John R Kohl, “Improving Translatability and Readability with Syntactic Cues,” Technical Communication 46, no. 2 (May 1999): 149–166.
The information John Kohl provides in this article can be applied to more than just translation, as it also benefits individual technical writers who write to create clear, unambiguous (and better translatable) documents.
Even though the focus of the article is on translation, or documentation being read by users whose first language is not English, this article also offers many useful examples and for reference, an appendix with a procedure for using syntactic cues in your writing.
The syntactic cues approach
This writing method (syntactic cues approach)improves the readability of technical documents for second language as well as native readers of English and can be used in conjunction with standardized processes or individual technical writers.
Similar to the Functional Design method, “the syntactic cues approach focuses on individual sentences, clauses, and phrases.” Of course, there are other general guidelines that can be followed to improve readability at the sentence, clause, and phrase level along with syntactic cues:
…such as using short sentences, using passive voice only when appropriate, keeping subjects and verbs close together, and avoiding long noun strings and nominalizations.
What are syntactic cues?
Syntactic cues are grammatical “hints” based on syntax (patterns or rules of a sentence) that help a reader understand written text. Native English readers take for granted many elements of sentence structure that do not come naturally to second language readers (or poor native readers)—the result is decreased readability, which can mean less comprehension or longer times to reach an adequate comprehension level.
John Kohl offers 10 examples of syntactic that can be optional depending on the context of the sentence. A few of these are that, the articles a, an, and the, and modal verbs such as can, should, and may. As technical writers, it is important that we know what these sentence elements are and how they function, and added to our writer’s toolkit we can employ them to help readers navigate discourse more quickly and will better comprehension. And as John Kohl states throughout this article, doing so will also benefit translation of our text, be it by human non-native English speakers or by machine-translation systems.
Example of syntactic cue use
The syntactic cue that (relative pronoun) plus the auxiliary verb to be is often needed to decrease ambiguity or creating potentially ambiguous sentences because, as John Kohl states, using these cues makes sentence elements more “explicit” to readers.
The syntactic cue in the sentence above is that are and it is important to include it in the sentence. Without it, the left behind participles “such as running in the above example, can play so many different grammatical roles that they are inherently confusing to non-native speakers” (Kohl, 151).
Another tool for better writing
Even if your focus as a technical writer isn’t to write specifically for translation, it is important to keep in mind how translatable your content is. John Kohl’s research, suggestions, and examples from this article are an excellent reminder that writers to be aware of the syntactic elements of sentences to not only aid translations, but also to add another tool that allows us to increase the first-time readability of our documentation to native, non-native, and even poor-native readers.
What John Kohl is recommending, is that technical writers need to analyze a sentence and decide whether adding or removing a syntactic cue is necessary to be correct, avoid ambiguity, or both.
This article also includes a procedure for determining when to use syntactic cues, complete with numerous examples and explanations about why and when to use or omit them. For example, a common argument for not including them is increased word count and what John Kohl calls “Overcoming concerns about conciseness and word counts” and he recognizes that this approach oftentimes “contradicts the training of many editors and writers” when striving for brevity, look to omit every ‘needless’ word and phrase. Ultimately, creating sentences that lack ambiguity for readers is the primary goal.
John Kohl is the author of The Global English Style Guide: Writing Clear, Translatable Documentation for a Global Market.