Confessions of a journal editor: which English to use?

There’s a collegial obligation to recognise that although we’re writing and speaking in English, it’s not the same language for everyone, says Richard Kerley

August 5, 2018

It is generally acknowledged that the key to international academic recognition and success is to write in English and to publish in some form of English-language vehicle. However, for those of us who are first-language English speakers, that should pose some major questions about what we all understand by the English language and how others use it.

I have worked with colleagues educated in the UK, and also with colleagues who have acquired English as a second, or even third, language. Some people from both groups have bridled – indeed wanted to penalise – student assignments that, although well written, use words spelled as: “center”, “labor” and “decentralize”. These are, of course, words spelled in a way embedded in the thinking of any North American or anyone who has learned a form of American English as their second language.

Both spelling and word usage can be very problematic when grading term papers (see what I have done there) and for examining theses. They are perhaps even more problematic for reviewing and editing academic work intended for publication: work that will eventually end up in the public domain, attributed to a named author or authors.

Clearly, different publishers have their own preferred house style, not just of format and referencing but also in variations of spelling and usage. I’m on the editorial board of journals that are domiciled in the UK, and on the board of others in the US with different language protocols; I also referee for other journals of different provenance.

Recently, I and two colleagues, Joyce Liddle of Northumbria University and Pam Dunning of Troy University in Alabama, edited the Routledge Handbook of International Local Government, and the process forced us to think a lot about the different usage of the English language and how this can be accommodated with international contributors.

What this editing exercise has highlighted is the degree to which people writing in English as their second language may find challenging the work of different authors also working in their second language but from an entirely different primary-language and language learning background.

Our edited book has contributions from about 70 authors from 27 different countries, and between them they have about 20 different primary languages. These figures are approximate, because my evidence is partially circumstantial. I do not know the first, birth language of authors from various Pacific islands, from Brazil or from different countries in the Caribbean, for example.

Those authors do, however, all now write in English, and all submitted chapters that were perfectly and completely comprehensible to us as first-language English readers. What was not clear was whether their use of the language would be equally accessible to fellow authors and other readers of the book who might come from different primary-language backgrounds.

As in any such exercise, there are the usual minor possible misunderstandings that flow from the use of different colloquial expressions. I suggested to one contributor who was seeking fellow authors that we would temporarily label a chapter as jointly authored with “an other” – my use of the term, commonplace to many in the UK, clearly confused him.

Another author described local councils in one country as being “ordered” by regional governments to carry out some specific functions; after our exchanges, we settled on those councils being “required” to carry out some duties. And in another draft chapter, authors used the adjective “scanty” to describe public service provision in one country; I suggested an alternative but did not point out that the term was a little archaic, and decades ago was used to describe clothing (usually women’s) in tabloid newspapers.

More seriously, we felt it helpful to point out to colleagues how they could strengthen and improve their draft chapters by changing some words, perhaps to clarify or to add nuance to their contribution. What we sensed from reviewing drafts and commenting on the academic substance was a recognition that as first-language users with domain knowledge, we were in strong positions to understand what a particular, slightly inappropriate, word selection or clunky sentence intended and to suggest alternatives through a form of internal thesaurus. That fallback is perhaps not immediately available to second-language readers and writers.

I suspect – and occasionally observe – that as first-language English writers (and in many cases monoglot at that), we do not pay as much attention as we could to the subtle usage of language. But we should see it as a collegial obligation to do so.

Richard Kerley is professor of management at Queen Margaret University in Edinburgh.

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