TITLE: Isn't the Meaning Clear? A Tip for Global Writing
By Jae Blakney
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It could be your use of the word ‘not’ (and especially its contractions, such as ‘isn’t’ and ‘aren’t’).
Here’s an example: ‘Don’t you need to crumple the paper when you are preparing to light a fire? Absolutely!’
If an American reads this, he will be sure to crumple up every piece of paper before dropping it into the cold woodstove. But someone from a non-English-speaking country will likely get a very different message. She will neatly fold her newspaper and place it flat in the bottom of the firebox. After all, this is exactly what you told her to do. Someone from a non-American country where English is spoken may simply find the meaning unclear (depending on which country, of course).
Let’s see the example through our foreign fire-builder’s eyes by removing the contraction from the first sentence. ‘Do you not need to crumple the paper…? Absolutely!’ In other words, you absolutely do not need to crumple the paper. Americans are taught from infancy that ‘Don’t you…’ really means, ‘You do…. Isn’t that correct?’ But unless you include an explanation every time you use that form, some of your readers may understand your words by their literal meaning.
It’s a mistake I frequently make in conversation. In April, I may ask my Chilean friend, “Isn’t the weather getting cold?” Then (because, fortunately, I’ve typed this into a chat window and haven’t sent it yet) I backspace and change the question to “Isn’t the weather growing cold?” (It’s not fetching the cold, after all.) Then I send the question, and the answer comes back, “Yes.” I realize that I still have no idea if it’s gotten cold in Chile yet, so I have to ask again, “It is cold, or it is not cold?” And again the answer comes back, patiently, because my friend just answered that question, “It is not cold.” To my friend, it was perfectly clear from the beginning: Yes, the weather is not growing cold.
Two more potential trouble spots are the word ‘get’ (as we’ve seen above), and the word ‘that’. I can still hear my mother’s voice reminding us, “’Get’ means ‘obtain’.” If you use ‘get’ to mean ‘become’, ‘grow’, ‘progress’, etc., then you may begin to lose readers who are not native to English, or who are reading translations. ‘That’ is often an optional word in English, and I think that it’s better to include it. I could have said, “I think it’s better to include it,” and native English-speaking readers would have understood me just fine. But in many other languages, a sentence written that way makes no sense, and I want my meaning to be clear to as many people as possible.
Of course, if you’re not writing for an international audience, then it probably doesn’t matter. We’ve had that odd usage of negative contractions for a long time. We all know understand ‘getting cold’ and ‘I think it’s better’. But since audiences are becoming increasingly international, we should probably be increasingly aware of the confusing little oddities in our writing. English is already a difficult language to learn. We don’t have to make it even harder by expecting our readers to ignore, redefine and insert words.
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