Writing English to help second-language readers

I’ve spent much of the last 28 years writing or editing documents for a readership that includes many readers who didn’t learn English from birth. In this post, I give some tips on writing more clearly to help readers with English as a second language.  General advice on writing plain English is not enough to lead to good results for those people. That is because that general advice focuses on what works for people who acquired English naturally from a very young age.

For brevity, I use the term ‘first-language reader’ as shorthand for people who started acquiring English from birth or within their first few years. I use ‘second-language reader’ as shorthand for people who started learning English later than that.

These two groups differ in when and how people in those groups started acquiring or learning English. The difference between the two groups does not depend on the language spoken by people’s parents. And the difference does not depend on the ethnic background of people’s parents. For those reasons, common terms such as ‘native’ and ‘non-native’ or ‘mother tongue’ and ‘non- mother-tongue’ may be misleading.

Writers and editors generally don’t spend enough time thinking about the needs of second-language readers. I hope this post will start to change that.

My comments below come under the following main headings:

  • showing the structure of the sentence  
  • starting sentences with a conjunction
  • hyphenation
  • plain English

Showing the structure of the sentence

It is much harder to work out the structure of a written sentence in your 2nd language than in your 1st language. So, if you are writing for second-language readers, please show them the structure as clearly as possible. Here are a few specific suggestions:

  • repeat prepositions to show the structure more obviously
  • repeat ‘to’ before an infinitive to show the structure more obviously
  • repeat the conjunction (or subordinator) ‘that’ to show the structure more obviously
  • include the conjunction (or subordinator) ‘that’ to distinguish clauses more obviously from nouns
  • keep nouns together with phrases that modify them
  • don’t embed one clause in another clause
  • punctuate more generously
  • use nouns instead of pronouns, if it might be unclear what the pronoun refers to
  • use the same word consistently to refer to the same thing
  • don’t repeat long heavy phrases
  • don’t use false friends
  • don’t use words, phrases or metaphors that second-language readers aren’t likely to know

If you adopt these suggestions, your writing may sometimes seem a little less natural to you. There is a trade-off. When you focus on first-language readers, you may want to make your writing very natural. When you focus on second-language readers, you may want to make your writing as clear as possible to those readers.

Repeating prepositions to show structure

Sometimes, a preposition relates to a sequence of nouns. The preposition appears before the first noun, but is optional before the other nouns in the sequence. Repeating the preposition before the other nouns can help second-language readers see more quickly and more easily that the preposition also governs those other nouns. Consider example (1)

(1) Comments about the economy and the weather made people unhappy.

Example (1) is ambiguous. What made people unhappy?

  • 1st possible meaning: both the weather and comments about the economy.
    To express this meaning, we could change the sequence of clauses in example (1), rewriting it as:
    The weather and comments about the economy made people unhappy.
  • 2nd possible meaning: comments about both the economy and about the weather. To express this meaning, we could repeat the preposition about, so that example (1) reads:
    Comments about the economy and about the weather made people unhappy.
    (It may be important to clarify whether a single set of comments each covers both the weather and the economy, or whether one set covers the weather and a different set covers the economy. If the latter, further edits may be needed.)    

Repeating ‘to’ before an infinitive to show structure

Consider the sentence in example (2):

(2) Errors are likely to be pervasive and relate to more than one activity.

The 2nd clause of this sentence is ambiguous. The 1st possible meaning is ‘errors […] relate to more than one activity’. The 2nd possible meaning is ‘errors are likely […] to relate to more than one activity’.

The ambiguity arises for two reasons. Firstly, sentence (2) could have 2 different structures, each corresponding to a different meaning. Diagram 2.1 shows the 1st structure and Diagram 2.2 shows the 2nd structure. Secondly, inserting to is optional in the 2nd meaning.

Diagram 2.1, 1st possible meaning
Diagram 2.2, 2nd possible meaning

In this case, inserting to before relate would show that the writer intends the 2nd meaning. Diagram 2.3 shows that insertion. In Diagram 2.2, to is in the phrase containing are likely. In that position, the scope of to includes both of the following clauses: be pervasive; and relate to more than one activity. In Diagram 2.3

  • to is at the start of the clause containing be pervasive; and
  • to is repeated at the start of the clause containing relate to more than one activity.
Diagram 2.3, after suggested edit

Repeating ‘that’ to show structure

When ‘that’ introduces more than one clause in a sentence, the 2nd (and later) instances of ‘that’ are often optional. Consider example (3):

(3) Johnson said that no parties were held and pigs may fly.

The structure of example (3) is ambiguous in much the same way as examples (1) and (2):

  • The 1st structure reports that Johnson said that no parties were held. That structure goes on to say that pigs may fly. To express the 1st structure more clearly, the writer could swap the order of the two clauses: Pigs may fly and Johnson said that no parties were held. However, if the writer intends ‘pigs may fly’ to be a comment on what Johnson said, the original order is best. In that case, the best solution is to split the sentence in 2: Johnson said that no parties were held. Pigs may fly.
  • The 2nd structure reports that Johnson said 2 things: (a) that no parties were held; and (b) that pigs may fly. To express the 2nd structure more clearly, the writer could include the optional that at the start of the 2nd clause:  
    Johnson said that no parties were held and that pigs may fly.

Including ‘that’ to distinguish clauses from nouns

Some verbs can precede either a noun or a subordinate clause. An optional subordinator ‘that’ sometimes introduces a subordinating clause. When ‘that’ is present, it shows more quickly that what follows is a clause, not a noun. Consider example (4):

(4)  I know this conclusion was incorrect

Someone reading the 1st 4 words of example (4) will probably think that ‘conclusion’ is the direct object of the verb ‘know’. They will initially interpret (4) as saying ‘I know this conclusion’.

It is only on reading to the end that the reader will discover that ‘conclusion’ is in fact the subject in the subordinate clause ‘this conclusion was incorrect’. This type of ambiguity is often called a ‘garden path’ sentence because the words lead the reader initially in the wrong direction (‘down the garden path’). The reader then has to back track when she realises she has mis-interpreted the sentence’s structure. Here is a link to some more garden path sentences https://languagemiscellany.com/2022/01/punctuation-might-help/

Most readers will ultimately recover from a garden path sentence, but second-language readers may sometimes take longer to recover, or may even not recover at all.

Inserting that prevents the reader from jumping to the wrong conclusion after reading the first few words:
I know that this conclusion was incorrect

Keeping nouns together with phrases that modify them

Sometimes, writers can choose whether to place a phrase immediately after the noun it modifies or later in the sentence. Often, writers tend to place such modifying phrases later in the sentence if the phase is heavy (long) or if the writer wants to stress it. But, in other cases, it can be best to place the modifying phrase immediately after the noun. Consider example (5):

(5) Writers sometimes use synonymous words within the same document referring to the same procedure.

Here, the phrase ‘referring to the same procedure’ modifies ‘synonymous words’. Example (5) is probably easier to read if it is rewritten so that readers can read ‘synonymous words referring to the same procedure’ as a single uninterrupted sequence, as follows:

(5a) Writers sometimes use within the same document synonymous words referring to the same procedure.

Inserting a pair of commas might make the structure even clearer:

(5b) Writers sometimes use, within the same document, synonymous words referring to the same procedure.

Or perhaps even better, consider moving ‘within the same document’ to the front of the sentence:

(5c) Within a single document, writers sometimes use synonymous words referring to the same procedure.

Don’t embed one clause in another clause

Readers find it difficult to process sentences that embed one clause in another. Second-language readers find this even more difficult. Consider example (6)

(6) Those tyrants that won wanted more.

This sentence creates unnecessarily processing difficulties for readers. That is because the relative clause ‘that won’ interrupts the main clause ‘those tyrants wanted more’. The reader has to process the relative clause before finding out what verb is in the main clause.

A simple way to rewrite example (6) is to move the relative clause out into a place where it does not interrupt the main clause:
If tyrants won, they wanted more.

Another solution is to split the sentence in 2:
Some tyrants won. They wanted more.  

Punctuating more generously

In English, some punctuation, particularly commas, is optional. When I write for second-language readers, I consciously punctuate more than I do when writing for first-language readers. Inserting optional commas can often help readers detect where one clause ends and the next one starts.

Similarly, if you use a comma to mark off an adverb (or adverbial phrase) at the start of a sentence, you can make things easier for the reader. (An example of this is the comma I inserted after ‘Similarly’). Separating out this adverb (or adverbial phrase) tells readers they can treat it as a separate block and can then put it aside when they are working out what the rest of the sentence means.  

Example (7) is another case where adding punctuation would make it easier to see the sentence’s structure:

(7) These trends have affected or could affect consumers.

Readers must read to the end of the sentence of the sentence before they can finish processing the first half of the sentence to discover that the grammatical object of ‘affected’ is ‘consumers’. And a second-language reader might not understand the sentence at all—especially if the sentence is more complex than this fairly simple example.

A simple fix would be to insert commas:  
These trends have affected, or could affect, consumers.

An even better fix might be to repeat ‘consumers’, either directly or with a pronoun:
These trends have affected consumers or could affect consumers / them.

Using nouns instead of pronouns

Fluent first-language writers often use pronouns to replace nouns (or noun phrases) when it is clear to the reader which noun (or noun phrase) the pronoun refers to. However, identifying the referent of a pronoun sometimes relies on complex and subtle inferences.

Second-language readers find it much harder to draw those inferences. So, if you are writing for second-language readers, you should consider whether such readers can work out easily what pronouns refer to. If those readers cannot tell easily which noun a pronoun would refer to, it is better to repeat the noun.

Following this piece of advice will lead you to repeat more nouns (or noun phrases) than you would naturally do when write for first-language readers. This may make your writing seem repetitive and a little heavy. Nevertheless, the repetition is worthwhile when it avoids ambiguity.

Using the same word to refer to the same thing

People writing for first-language readers often try to make their writing livelier by varying the words they use to refer to an item. People sometimes call this practice ‘elegant variation’. For instance:

  • within a single document, writers sometimes use several nearly synonymous words or phrases referring to the same procedure. For example, they might use process, procedure, operation.
  • when British writers write about the British Government, they often use the terms ‘the Government’ and ‘Downing Street’ interchangeably within a single document.  

Second-language readers often find elegant variation more difficult to unravel, for at least two reasons:

  • working out whether two different words refer to the same thing puts one more burden on second-language readers. First-language readers might cope with that burden, but for second-language readers, that one more burden may be one burden too many.
  • second-language readers may not understand all the cultural references.  

Don’t repeat long heavy phrases

Sometimes, writers introduce a long phrase to refer something and then use exactly the same phrase several times in a short stretch of writing. Writers generally do this to avoid ambiguity. But writing like this can be very dense, and difficult even for first-language readers. For second-language readers, this density adds even more to the already large processing burden they face.

Example (8) shows how repeating long phrases can cause that problem.

(8) People who have registered an interest will receive notification that the company has registered their interest. The company will send regular updates to people who have registered an interest. People who have registered an interest can also view their accounts on line. The company will supply more information to people who have registered an interest.

In example (8), the phrase ‘people who have registered’ appears 4 times in a short paragraph. Readers need to process that long phrase as a single block of information, without digging down into its constituents after its first use.

Unfortunately, nothing tells readers quickly and easily that the text uses exactly the same phrase in each of the 4 places. So, readers need to read the phrase closely each time to confirm that the phrase is, in fact, identical each time. This re-reading diverts readers’ attention—totally unproductively—from the more important task of working out what the paragraph means. Padding the paragraph with these repeated long phrases makes the tense much denser and much more difficult to understand.

Example (8) could be rewritten as:

People who have registered an interest will receive notification that the company has registered their interest. The company will send those people regular updates. Those people can also view their accounts on line. The company will supply them with more information.     

(This paragraph can be improved more, but the changes are the minimum needed to show the point I am making here.)

Don’t use false friends

A false friend is a word in one language that looks (mis-leadingly) like a word in another language, but means something different. Here are 2 well known sets of false friends:

  • The English adjective actual and adverb actually look like their French cognates actuel and actuellement and like their German cognate aktuell (and like similar cognates in some other West European languages). But in those languages, the cognates mean ‘current’ and ‘currently’.
  • The English adjective eventual and adverb eventually look like their French cognates éventuel and éventuellement and their German cognate eventuell (and like similar cognates in some other West European languages). But in those languages, the cognates mean ‘possible’ and ‘possibly’.

In writing for second language readers, it is best to avoid English false friends of words that those readers know from their first language. For example, write real or existing instead of actual, really or in fact instead of actually and ultimatel(y) instead of eventual(ly).

Of course, no-one can know more than a few of the many false friends that exist. A good way to spot possible false friends is to listen for mistakes made by second-language speakers of English. For example, the first language of one of my ex-colleagues was French. She speaks English very fluently and accurately but often says eventually meaning ‘possibly’ in a context where many people assume she means ‘ultimately’. If you hear someone use eventually in that way, you might realise that eventually could be a false friend. If a bilingual dictionary then confirms that it is a false friend, you will know not to use it in a way that people might mis-understand.

Don’t use obscure words, phrases or metaphors

Many writers love to look for the word or phrase that will convey their meaning best, or for a striking metaphor that will convey their message vividly. Unfortunately, a word, phrase or metaphor may be ideal for a first-language reader but too obscure for a second-language reader. When that is the case, it may be better to pick a word or phrase that captures the meaning less perfectly but will be understood by a second-language reader.

To give an example, British writers sometimes say that the governing body of an organisation ‘is minded’ to take some specified action. The rather bureaucratic and old fashioned phrase ‘is minded’ conveys well that the body has not yet reached a final decision, but is leaning in that direction. Nevertheless, second-language readers may not understand it at all without help from a dictionary. It is even less likely that they will understand the precise nuance intended.

So, writing for second-language readers, it is better to pick words that they can understand more easily. Thus, in that example, the body could say what its tentative decision is or what it currently expects that its decision will be if it receives no new information.

Starting sentences with a conjunction

Prescriptive style guides often instruct writers not to start a sentence with a conjunction, such as and or but. But I don’t obey that instruction. And I have been obeying it less and less over the years. Starting a sentence with a conjunction has advantages:

  • The conjunction shows explicitly the link between the sentence and the preceding sentence.
  • And this procedure marks the two sentences typographically as separate. This separation tells readers very clearly that they can process each sentence separately. Processing the sentences separately reduces the mental burden on readers.   

Hyphenation

Hyphens are optional in some English words. Including the hyphen in such cases can help second-language readers. It tells them more quickly where one component of the word ends and the next starts. For example, re-emerge is easier to read and process than reemerge. Similarly, over-indulge is easier to read and process than overindulge.

Plain English

Well known tips for writing plain English include:

  • use simple or everyday, words instead of complex or technical words
  • keep sentences short
  • use sentences with a simple structure
  • delete unnecessary words
  • say things explicitly rather than implicitly
  • use explicit linking words to link one sentence to other sentences, and to link one paragraph to other paragraphs
  • don’t use the passive too much

Those tips are very helpful for all kinds of writing, including writing for second-language readers. But, by themselves, those tips are not enough to make writing as clear as possible for second-language readers of English. And in some cases, those tips need some adjustment to make them work well for second-language readers, perhaps using some of the ideas in this post.

How can you help?

I hope this post has given you some useful ideas. If you have comments on any of my suggestions here, or if you have more suggestions, please let me know. Better still, please leave a comment on this page so that everyone can see it.

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One comment

  1. Thanks Peter for this.
    I remember it vividly when I started writing in English. We all think we are good at it, but in fact we are not. It takes some time to reach any level.
    One message I learned at the time was also to keep things short. “On message is one sentence, and one sentence is one message”.
    That helped me lot.
    Regards.

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