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December 2, 2012 12:59 PM   Subscribe

How do you edit writing written in a different dialect than your own? I'm very soon going to be responsible for editing some English technical/business writing by a team in a highly multilingual south-Asian country.

I'm used to editing documents written by Americans or by European writers, where I find the language is usually pretty close to British English. Altering their words doesn't change the writer's voice much. In this case, that's just not true. I recognize that English is a first language for these writers, but that the rules of grammar that they use day-to-day are simply different (and if the English-speaking world all voted on the rules... they'd win). As a result, there are some constructions that are clearer to me when phrased in different ways, but not necessarily clearer to the author.

So, given that I don't want to have to spend the time re-writing every sentence to fit my ideas of clarity, and I also don't want to give the impression that the authors are somehow wrong in their perfectly reasonable use of language... how in the heck do I approach this?

We're writing documentation about human or technical processes, with occasional forays into technical explanations. My/Our audience is strictly internal, and pan-global, but I'm not an editor by trade; I'm simply their supervisor, but I'm ultimately responsible for the quality of their work.
posted by TheNewWazoo to Writing & Language (10 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
One idea (assuming you haven't done it yet) is to get a familiarity with said dialect. If it's the one I'm thinking of, there are TONS of local publications that use said dialect and have a standard approach to what is correct/appropriate without aping British English or American English. Maybe see how local media handles it?
posted by Sara C. at 1:31 PM on December 2, 2012

I like to of said let people over yonder write how they want, because I'm all for it. Excepting I figure we all got to make compromises sometimes without judgment. You reckon they could be learned a bit on how to write for international audiences?
posted by Monsieur Caution at 1:37 PM on December 2, 2012 [3 favorites]

(PS. Except for 'learned,' I'm afraid those are all features of how I actually speak.)
posted by Monsieur Caution at 1:38 PM on December 2, 2012 [1 favorite]

Can you reveal what dialect it is? If you are writing international technical documents, the language must at least be grammatically correct. Is there something special about this dialect that it has a completely different grammar? I know that monsieur's style of speaking is completely acceptable in many situation, but there are many grammatical errors in it, so it would be inappropriate for any kind of technical document I can think of.

I would suggest only editing things that you find grammatically incorrect and trying to leave things that you find stylistically 'uncomfortable' alone. I guess it may end up that you will incorporate your own 'dialect' into your corrections, but it will get better with time -- perhaps at first, a co-editor can read over your edits for grammar and suggest stylistic, dialect changes?
posted by Tandem Affinity at 3:32 PM on December 2, 2012

What do similar documents look like in their dialect?
posted by Sticherbeast at 4:25 PM on December 2, 2012

The problem with Tandem Affinity's suggestion is that English grammar is not independent of dialect or geography.

Have you seen the document yet? If not, this may not be as big a problem as you think it is. I have a colleague who sometimes writes things in emails that people not from South Asia would probably never write, but the most of the changes I made when 'Americanifying' our paper were changing my '-ise's to '-ize'. This is a long way of saying your team has probably seen similar documents before and may well be tailoring their language to try and match similar documents from your company, even if they don't write or speak that way normally.

Is this something that's going to have people's names on? If not, there's maybe not such a premium on preserving their words and this is really an issue of how you give comments without making it sound like "your English is bad", rather than "what do I change". You've (presumably) not been given the task of editing because of your dialect, but because you're their supervisor--a supervisor who spoke the same dialect would still be editing out the highly dialect-dependent bits.
posted by hoyland at 4:27 PM on December 2, 2012 [1 favorite]

In some sense, this may be less work than you think. Every language has dialects but it is very common for there to be diglossia between the written and spoken languages. Arabic is the most obvious example to come to mind, but there is no shortage of examples. You may have noticed that English business writing does not employ leetspeak or Ebonics. Since this is technical writing for a global audience, I am confident that you will be shooting for standard, professional written English. I think the issue is whether it is going to be the English of the New York Times or The Guardian.
posted by Tanizaki at 5:31 PM on December 2, 2012

hoyland, the documents in question don't yet exist - after some analysis, the people I'm working with will develop them, and I'll need to provide comments.

Tanizaki and Tandem Affinity, the crux of my issue is that the grammar is perfectly standard within that local geography, but can be exceedingly quirky outside of that context. "Please do the needful" is a perfect (Indian) example of the sort of thing I'm worrying about: totally normal there, but really weird here, and used by people for whom the local English is a first tongue. A useful phrase, too, once you get used to it, IMHO.

Monsieur Caution cuts closest to the issue, and in a very clever way. I had no problem understanding what he wrote because I'm (closely) familiar with those particular speech patterns. But how do I ask a colleague to revise "could be learned a bit" because someone else may find it to be confusingly worded? Can I? Where's the line?
posted by TheNewWazoo at 5:47 PM on December 2, 2012

"learned" to mean "taught" is grammatically incorrect for standard written English anywhere in the world. It's not like you go to Kentucky and find it written in the local newspaper.

If it were me, I'd start by correcting grammar and usage -- things that have a clear cut right and wrong answer. Then, if I found the document peppered with regionalisms that are grammatically OK but wouldn't be understood outside of that particular dialect, I'd approach that separately*. Then, after that, I would look at regionalisms that are understood outside that dialect but mark the authors as being from a particular place, if it's part of your duties as editor of this particular document.

*For explaining this to your employees, I would say, "people outside India won't understand this phrase," not "this is wrong". Because it's not wrong per se, it's just not getting the job done for the audience of this particular document.
posted by Sara C. at 6:00 PM on December 2, 2012 [2 favorites]

As a social problem of not wanting to criticize competent people who are making legitimate choices, from a certain point of view, this comes up in software development all the time, and the solution there is to get the team to agree on a common programming style guide, ideally before any issues arise. Then, when you ask them to clean up their code, you point to the guide, carefully making no judgment about the person.

You obviously don't want to be a jerk about this and make people feel bad about things that would otherwise be perfectly OK to do, so don't do that. Yes, you'll still worry you're being a jerk, but focus on the real issue, which is creating a product that is readable not only for the largest number of native speakers but also for people who've learned English non-natively and people who've set aside their own dialects to learn standard English. I don't know what usage guide is least dickish about that, but surely one exists.

PS. I doubt your colleagues will care, but the (useful, respectful) distinction you're implicitly making between descriptive and prescriptive grammar could be worth articulating to avoid some of the confusion expressed in this thread about what is and isn't "grammatical."
posted by Monsieur Caution at 6:14 PM on December 2, 2012 [1 favorite]

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