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By Rachel McAlpine

-- This article has been reproduced with the author's permission from --

Make your documents easy for EFL users to read and understand, and communicate successfully with people all over the world.

More than one billion people use English as a foreign language (EFL). You can avoid most pitfalls of cross-cultural communication by using global English.


Long sentences

Short sentences give international readers confidence and minimise the risk of cross-cultural misunderstandings. Long sentences tend to:

  • be difficult to translate accurately
  • have complex structures that confuse international readers
  • obscure the main point
  • cause grammar mistakes
  • create anxiety in people who don't read English fluently.

Limit the length of sentences to 20 words in international business documents. For advertisements, direct marketing documents and instruction manuals, I recommend sentences of 16 words maximum. (In academic articles, some sentences can be longer.)

International readers may read slowly, one word at a time. Therefore their short-term memory is strained by long sentences. (By contrast, native English speakers usually read in phrases.)

EXAMPLE (27 words)

The Fixed Securities Fund portfolio has reduced the term of its investments to match the average length to maturity of the government bond market as a whole.

BETTER VERSION (2 sentences, 12 and 15 words)

The Fixed Securities Fund portfolio has reduced the term of its investments. The term now matches the average length to maturity of the whole government bond market.

False subjects

Sentences starting with phrases like 'It is' and 'There are' can confuse international readers, especially if the sentence is long. In these cases, the words 'it' and 'there' usually have no meaning. They are called false subjects. Try to start every sentence with a word or phrase that means something.

If you occasionally use a false subject, make that sentence very short.


1. It is extraordinary how warm the weather is for July.
2. It has been observed that a certain ambivalence prevails.
3. It will be in the Town Hall that Pavarotti sings next Tuesday.


1. The weather is extraordinarily warm for July.
2. We have noticed that most people are ambivalent.
3. Pavarotti will sing in the Town Hall next Tuesday.


Miniwords are short, common words of one, two or three letters.

Miniwords are essential to English. But if a sentence is mostly miniwords, the sentence may confuse people who are learning English.

Examples of miniwords: get, go. lot, by, for, it, he. the, a, of.

Some miniwords have many meanings, so they are hard to decipher from a dictionary. Other miniwords have no meaning, or have no grammatical equivalent in other languages.

Miniwords cluster in certain expressions that confuse international readers:

  • wordy cliches (eg in terms of, for the purpose of, in a position to)
  • colloquial expressions (eg come off it, it's a pig in a poke)
  • phrasal verbs (eg let on, put off, go on about)
  1. In relation to the selection of a firm of consultants, we are at liberty to make a choice.
    (12 miniwords in a 19-word sentence. Too wordy.)
  2. At the end of the day, it's up to the Chief Executive.
    (10 miniwords in a 12-word sentence. Too colloquial.)

1. The Marketing Team is authorised to select a consultancy firm.
2. Ultimately, the Chief Executive will make the decision.


Negative questions

Negative questions are often impossible to translate, and are notoriously difficult for international readers. In many languages, people answer 'yes' where the appropriate English answer would be 'no'. Even one negative word in a question can destroy communication.

When you ask a question, keep it very simple. Make sure you ask only one question at a time.


1. You don't have the courage to acknowledge that your allegations have no factual basis whatsoever, do you?
2. I am a New Zealand citizen but I have not been in New Zealand at all during the last three years. Yes / No


1. Do you admit that you made false allegations?
2. Are you a New Zealand citizen? Yes / No
3. Have you stayed out of New Zealand for the last three years? Yes / No

Double negatives

Double negatives are doubly difficult for international readers. In English, two negatives make a positive. In some other languages, two negatives emphasise the negative. Thus an international reader may assume that 'not unusual' means 'very unusual'.


The 1995/96 turnover is not displeasing. (International readers may assume this means it is very displeasing.)


The 1995/96 turnover is pleasing.

Negative words

By negative words I mean:

  1. obviously negative words (e.g. not, nobody, unprepared)
  2. words with negative implications (eg only, unless, without, except, excluding, despite, default, delete, cancel, remove, notwithstanding)
  3. words that have a negative feeling (eg cancel, reject)

Negative language is hard to translate and often causes grammatical errors. Negative language is confusing, because it is hard to think about non-existent things.

Negative language has psychological effects that can be damaging in an international context. Some cultures regard negative language as insulting, embarrassing or shameful.

If you must use a negative word, keep that sentence extremely short.


1. The shipment will not arrive until late January.
2. Hate saving time and money? Don't click here.


1. The shipment will arrive in late January.
2. Want to save time and money? Click here.


Phrasal verbs

Phrasal verbs consist of at least two words — usually a verb plus an adverb or a preposition. Phrasal verbs are notoriously difficult for EFL users.

Examples of phrasal verbs: put up with, get into, keep up. There are at least 3000 English phrasal verbs.

Minimise the number of phrasal verbs in international documents. Most phrasal verbs can be replaced by a simple one-word verb.


1. We are looking at all possibilities.
2. I suggest we wrap up the project by July.


1. We are considering all possibilities.
2. I suggest we complete the project by July.

Helping verbs

Helping verbs (modal auxiliary verbs) suggest the mood of a verb: is this something that may happen, might happen, should happen, can happen, could happen, must happen or will happen?

Helping verbs are used very casually by native English speakers. Each helping verb has several possible meanings.

Check all sentences where you have used a helping verb. Is your mood absolutely clear? If not, I suggest you rephrase the sentence.

  1. The goods should arrive on Tuesday.
  2. They could do the following.
  3. Can you open a window please?
  4. Could you open a window please?
  5. Would you please open a window?
  1. We expect the goods to arrive on Tuesday.
       OR The goods must arrive on Tuesday.
       OR Please ensure that the goods arrive on Tuesday.
  2. We believe they will do the following.
       OR They are legally entitled to do the following.
       OR They have several options...
  3. & 4 & 5. Please open a window.


Abstract nouns refer to things that do not have a physical form - examples: peace, tension, communication. English sentences with more than two or three abstract nouns can confuse international readers. If you must use abstract nouns, make sure your sentence is very short.

Titles often contain abstract nouns - for example, Ministry of Research, Science and Technology. Fortunately, titles are unlikely to confuse international readers.

EXAMPLES (abstract nouns in bold)
  1. The identification of community problems and the generation of solutions are required. (At least four abstract nouns.)

  2. The privatisation of government departments and agencies, and the devolution of functions to private organisations have caused confusion among people in the workforce. (At least five abstract nouns)
  1. The community must identify the problems and find solutions. (3 abstract nouns.)

  2. Government departments and agencies have been privatised, and their functions have been transferred to private organisations. These changes have confused people in the workforce. (2 sentences. 3 abstract nouns.)


Use literal language: say exactly what you mean. Either avoid idioms or explain them, because EFL users often interpret them literally.

Idioms are common phrases, often metaphorical, that have no obvious logic. We say these things just because we say them. They mystify and confuse EFL users.

The scale of the problem is massive, because everyday English is saturated with idioms:

  • > 'the tip of the iceberg'
  • 'just around the corner'
  • 'right across the spectrum'

    1. Our client has been done justice to by the book.
    2. Now we're cooking with gas.
    3. At the end of the day, rugby was the winner.

    1. Our client was treated with impeccable fairness.
    2. Now we're advancing rapidly.
    3. Ultimately, the game raised the reputation of rugby.


    Ambiguous Pronouns

    The following pronouns can sometimes confuse international readers:
    it, he, him, his, she, her, hers, they, them, their, theirs, this, these, that, those

    Whenever you use one of these pronouns, check that your meaning is obvious. (Many languages do not use pronouns, or use different pronouns.)


    Although property loss figures may tend to make the recent earthquake appear to be a relatively minor event economically speaking, other data suggest that its impact in the medium term might be significant. (People who are learning English as a foreign language may not know what 'it' refers to.)


    Property loss figures suggest the recent earthquake will have relatively minor economic effects. However, other data suggest that the earthquake's economic impact will be significant over the next five to ten years.


    The word 'which' can confuse international readers.

    1. International readers may not know what the word 'which' refers to.
    2. Sentences containing 'which' are often ambiguous.
    3. A comma can change the meaning of a sentence containing 'which'.
    4. Some complex and contradictory grammar rules apply to 'which'. Many people using English as a foreign language are very good at English grammar. So if you accidentally break the grammar rules, you may confuse international readers.

    When you use 'which' in a sentence, check carefully. Is the meaning obvious? Is there too much information in the sentence? Cutting the sentence in two will often improve clarity. Sometimes this means repeating certain words. That's OK: repeating key words is helpful to international readers.

    1. The quarantine zone, which was imposed on 22 May by the Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries, will be lifted next Friday.
    2. The Minister released details of the new tax, significantly higher than last year's tariff, which upset importers and bankers alike.
    1. The quarantine zone was imposed on 22 May by the Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries. Next Friday the quarantine zone will be lifted.
    2. The Minister released details of the new tax. The new tax is considerably higher than last year's tariff. The increase has upset importers and bankers alike.

    Other Ambiguous Words

    Many English words have multiple meanings. Some words are used differently in Britain and the USA. Some English words are similar to words in another language, but have a totally different meaning. (The Cambridge International Dictionary of English lists these words as 'False Friends'.)

    Whenever you discover ambiguous words or phrases in your own field, add them to your personal or company style guide.

    Use 'because' whenever you mean 'because'. 'While', 'since', 'as' and 'whilst' all have several different meanings.


    While manufacturing changed from a one-shift to a two-shift operation, the top management decided to borrow the money to build a new factory. ('While' could mean 'at the same time' or 'although'.)


    Manufacturing changed from a one-shift to a two-shift operation. At the same time, the top management decided to borrow the money to build a new factory.


    Long paragraphs can be intimidating to people who have little experience of reading English. Make it easy for your readers by using short paragraphs. Vary the length of your paragraphs, but don't write any paragraph longer than ten lines.

    The following strategies also make your text more legible:

    • Leave a complete line between paragraphs. (This makes a clearer break than indenting.)
    • Have generous margins of at least 3 cm, both sides and top and bottom. These counteract variations in paper size with international faxes.
    • Use frequent headings. They act as signposts, and are extremely helpful to EFL readers.
    • Use bullet points occasionally to give visual relief.
    • Use a traditional, simple design, left aligned. Fully justified text is not recommended: it changes the shape of words, and reduces white space.


    Fonts and design for print documents

    Reading English text can be difficult for people whose own language does not use the Roman alphabet. The following strategies will help EFL readers to decipher your text on paper.

    • Use a standard font size for print (e.g. at least 12 pt).
    • Aim for an average of 10-13 words per line in print. 12 words per line is perfect. Text with about 10-13 words per line is generally comfortable to read, because lines are about that long in books.
    • Make sure the space between lines is at least 120% of the height of the words.
    • Leave generous space above headings, for example two blank lines.
    • Break up continuous text with headings, tables, blank lines or short lists of bullet points.

    Fancy Fonts

    For some international readers, any English font is a challenge. (Perhaps they learned to read in Cyrillic script or Chinese characters.) For printed documents, help your international readers by using a font similar to those in conventional English books and magazines: for example Times, Times New Roman, Garamond or Palatino.

    If the document will be read on-screen (e.g. Web pages and intranet documents) use Verdana, Trebuchet MS, or Georgia, which are fonts designed expressly for on-screen reading.

    Avoid the Narrow versions of conventional fonts: these are difficult to read.

    Use a maximum of two fonts per document.


    Keep format simple and conventional. Avoid printed watermarks, or any other device that distracts from the text. Separate graphics from text with white space. (Ingenious graphic design is confusing when the reader is not very familiar with English print.)

    Capital letters, underlining and italics

    Words in these styles are difficult to read, and especially difficult for people learning English as a foreign language. Underlining, caps and italics distort the reader's mental picture of a word. Words in capitals lose their up or down strokes, and every letter is the same height. Underlining cuts through the downstrokes of g, j, p, q and y. Italics generally slow down reading by 40%, and are totally unreadable on many screens.

    For international documents, emphasise words by using bold and larger font sizes.

    Long series of bullet points

    Bullet points are often helpful to international readers. However, if you use more than five or six consecutive bullet points, your document may lose its focus and structure. EFL readers may miss the point of the list.

    To list more than six short items, try breaking the list into subgroups. Interrupt the bullet points with more headings or prose. Numbering items is an excellent alternative.


    Ambiguous dates

    You can avoid all confusion by writing the month in full.

    Consider this date: 3 February 2004.

    People in the United States write month, day, year. (2/3/04)
    Others write day, month, year. (3/2/04)
    Others write year, month, day. (04/2/3)
    Others use a completely different calendar.

    International readers cannot guess whether the dates as written above mean 2 March 2004 or 3 February 2004.

    Therefore always write the month in full: 3 February 2004.

    Phone numbers

    In international documents, always write complete phone and fax numbers. Include the international code and the area code.


    Telephone +64 4 189 7016
    OR (64 4) 189 7016


    It's easy to make mistakes with international addresses. I strongly advise that you copy names and addresses exactly from your correspondent's letterhead. Copy the punctuation too.

    When you get a letter from abroad, don't trash the envelope immediately — the writer's address may be on the envelope alone.

    Use the correct title and position of the person you are writing to. In Asia this is especially significant, and errors can be insulting.

    Some automated sorting systems reject addresses containing full stops and commas. Others reject addresses without a zip code.


    Dr Georg Arunssonn
    Communications Manager
    Lee Schroflakcz and McFling Ltd
    PO Box 10 537
    Wellington 6005
    New Zealand

    In international documents, specify the currency when you write sums of money. At least 24 different countries have their own dollar. Many different countries have their own dinar, franc, peso, rial or pound. Example: write US$100.00 or AUD100 - not $100.00.

    Be consistent in the way you write numbers. When writing large numbers, use a space or a comma to mark off thousands (1 000 000 or 1,000,000).

    There are no absolute international guidelines for the writing of numbers. Be aware of local conventions. For example, German people may use a comma to signify a decimal point; some countries count in ten thousands, not in thousands.

    McAlpine EFLAW Readability Score

    The McAlpine EFLAW Readability Score is based on two significant flaws: long sentences and a high proportion of miniwords. Both these flaws bamboozle EFL readers.

    • Long sentences are obviously confusing for people who are learning English as a foreign language
    • Miniwords are confusing because they have many meanings and are often a sign of wordiness or idioms.

    The lower the score, the fewer the flaws. Aim for a score of 25 or lower.

    Why the name EFLAW?

    EFL = English as a Foreign Language
    FLAW = imperfection, blemish; invalidating defect in documents etc.

    EFLAW Score effect on international readers

    1-20 very easy to understand
    21-25 quite easy to understand
    26-29 a little difficult
    30+ very confusing

    Calculate the EFLAW Score of a paragraph or document

    1. Count the words
    2. Count the miniwords
    3. Add the two (result = A)
    4. Count the sentences (result = B)
    5. Divide (A) by (B)
    6. The result is the EFLAW(tm) Score

    How to lower the EFLAW score of your document

    1. shorten all sentences to 20 words maximum
    2. reduce the number of miniwords.

    Take these two steps early, because they often automatically eliminate many other problems.

    (c) Rachel McAlpine 2004, updated 2006.

    For the full story, read "Global English for Global Business" by Rachel McAlpine (2005). Wellington: CC Press. ISBN 0-476-01386-0.

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