Intended for healthcare professionals

Education And Debate

Confine yourself to forms of English that are easily understood

BMJ 1996; 313 doi: (Published 23 November 1996) Cite this as: BMJ 1996;313:1321
  1. John Kirkman, consultant in presentation of scientific and technical communication
  1. a Communication Consultancy, Witcha Cottage, Ramsbury, Marlborough, Wiltshire SN8 2HQ

    Most contributors to medical journals published in English ignore the difficulties their texts present to readers for whom English is a foreign language. For example, here is an extract from a British journal, discussing how a new health minister in Australia is dealing with long waiting lists:

    “His ministerial innings has begun in dour Geoffrey Boycott style, with orders from his captain Premier Bob Carr to defend one wicket at all costs.”

    To readers who play cricket, that passage conveys information and atmosphere. What, I wonder, does it convey to most readers in Italy or Russia, or even in the USA?

    To make English-language medical journals readable by as many overseas readers as possible, we must remove allusions that are not essential to the medical discussion and write in forms of English that are easy for those readers to understand. That does not mean that we must distort the scientific content, remove necessary medical terms, or adopt nursery school vocabulary, structures, and tone. It does mean that we must confine ourselves to forms of English that are likely to be in the normal range learned by readers overseas.

    Informal expressions

    For example, we must avoid informal expressions such as:

    “While the government's initiative represents a welcome foot in this particular door ….”

    “In a similar vein, the use of …

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