Writing in English for an international readership

BMJ 1997; 314 doi: https://doi.org/10.1136/bmj.314.7082.753 (Published 08 March 1997) Cite this as: BMJ 1997;314:753

Our language reflects our diversity

  1. Tim Hall, Haematology registrara
  1. a Fremantle Hospital, Fremantle, Western Australia 6009
  2. b 70a Norwood Road, Southall, Middlesex UB2 4EY
  3. c 8 Peto Place, London NW1 4DT
  4. d Carreg Wen Surgery, Blaenavon, Gwent NP4 9AE
  5. e South and West Devon Health Authority, Dartington TQ9 6JE
  6. f TAA Training, Leatherhead KT22 9AU
  7. g St Thomas's Hospital, London SE1 7EH

    Editor—I agree with John Kirkman that the English language may present difficulties for readers whose first language is not English, but I disagree with his solutions.1 His suggestion that we should “confine” our writing to “the normal range” of words expected of overseas readers is naive and patronising. Certainly we should endeavour not to complicate the structure of sentences but to strive for clarity. We should avoid informal expressions but not relinquish metaphors or allegorical imagery, which even in scientific literature are germane. To “avoid words that readers with a limited command of English are unlikely to have met before,” however, is to put a dark spell on the fate of our language.

    Words make it possible to communicate with other people. They are the currency of information and education. More importantly, we think with words. Indeed, words and thoughts are so intimately entwined that a deficiency in one invariably affects the other. The more words we know the more clearly and powerfully we think and the more ideas we can evoke. The power of words is overwhelming. It is often said that when words fail, wars begin.

    Cognitive therapy expounds the theory that our thoughts determine our feelings and thus our behaviour. If we are to restrict our words then we must restrict our thoughts, our outlooks, and ultimately ourselves. It is a process of deintellectualisation. In other words, if we were to restrict ourselves in order to help those with a limited command of English we would surely flounder. “Shouldn't we try to help those readers?” Kirkman asks. Unequivocally, we should promote international readership by dedicating ourselves to the delivery …

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