Greg Adams and Matthew Kaul—When plain language isn’t enough: Plain language and Global English at a global healthcare company (PLAIN 2013)

As editors at Cook Medical, an international medical device company, Greg Adams and Matthew Kaul have worked on content destined for translation into over twenty languages. (Kaul recently left to launch his own writing and editing business.) To create content that can be easily translated, they apply principles of Global English, an evidence-based system of writing techniques based on linguistic research. Global English arose out of the need to translate software documentation into many languages and was designed to facilitate both human and machine translation.

Global English can support plain language efforts because it ensures clarity. A document deemed “plain” may have short sentences and use familiar words, but looking at it through the eyes of a translator can expose imprecise statements. Global English proponent John Kohl says, “the quality of the source text, not the skill or competence of the translator, is typically the biggest factor that affects translation quality,” and because translation quality is a reflection of the quality of your product or service in a lot of cultures, we should be putting more emphasis on creating high-quality source texts. Adams and Kohl showed how the following Global English principles can help:

Make sure your sentences are semantically complete

Plain language advocates suggest using short sentences, but shortness should not be an end in itself. Don’t omit syntactic cues such as articles. For example,

Block open port on catheter fitting.

might mean

Block [the] open port on [the] catheter fitting.

or

Block open [the port] on [a] catheter fitting.

These two interpretations have opposite meanings.

Avoid ambiguous punctuation

For example, in this sentence:

Advance the guide catheter/sheath.

should the user advance the catheter and sheath simultaneously? Should the user advance either the catheter or the sheath? Are the catheter and sheath the same thing?

Dashes can also lead to ambiguity: are parenthetical constructions set off by dashes definitions, interjections, or clarifications?

Avoid -ing words

Words that end in -ing can function as many different parts of speech and can therefore lead to ambiguity. The example that Adams and Kaul gave the following example:

Get comfortable hearing protectors and get comfortable using them.

“Hearing” is an adjective, whereas “using” is a verb.

(This sentence is particularly insidious because it sets up a false parallelism: “get comfortable” is used in two different ways.)

Be consistent with your terminology

Avoid using the same word in multiple parts of speech. Otherwise, as we saw with the “get comfortable” example above, you might confuse the translator or reader. Also, use unambiguous words like “when” instead of “once” and “although” instead of “while.”

Avoid broad-reference and ambiguous pronouns

Some languages don’t have a pronoun that can stand for an entire phrase in the way some English writers use “which” and “that.” In this example

Our new monitor has virtually no background noise. That should substantially reduce the number of false positives.

“that” refers to the absence of noise, an antecedent that isn’t explicitly mentioned in the previous sentence. The translator would have to infer what the pronoun refers to and try to find a way to express the vague concept in the target language.

Make sure any pronouns you use have clear antecedents. Be wary of the following words when used as pronouns, because they can often be imprecise:

  • all
  • another
  • any
  • each
  • either
  • few
  • following
  • former
  • latter
  • many
  • neither
  • none
  • one
  • other
  • the rest
  • same
  • several
  • some
  • such
  • that
  • them
  • these
  • those

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To learn more about Global English, visit Adams and Kaul’s blog, Global English for Everyone. They also suggest these resources:

  • Microsoft Style Guide, Fourth Edition.
  • John Kohl, The Global English Style Guide: Writing Clear, Translatable Documentation for a Global Market.
  • Sun Technical Publications, Read Me First! A Style Guide for the Computer Industry.

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