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Book Review: The Global English Style Guide
2009, Q2 (July 21, 2009)
The Global English Style Guide: Writing Clear, Translatable Documentation for a Global Market. John R. Kohl. 2008. Cary, NC: SAS Publishing. [ISBN 978-1-59994-657-3. 340 pages, including index. $39.95 USD (softcover)]

By Andrea Wenger, Carolina Chapter Membership Manager
The Global English Style Guide
The Global English Style Guide

I’ve always believed that the first responsibility of writers in English is to write for their English-speaking audience, not to write for translators. I bristle at the common recommendation that gerunds (also called verbal nouns) should be avoided because some other languages don’t have them. A professional translator’s job is to translate meaning, and if Spanish doesn’t have a word-for-word equivalent of “Installing the Widget,” it certainly has an equivalent of “Installation of the Widget.” So when I first heard of John Kohl’s Global English Style Guide, my enthusiasm was measured.

Then, I learned that Kohl’s cardinal rule of global English is, “Don’t make any change that will sound unnatural to native speakers of English.” My skepticism turned to delight. The guidelines that Kohl offers in this book are aimed at reducing translation costs and improving readability for non-native speakers—yet many of those guidelines will improve readability for native speakers as well.
Kohl understands the needs of technical communicators, technical translators, and non-native speakers alike, and his guidelines respect the needs of each of those groups.

Kohl is particularly qualified to write this book. He has worked at SAS Institute as a technical writer, technical editor, and linguistic engineer since 1992. Holding a B.A. in German and an M.A. in Teaching English as a Second Language, he is a charter member of the Association of Machine Translation in the Americas. Kohl understands the needs of technical communicators, technical translators, and non-native speakers alike, and his guidelines respect the needs of each of those groups.

The book itself is written in global English, making it an easy read. Kohl defines lesser-known grammar terms using footnotes, rather than forcing readers to flip back to the glossary (although he includes a glossary as well). He provides copious examples of problematic constructions and how to correct them. He also explains why the constructions are problematic, understanding that guidelines are more likely to be followed when their purpose is clear.

Kohl rates the importance of each guideline with regard to machine translation software, human translators, and non-native speakers. Kohl helps educate the reader on how machine translation works, and how minor changes—such as choosing a dash instead of a colon—can reduce costs when translation memory software is used.

The book is well organized, starting with basic concepts and gradually building in complexity. It covers topics such as “Simplifying Your Writing Style,” Using Modifiers Clearly and Carefully,” “Making Pronouns Clear and Easy to Translate,” and “Using Syntactic Cues.” Much of the material will be familiar to seasoned technical writers—yet much was new to me even though I’ve been writing for translation for more than a decade.

Kohl also briefly explores the advantages of using controlled authoring software to assist writers in conforming to the global English guidelines. The software flags potential problems and gives the author the opportunity to change the text or to accept it as it is. Writers thereby learn the global English guidelines over time, instead of having to memorize a new set of rules all at once. The process also spares authors the red lines of a human editor.

So what does Kohl have to say about gerunds, that part of speech I’m so reluctant to give up? Quite a lot, actually. He devotes an entire chapter to what he calls “-ING” words, such as gerunds and participles. He holds that -ING words can be problematic for a variety of reasons. “Nevertheless,” he writes, “-ING words are useful and often essential parts of the English language. Instead of banning them in all contexts, this chapter focuses on contexts in which -ING words are frequently ambiguous or ungrammatical and in which reasonable alternatives exist.” Since I’m not an advocate of language that’s ambiguous or ungrammatical, I can hardly argue with that.

The Global English Style Guide is an invaluable resource for all writers, not just technical communicators. Whether we’re writing instruction manuals or literary fiction, we’re writing for non-native speakers. English is the language of international commerce, the language that Europeans of different countries use to communicate with one another, the language that many Chinese use on the Web. As Leah Guren of STC’s Israel chapter said at the 2009 Technical Communication Summit, “The new language for global communication is bad English.” Perhaps by following the global English guidelines, we can speed up the transition from bad English to good.

Andrea can be reached at andrea dot wenger at us dot schneider-electric dot com. Opinions expressed by the reviewer are her own and do not represent the views of the editors or of the Society for Technical Communication.End of article.

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