Monday, July 06, 2009

Editorial Tip of the Week: Foreign Languages

Do you ever eat broccoli from a cup?
Wash down waffles or cookies with booze?
Have you witnessed zombies doing yoga or ballet in pajamas?
Perhaps you've seen a skipper on her yacht, playing jazz on the banjo.

The English language is a veritable smorgasbord. Each sentence above is composed of words that were borrowed--from France, India, Italy, the Netherlands, Spain, West Africa--and assimilated into modern, common English usage. These words are so familiar, it's difficult to imagine that at one time, they were new and unnatural to the English speaker's tongue. Today, the catch-all, vocabulary-magnet nature of English increases its own currency as a global language. However, despite its vast and often overwhelming nature (there's an adjective for every nuance) writers still find it necessary to incorporate foreign, non-naturalized text, whether for stylistic purposes or practically, as a reference. As outlined in The Chicago Manual of Style, here are some guidelines for foreign word usage:

If the foreign word or phrase is unfamiliar, place it in italics; otherwise, it is not italicized. {In Senegal, small children wear gris-gris to ward off evil.} After the first use, occurrences may appear in roman type.To determine whether a word is familiar or not, writers and editors should consider the intended audience and double-check with a dictionary (Chicago and the Copyeditor's Handbook recommend Webster's Collegiate).

To provide a translation of a word, phrase or title, use parentheses or quotation marks. {The Wolof proverb Waxtaan nam la, ku ko teewe ca nga or "Conversation is like a meal; those who are present, partake," reflects how Senegalese practice teranga: being prepared always to share a meal, or a conversation.} Alternatively, longer phrases may be placed in quotation marks and roman type.

Strunk and White forcefully advise writers to "Avoid Foreign Languages" (style tip #20), citing an all-too often frivolous or pretentious voice and the reader's potential unease. And yet, certainly, in the right context, foreign expressions have seasoned some great pieces of writing. How far would you go for le mot juste?

To learn more, visit; of particular interest is the entry from the King's English wherein H.W. Fowler has some strong opinions on the employment of foreign words. For a list of commonly used foreign words and phrases, see this website.

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