The key to all writing is to get your message through precisely and clearly. This is as true when you’re writing in a second language as it is when you’re writing in your mother tongue.
The last thing you want to do is to distract your readers with grammatical, punctuation, or terminology errors. At AAC, we regularly proofread and copy-edit texts that our customers have written.
As most of the texts I see are written by Finnish speakers, these examples primarily apply to them. However, many of the points here are equally valid for speakers of other languages, too.
Even talented writers sometimes make basic grammatical errors. One of the most common mistakes I see is confusion between the two present tenses: present simple and present continuous. Finnish has only one present tense, so Finnish writers often find it hard to know when to use them properly.
Basically, the present simple (“I do something”) is for general statements, facts, and repeated/regular activities: I am Spanish. I work in Stockholm. I get up early every morning. Our company operates in the IT sector.
The present continuous (“I am doing something”) is for ongoing situations, incomplete events, and temporary things: I am learning Swahili. I am working in Brussels this week. We are entering the American market.
Many languages have different rules regarding past tenses, too. German, Italian, French and Finnish all often use the present perfect tense (“I have done it”) where a native English speaker would use the past simple tense (“I did it”).
In English, if an event is completed and took place at a known point in time in the past, we use the past simple tense: On March 13, the Board decided on the purchase.
The present perfect is used to describe a past event with relevance in the present, or a present state that results from a past situation: I have never been to Denmark.
(Don’t even ask about the present perfect continuous tense!)
One thing that I’ve never got used to about Finnish is that it has no grammatical future tense. Finns use the present simple tense to talk about the future, with the context usually making it clear.
English, on the other hand, at its most basic has four constructions it uses to talk about the future: the future simple tense (will), “going to,” and both the present continuous and present simple tenses. They each have different uses and can sometimes be used interchangeably, but sometimes not.
- Will is used to make simple predictions, make offers, and express willingness: It will rain tomorrow. I’ll write the report.
- Going to is used to describe plans and intentions, and to make predictions based on present evidence: We are going to buy a new car. Look at those clouds – it’s going to rain.
- Present continuous is used to describe future arrangements: We are meeting them tomorrow at 10 a.m.
- Present simple is used for timetabled events: Their plane arrives at noon. The conference starts on Monday.
The distinction between “plans and intentions” and “arrangements” is sometimes unclear, and these forms can often be used interchangeably.
(This doesn’t even touch on about to or the future continuous, future perfect, or future perfect continuous tenses.)
Prepositions and articles
Next on the list of grammatical mistakes that writers – especially Finnish ones – make are prepositions and articles. The Finnish language has neither – it uses a few postpositions and a number of grammatical cases in their place.
Prepositions in English don’t always match up neatly to case endings in Finnish. Combine this with the fact that many English verbs and nouns have dependent prepositions, and it becomes almost impossible for a Finn to get them right all the time.
20 different special cases and exemptions
Even for languages that have prepositions, they may require a preposition where English doesn’t use one, or the ones they use in specific situations can be different from the ones used in English. For example, the simple preposition a in Spanish can translate into English as to, at, by or for.
A similar thing is true for articles. Finnish has no articles at all, neither definite (the) nor indefinite (a/an). Mastering articles in English is notoriously difficult: the basic rules are not enormously complicated, but there are a huge range of exceptions.
The book Practical English Usage by Michael Swan only takes about a page to list the rules, but requires eight pages to explain them properly, and after that goes on to list 20 different special cases and exemptions.
Vocabulary and terminology
There are a lot of words in the English language. Nobody can tell you exactly how many, but I think the fact that the second edition of the Oxford English Dictionary is 20 volumes and lists 171,476 words “in current use” says quite a lot.
It seems pretty clear that English has many more words than other comparable languages. This is great for us natives when we’re looking for the perfect word to convey a subtle nuance, but it’s not so great for speakers of other languages.
For example, the words effective (successful in producing a desired result) and efficient (producing a desired result without waste) are somewhat different concepts in English, but are both covered by the Finnish word tehokas or the Swedish word effektiv.
Then there are “false friends” – things that sound like you can translate them directly with the same meaning, but where doing so would be wrong. A simple example would be the Finnish adjective operatiivinen. That’s got to be simple – it’s “operative,” surely? Sorry, no.
“grab a word from the dictionary”
In English, operative as an adjective means “in operation, functioning,” i.e. running, not broken. The right word to use would probably be operational. (Unless it’s being used in the medical sense of “relating to surgery,” in which case “operative” is correct. None of this is simple…)
Using a dictionary
Finally, there are what I think of as “grab a word from the dictionary” errors. When trying to translate a specific term, you can obviously look it up in a bilingual dictionary. However, you’ll often find a long list of possible equivalents to use.
For example, the Finnish language is very keen on the term kokonaisuus, but a bilingual dictionary will list about a dozen alternatives, with little to no information about when it is appropriate to use them: completeness, totality, whole, unity, integrity, entity, body, in the aggregate, in its entirety, altogether, as a whole…
Writers seeking a translation may be tempted to look through the list and grab one that seems simple and “sounds good.” The odds are that the one you pick will not be appropriate – and if you pick entity, I can almost guarantee it! In cases like this, it’s probably best to try and find another way to say that doesn’t use that word.
If you’re regularly making any of these mistakes when you write in English and you’re not sure how to fix them, contact AAC Global and ask about our proofreading and copy-editing services. Our language training services might also be worth looking at.
My next blog post will examine the structural and stylistic elements to consider when writing in English, and the benefits of professional copy-editing.
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