August 2, 2018

Write like a native – hacks from a translator

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Wondering how to write more naturally? Here are some writing hacks that you won’t find in your average Hemingway style guide.

Inanimate objects can act

The inanimate agent is a powerful grammar tool. For example:

“The book says…”

“My phone died…”

English lets you combine “dead” things with “living” verbs. In German or French writing, dead things cannot act, and you need a special set of verbs for them. You would usually write:

“In dem Buch steht [geschrieben]…” “Il est écrit dans le livre…”

Most would translate this as “It is written in the book…” Now you’ve added a mysterious “it”, overcomplicating the sentence. Animating dead objects may not sound like much, but they’ll make your text flow so much better.

Consider instructions for example. In German, this would be considered good tech writing:

“Durch Klicken auf die Schaltfläche öffnet sich ein Fenster, in dem eine Meldung angezeigt wird.”

Inanimacy leads to further problems, such as missing subjects / passive constructions, nominalization, and reflexivity.

You can avoid all this baggage in English: “Click the button to open a message window.”  Or more literally “Clicking the button opens a window that shows a message.”

Avoid reflexive verbs

Reflexivity is when a noun does something to itself – “the window opens itself.” This makeshift construction is unnecessary in English – because whom else is the window gonna open?

Now why in German it’s wrong if a window opens, but correct if it opens itself? Makes no sense at all, so avoid reflexive verbs in your writing, they sound very un-English.

Bad nominalization

English style guides usually promote a verbal style. Take the above example:

“Durch Klicken auf die Schaltfläche öffnet sich ein Fenster, in dem eine Meldung angezeigt wird.”

Clicking the button opens a window that shows a message.”

By translating the nominalized verb “Klicken” as a dangling gerund (clicking), we’ve made the sentence sound impersonal. A gerund is a verb mutated into a noun. A dangling gerund is a gerund that has no clear subject.

The text actually addresses a reader. If we apply an active verbal  style (Click the button…), you can tell who is supposed to act.

So whenever you’re talking action, drop the nouns for verbs!

Good nominalization

Compound nouns can pack a lot of information. That’s why bureaucrats love them. Cramming a whole relative clause into two words makes you sound smarter.

So again compare “Clicking the button opens a window that shows a message.” to “Click the button to open a message window.” Six words vs. two. That’s a lot of screen space saved.

“Message window” is a fixed expression, but we also make up compounds as we speak. Compound formation is one of the hardest skills for language learners to master.

There two basic ways to form compounds:

  • Synthetic languages (German) and agglutinative languages (Turkish) use inflection and/or agglutination to combine words: Massenvernichtungswaffen (not Massevernichtungwaffen), kitle imha silahı 
  • Analytic languages, like English, use word order and prepositions: “weapons of mass destruction.”

Note that “mass destruction weapons” would also be grammatically correct. None of the words is inflected. The word order alone tells you what the compound means.

Apart from memorizing common compounds, how you form compounds is crucial to how your English will sound.

There are some things to consider:

  • Natural English forms compounds of nouns and other word classes, like adjectives. So instead of “law gap” (Gesetzeslücke) you would say “legal gap.”
  • Don’t overuse prepositions in compounds: Translations often contain words like “date of expiry” instead of just “expiry date.” Prepositions make you sound officious.
  • Pack relative clauses into compounds and generously use possessives, adverbs and other particularities of English.

I hope you found these native writing hacks helpful. If you have any comments, leave them below!

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