICATE. All rights reserved.

Scientific writing today has taken on a distinctly international nature, but when the writer and readers do not share the same first language, clear communication takes an extra degree of effort. Translation is often touted as the answer. However, there is a shortage of qualified translators, and the expense can be prohibitive. Translation also delays the publication of scientific research. Furthermore, some languages have not developed the vocabulary required for science, so that in effect, translation requires the artificial development of terminology. Various software and online services also promise translation, but as of this writing, none have been refined to the point that they can be recommended for scientific documents.

In this section, we offer some pointers for both the native English speaker writing for a reader with a different first language, and the writer whose first language is not English. For succinct helpful guidelines on the grammatical aspects of these tasks, the appendices in Markel (1994) offer a good place to begin.

Address second-language English readers effectively

Sometime in your writing career, you almost certainly will be called upon to write a document addressed to readers for whom English is a secondary language. Their task will be greatly eased if you pay careful attention to yours.

What MacNeil (1995) calls "the glorious messiness of English" has resulted in an estimated vocabulary of over one million words. (Other major languages have far fewer; French, for example, has only about 75,000.) This massive vocabulary poses formidable obstacles to those attempting to master what has become, to a very real extent, the first truly global language.

Just after World War II, the idea of creating a simplified version of English gained great popularity as a possible tool for better international understanding and hopefully, world peace. Over the years, various experts have proposed special assemblages of restricted vocabularies and simplified grammar. For example, Basic English was designed around an 850-word lexicon; its creator (Ogden, 1930) claimed it would take someone seven years to learn English but only seven weeks for Basic English!

A form called Special English has a core vocabulary of 1,500 words. Like Basic English, it uses the active voice and short, simple sentences that contain only one idea. This system has been used in Voice of America broadcasts since 1959; tune in if you'd like to hear how it sounds.

Another variant is Simplified English, a limited and standardized subset of Standard English intended for science or technical communication. Its most extensive use, in a version called Simplified Technical English, is for instruction and maintenance manuals (Gingras, 1987; Sanderlin, 1988), particularly in the aerospace industry. It has been shown not only to reduce ambiguity and improve comprehension, but also to facilitate automated translation and thus make translation cheaper and easier.

Simplified English is both a vocabulary and a technique. It starts with a basic lexicon of less than 300 nontechnical words, grouped by function (with definitions) in a thesaurus. To this, one adds one's own limited list of terms required by the specific document, and includes their definitions in a glossary with example sentences. Words must have only one meaning and they can only be used in certain ways. Use of jargon, vernacular phrases, and abbreviations is discouraged.

Because Simplified English is designed with science in mind, using its reduced vocabulary plus target terms works surprisingly well for most purposes. Often, clarity is actually improved by the change.

Instead of: Unless one implements the modifications, there is a potential for damage.

Write: Make the modifications, or damage can occur.

Although they were developed primarily for non-native English speakers, the constraints imposed by such systems also improve the readability of text for native speakers. For example, Simplified Technical English requires writers to:

• Use the active voice

• Use articles wherever possible

• Use simple verb tenses

• Use language and terminology consistently

• Avoid lengthy compound words

• Use relatively short sentences

Additional guidelines are designed to keep sentence structure as simple as possible. Sentences are to be kept below 20 words in length, and no more than one sentence in ten on a page should exceed 16 words in length. The less skill and training in English the intended audience has, the shorter the sentences should be.

When you are called upon to write a document addressed to non-native English speakers, remember the general principles set forth in these systems. For further guidance, including the Simplified English lexicon and numerous examples of basic usage, see Science and Technical Writing (Rubens, 2002) or various online sites.

Choose an effective approach when writing English as a second language

Among multilingual writers whose first language is not English but who choose that language of publication, three writing methods are common:

1. Draft the paper in English from the start, doing the best you can. This is the most desirable way, because it usually results in the most readable text in the least time.

2. Write the first draft in your own language, then translate it into English yourself. This takes longer, and is more apt to lead to grammatical difficulties and stylistic awkwardness.

3. Write the paper entirely in your own language, then employ a professional translator who is familiar with the terminology of your branch of science. This can be expensive. Learn whether you can include the translation fee if you apply for a research grant.

Whichever method you choose, your primary task remains the same as for any other scientific writer - that is, to assure that your material is well organized, complete, and clear. Pay attention to the level and type of details that appear in papers published in your chosen journal, and try to emulate them. Referees and editors will probably not mind correcting minor grammatical mistakes, but they will reject a paper if they cannot even decipher the text's basic meaning.

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