Global communications in English

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Fragments – jolly or jerky?

Sentence fragmentsFrequent use of incomplete sentences (or sentence fragments) is a style that many Dutch writers and readers like: they find it punchy and snappy. English readers, by contrast, find texts with lots of fragments difficult to read. They experience them as jerky rather than lively. In English, fragments are mainly used for special effects – in advertisements, slogans and literary works, for instance. In normal writing, fragments are usually considered to be poor style. So how do you know whether a sentence you’ve written is complete or incomplete? And how can you cut down on fragments in your writing?

Something missing
Here are some examples of sentence fragments (shown in italics). They come from the English version of a Dutch company’s website.

Delivering safety will always be a challenge. Making investment in trends like automation and controls systems crucial.

Change brings opportunity. But requires new skills.

We add real value. Whether you need a designer, a systems engineer or a project manager.

Testing, testing
So how do you know whether a sentence is a fragment? Just ask yourself three things:

  • Is there a finite verb?
    When looking for the finite verb, ignore any verb forms ending in -ing, any past participles [deelwoorden] in -ed or -en, and infinitives.
  • Is there a subject?
    To find the subject, ask who or what is ‘doing’ the action expressed by the verb.
  • Is it a clause beginning with a subordinating conjunction or a relative pronoun?
    These include after, although, as if, because, before, if, once, since, until, while, how, that, which, who, whom, whose.

Getting rid of fragments
You can get rid of sentence fragments in various ways:

  • Join the fragment to the preceding complete sentence:
    Delivering safety will always be a challenge, making investment in trends like automation and controls systems crucial.
  • Make the fragment a proper sentence:
    Change brings opportunity. But it also requires new skills.
  • Add information you want to highlight by using a dash:
    We add real value – whether you need a designer, a systems engineer or a project manager.

Now try your hand at fragment spotting!







Translation trouble

trouble-keep-calmIt seems so simple. You have a message in Dutch, and you need it in English. You just have it translated and you’re done. Right? Wrong! Nine times out of ten, a straightforward translation is not really what you need.

Who, where, what, why
Sometimes you read a piece of text – in English or Dutch – and you just know it’s a ‘bad translation’. But was it a bad translation? In my view, most translation problems arise because we’re not asking ourselves enough questions before we start. Who is the text for? Where is it going? What does it need to achieve? And why do we want to translate it in the first place?

Who – The audience
The first thing you need to ask yourself when you start translating is ‘Who will be reading this?’ To make a good translation, you need to be able to empathise with the audience. If you know – more or less – what prior knowledge the audience is likely to have, it will be easier to gear your translation in the right direction. A non-Dutch audience may be unfamiliar with some of the content in the original, which will then need to be explained. And sometimes there are parts in the original that are totally irrelevant for your particular audience. These are then best left out altogether.

Where – What kind of English?
A closely related question is ‘Where is the text going?’ In other words, will it end up all around the world? Or in a specific place? This question is relevant, because you need to know what kind of English you should use. Are your readers native speakers of English? Are they in the UK, the US, or somewhere else? Or will your text mainly be read by non-native speakers of English? You need to take all this into account to make sure your spelling and vocabulary reflects the kind of English the readers are used to. And if your audience is non-native, you should be careful about using clever idioms or complex grammatical constructions.

What – The purpose
What is the translation supposed to achieve? Is it intended to inform, persuade, encourage or warn people? Just as in any piece of writing, the purpose of the translation is something you need to be aware of, so you can take cultural differences into account. For example, if you use the direct Dutch way of communicating in English, you may step on some toes in other cultures, and your message may overshoot its intended goal.

Why – Managing expectations
Why do you actually need the text in English? Is it just to inform your global management team about an internal decision? Or do you need your brochure in English so you can give it to potential clients outside the Netherlands? Are these clients expecting the same kind of information as your Dutch clients? Or is the market different? There are many different reasons why you need a translation – it’s essential the translator knows what yours are. 

Mission accomplished
Once you’ve answered all these questions, you will often find that what you actually need is a slight rewrite of your Dutch text in English, with a clear view of your purpose and audience in mind. This doesn’t need to take much longer or be much more expensive than a ‘normal’ translation. You actually save time – and money – if you get the message right the first time round. In the end, it’s all about communication. The form of the message (i.e., the way it is written) should never get in the way of the message itself. If your message in English achieves what it is supposed to achieve, your translation mission has been accomplished.

Watch out for forty-four!

House number 44A very common error is to suppose that logic governs English spelling. Yes, the number 40 does have something to do with the number 4, but that doesn’t have any relevance to its spelling! The correct spelling is not ‘fourty’, but forty. Just remember the contrast contained in the word forty-four and you should never misspell forty again…

© 2015 Baxter Publishing, Hilversum, The Netherlands

Please, no comma after please

dogShould you write Please, send me your comments or Please send me your comments? The version without a comma is correct. If you put a comma after please, it sounds as though you are irritated and impatient: Oh, for heaven’s sake, just send me your comments will you: you’ve kept me waiting long enough!

So remember: no comma after please!

©2015 Baxter Publishing, Hilversum, The Netherlands

Is it its or it’s?

itsDon’t be confused by the fact that ’s is used for the possessive of nouns (the book’s cover, John’s coat). It behaves differently because it is a pronoun: think of its as the partner of the possessive pronoun his (‘of him’) – which, as you know, also has no apostrophe.

Its means ‘belonging to it’:

Its colour is bright green.
You can’t tell a book by its cover.

It’s is short for it is or it has:

It is:

It’s late.

It’s over.

It has:

It’s never happened before.
It’s ruined everything.


©2015 Baxter Publishing, Hilversum, The Netherlands

As much splitting up as possible

Shoal of fishWhen used with a noun, the phrase as much/many/little/few as possible needs to ‘surround’ the noun, rather than be placed in front of it. For example:

NOT: We need to give employees as much as possible autonomy.
BUT: We need to give employees as much autonomy as possible.

Here are some additional correct examples:

PowerPoint slides should have as little text as possible.
We want to obtain as much information as possible.
Tell as few people as possible.
Tell as many people as possible.

© 2015 Baxter Publishing, Hilversum, The Netherlands

Do you congratulate someone with or on their birthday?

Birthday cakeNeither! It’s a trick question. We don’t use to congratulate or congratulations in connection with birthdays in English, except in very special cases (18, 21, 100, etc.): we normally just say Happy Birthday or Many happy returns, instead. And we don’t shake hands as we do so.

However, we can congratulate people on getting a job, winning an award, or getting married, for instance. And then a handshake is often part of the ritual. With is never used with to congratulate or congratulations – it’s always to congratulate (someone) on… and congratulations on…

©2015 Baxter Publishing, Hilversum, The Netherlands

Is it programme, programm or program?

program listEnglish spelling is notorious for being confusing. For example, which of these is – or are – correct: programme, program or even programm?

Well, let’s get programm out of the way first. It doesn’t exist in English – it’s essentially the German spelling!

The spelling program is used in the USA for the set of works played at a concert, a coordinated set of activities (e.g., at a university), a TV or radio show, and a piece of computer software. Program is also used in the UK, but only in the sense of computer software – presumably because software was originally ‘imported’ into the UK from the US, along with its American spelling.

The spelling programme is used in the UK for all meanings except computer software.

©2015 Baxter Publishing, Hilversum, The Netherlands

Move the negative!

cloudsIf you don’t like a certain idea, what would you say? I think it’s not a good idea or I don’t think it’s a good idea? Logic would suggest that we should say I think it’s not a good idea: after all, it’s not a good idea is what we think. But in fact I don’t think it’s a good idea is what we normally say when offering a negative opinion or judgement. The negation that really belongs with the second main verb in the sentence is moved to the left and attached to the first one instead. The same happens with many other verbs of opinion or perception:

It doesn’t look as if it’s going to rain.
I don’t suppose
he’ll come now.
I don’t believe I’ve met you before.
He didn’t expect to win.
She doesn’t appear to be awake.

Keeping the not in the second part of the sentence does not result in wrong English: it simply sounds less natural in speech. So when offering a negative opinion or judgement, remember to move the negative!

©2015 Baxter Publishing, Hilversum, The Netherlands

Beware of ‘one of these days’

one-of-these-daysIn English, one of these days means ‘possibly sometime in the future’. It does not mean the same as Dutch een dezer dagen, which is much sooner! So the following two sentences mean quite different things:

We will come and see you one of these days. (a vague intention)
We will come and see you very shortly. (a definite intention)

 ©2015 Baxter Publishing, Hilversum, The Netherlands

© 2013 - Baxter Communications | Hilversum - NL