November 2013
By Melanie Siegel, Elke Erdmann, Kristina Johnson Coenen, Lisa Link, James Longb

Image: © slasny/ 123rf.com

Melanie Siegel is Professor for information science at the Hochschule Darmstadt. She holds a Ph.D. in linguistics and a habilitation in linguistics and computational linguistics from Bielefeld University. She has morethan 20 years of experience in research and industrial applications of computational linguistics. From 2006 to 2012, she worked as a Computational Linguist and Head of Research and Innovation at Acrolinx in Berlin, in the area of automatic consistency checking of technical documentation.


melanie.siegel[at]h-da.de
www.melaniesiegel.de


 


 

Developing guidelines: English for German-speaking authors

To assist German writers who are faced with the challenge of creating documents in English, tekom has developed a guideline titled “English for German-speaking authors”. Here is a sneak preview.

Crossing linguistic borders

When Tina starts her work in the morning, she does the things that most technical writers do: She interviews product experts, produces product information, she reviews documents, she administrates the content management system, and she manages terminology. Quite unspectacular, you might think. The difference to many technical writers is that Tina does not perform this in her native language German but in English, which she learned as a foreign language. She has a solid fundamental knowledge of English – several years of school training – but no formal training as a translator. And: The amount of text that Tina has to create in English keeps increasing. How can Tina address the challenges and become a more proficient author?

tekom guidelines for technical writers

In November 2011, tekom presented its to date most successful guideline, "Regelbasiertes Schreiben – Deutsch für die Technische Redaktion". These guidelines contain rules for writing technical documents that are based on years of experience of authors, software companies and researchers. With this guideline tekom addressed an important need of German technical writers, namely to have a basic set of rules for their daily work.

Immediately after the publication of this guideline many readers expressed their desire to tackle a further task: German writers often need to create English documents. Style guides for English technical documentation are available, such as John Kohl’s "Global English Style Guide (1)." However, the target group of these style guides are native English speakers.

To help German technical writers faced with the challenge of writing English texts, a tekom work group was formed to create a further set of guidelines: “English for German-Speaking Authors”.

In this guideline, we are focusing on specific issues for non-native speakers of English, for example, particular errors or inappropriate phrasing made by Germans writing English. To make it easier for German authors, the help texts and references are in German. The rules, however, are illustrated with English examples. These real-world examples are based on our extensive experience in writing and correcting English texts of German-speaking authors.

With this guideline we want to support technical writers in their efforts to create well-written English documents. Nevertheless, we recommend proofreading by a native speaker, wherever that is possible. We do not see our guideline as a substitute for a native speaker proofreading the texts, but rather as a supplement.

In this article, we will show how the new guideline relates to previous approaches, outline our workflow, describe the guideline, and point to further steps.

Related guidelines

As mentioned above, we based our work on the tekom guideline for German technical writing (2). The basic ideas and structures of our guideline follow those of the German guideline. But it soon became clear that it is not possible to simply translate the German guideline, since both the English (technical) language and writing in a foreign language pose specific challenges.

Guidelines for English technical writing such as Kohl’s (2008) are focusing on native English speakers.  Analyses of texts created by non-native writers of English have shown that different mistakes are made by speakers of different native languages. The reason for this are the linguistic differences between the languages. For example, the Japanese language does not differentiate between the “l” and “r” sounds. The mix-up of these two letters was a common error found when analyzing English spelling mistakes made by native Japanese speakers, as Mitton and Okada (2007) state (3). A further example shows that non-native European writers of English have a high tendency to mix the US and UK variants, because both are equally present in English texts that can be accessed in Europe every day.

Similar to Kohl’s and tekom’s German guideline, our guideline focuses on technical writing and is composed in such a way that it can be implemented in authoring tools.

Workflow

Our work started by forming a carefully chosen team. All members of the group were native speakers of either German or English, and they all spoke both German and English. Thus we ensured that native English language abilities were available as well as experience with non-native English writing. In addition, group members with practical experience in technical writing saw to the practical relevance of the guidelines while members with a background in authoring support software tools contributed valuable information about the implementation potential of the rules, and members from industry and universities added practical and scientific aspects.

Before starting to set up rules, we conducted a survey on non-native English writing. The results showed that guidelines for non-native English writing are urgently needed. About half of the participants in the survey responded that they write English documents on a daily basis, a quarter of them at least once a month. Most participants had English language classes only at school. In most cases, English texts written by native German speakers were not proofread – neither by native English colleagues nor by authoring support tools. Instead of guidelines native German speakers generally used dictionaries when writing technical documents in English.

The next phase of our work was to collect rules. We set up an XML sheet for rule collection in order to guarantee consistency of the structure and information. We collected 126 rules for non-native English writing. Using XSLT, we compiled our guideline document from these rule files.

Description of the guideline

The guideline contains rules that support German-speaking authors when writing English technical documents. As in the German guideline, the linguistic levels are text, sentences, and words. Some rules are based on the German rules and thus contain a reference to the German guideline.

However, the guideline includes a special focus on English texts written by German-speaking authors. Therefore, the instructions take into account particular problems of the target group, and rules specifically focused on the target group are set up as well.

Rules concerning sentences include rules to avoid ambiguous constructions, incomplete constructions, complex structures, stylistic rules, rules for word order and sequence of sentence elements, punctuation rules as well as rules for the usage of tense forms. Some of these rules have a clear reference to the German guideline (e.g. rules to avoid ambiguous constructions) while other rules are specific to the English language (e.g. rules for the usage of tense forms).

Text rules apply to headings, index entries, cross-references, glossaries and advance organizer. Rules for capitalization in headings, index and glossary entries are specific for the English language. The scope of the text rules is defined by the type of information.

Word rules are rules for the formation of single words or phrases. These include rules regarding articles, prepositions, relative pronouns, spelling names, countability, the use of abbreviations as well as distinct English language issues that are difficult for native German speakers. Most of the rules specifically designed for writing English-language documents are word rules.

All rules are illustrated with examples of incorrect phrasing and ways to rephrase them. These examples are intended to illustrate both the possible scope of the rule as well as how to avoid the error.

In addition, all rules indicate the potential for automatic support. The respective note shows if the language-checking software is able to include this rule automatically. The status information provides the following information:

  • Available: Rule is available by default in the standard test tools.
  • Possible: Rule is in principle suitable for machine verifiability, but not stored in standard test tools by default.
  • Not suitable: Given the current state of technology, the rule cannot be tested automatically.

Next steps

The guideline “English for German-Speaking Authors” will be presented at the tekom Annual Conference in November 2013 in Wiesbaden. This guideline provides fundamental support for German-speaking authors who create English technical documents and thus will be a very useful tool for the day-to-day work. In addition, authoring tool providers will have a basis to implement automatic support software.

Based on this work, it will be possible to write similar guidelines for authors of other native languages. For this it will be necessary to consider the specific differences between these native languages and English, just as we did with the guideline for German authors.

References

(1) Kohl, J. R. (2008): The global English style guide: writing clear, translatable documentation for a global market. SAS institute.

(2) tekom (Ed.) (2011): Leitlinie. Regelbasiertes Schreiben. Deutsch für die Technische Kommunikation. Stuttgart.

(3) Mitton, Roger and Okada, Takeshi (2007): “The adaptation of an English spellchecker for Japanese writers”. Presented at: Symposium on Second Language Writing, 15-17 Sept 2007, Nagoya, Japan.