Your first language always comes first
When we write in a language that’s not our first, we inevitably make mistakes – this is something we all know and just have to accept. So Finns are no exception when it comes to writing in English. Some English words are very similar and are easily confused. Some English conventions and constructions simply don’t exist in Finnish. Although most writers of a language that is not their mother tongue know that direct translation seldom works, first language interference nearly always seeps through at some point. It’s more or less unavoidable, even for the most experienced of writers.
I’ve been editing/revising English texts written by Finns for almost 20 years now, before which I taught English to Finns for 10 years. Over the years I’ve come to see a definite pattern in the edits I make. Some things come up so often and have become so familiar to me, that I admit I have to pull my native English-speaker hat firmly onto my head when I work so as to remain alert to them!
So, I’ve tried to gather a few of the main issues into this blog post in the hope that it may help you become more aware of them. Some you may know; some may come as a surprise – but I hope that this post gives each reader something to take away and remember! I intend to blog more about this topic in the future and give you further concrete pointers as I come across these issues in my work.
1. Words often confused
Every language has these. Below are a few examples that I constantly change in the English texts written by Finns that I edit.
a. According to vs in accordance with
The first, according to, is used when referring to any general source of information: a person, opinions on a social media platform, a newspaper, or a book. Think of it as “as stated by/in”:
According to Helsingin Sanomat, the elections will take place in May.
According to President Niinistö, Finland is….
The second, in accordance with, is used when referring to more concrete, official sources of information: authorities, rules, procedures, or laws, etc.
In accordance with the Occupational Health Act, all employers must provide their employees with preventive health services.
In accordance with the rules, no one is to leave until they have finished.
–According to Sanna Marin…
–I’m doing this in accordance with the rules ,….
– I’m doing this according to the rules, …
– In accordance with Sanna Marin, …
b. Affect vs effect
This is one that even first-language English speakers sometimes get wrong! Easily done, but also easily corrected. The difference is actually quite simple to understand, it’s remembering it that causes difficulties.
The first, affect, is a verb and means to have an effect on.
The second, effect, is a noun.
A good way to remember the difference is that affect is an action word (a verb), and effect is the end result.
–X has a significant affect on Y
–X has a significant effect on Y or X significantly affects Y
c. It’s vs its
This one causes me grey hairs! Not so much when Finnish speakers confuse the two, but when English-speakers themselves confuse them! And this happens a lot… especially on social media, where grammar seems to be a completely abandoned concept!
I can see why its and it’s get mixed up. We’ve been taught that the possessive is apostrophe + s. As in:
Angela’s car was speeding down the road. i.e., Angela owns the car.
I love Finland. It’s forests and lakes are amazing.
Yes? No!! I’m afraid English is often anything but logical. The correct version of this would be:
Its forests and lakes are beautiful.
The possessive form for it = its. It doesn’t take an apostrophe to show ownership like other nouns. Sorry!!!
It + apostrophe + s (it’s) = it is.
The apostrophe here is doing its other job, standing in for a missing letter, i.e., the i in the verb is.
It’s is a contraction.
It’s (it is) a beautiful day.
–We studied it’s effect on X.
–We studied its effect on X.
2. The position of ‘also’
This is quite a simple one. ‘Also’ is an adverb and comes between the subject and the main verb:
I like tea but I also like coffee
If the sentence has an auxiliary verb, ‘also’ comes between that and the main verb.
I’ve also studied chemistry.
In the case of the verb ‘to be’, it is a bit different. ‘Also’ comes after it.
She is also a very good public speaker.
3. Certain conventions
English writing has certain conventions and I’ve come to realize that Finns are often unaware of them.
Below are two that I often correct:
*59 doctors responded to the questionnaire.
- Sentences should not begin with a numeral. Here are some examples of how to get around this:
- Write out the numbers in words
Fifty-nine doctors responded to the questionnaire.
- Change the word order
Of the doctors, 59 responded to the questionnaire.
- Add an introductory phrase
A total of 59 doctors responded to the questionnaire.
*Most of the participants did not smoke: 60 % were non-smokers.
2. There is no space after the percentage sign in English (although some rare style guides may require one). So,
Most of the participants did not smoke, 60% were non-smokers.
This is what I often see. I assume that the writer is thinking in Finnish.
The older patients were hospitalized more often compared to the younger patients.
However, this is expressed more simply in English:
The older patients were hospitalized more often than the younger patients.
i.e. X is bigger, smaller (etc.) THAN Y.
Saying the same thing in too many ways
The final typical error I’d like to highlight here is the use of such as, including, for example, and etc.
You only need one of these in the same sentence, as they all basically mean the same thing!
–The course included grammar, writing and speaking practice, for example.
-We asked the participants about, for example, their eating, drinking and smoking habits, etc.
–The course included grammar, writing and speaking practice
-We asked the participants about, for example their eating, drinking and smoking habits
-We asked the participants about their eating, drinking and smoking habits, etc.
In the worst case, I’ve seen all three, that is, including, for example, and etc. used in the same sentence!
How can you avoid the above “typical” mistakes?
After reading this blog post, you can teach yourself to become more aware of these issues. You can also make a mental note when you see examples of these issues in the English texts that you read – or if you’re feeling really industrious, take an English text and underline all the examples you can find where they’re used correctly. Another option is to go through your own texts written in English and see if you can find instances of them.
Here to help
As I’m bilingual, I’m often able to understand where the issues above come from and know what the Finnish-speaking writer actually means to say. Many times in my work, when I come across something in the writer’s text that doesn’t sound quite right, I translate it into Finnish in my head and then rethink it, asking myself how I would say this in English.
You can take comfort in the fact that, as my Finnish is grammatically weaker than my English, I often make similar mistakes in Finnish. And oh, how my young daughters have loved to correct me!
The intention of this post is not to make you despair! It’s to draw your attention to things that can be easily fixed, and to help you become more aware of them. In the meantime, my job as a language editor is to pick up on them in your writing, and to show you how to correct them. And I promise to be kinder to you than my children have been to me!
List of sources
Altexta offers language editing services and translations from Finnish into English. I am a native English-speaker, brought up in Wales by a Finnish mother and Irish father. Thanks to mother’s determination, I’m fluent in Finnish. I’ve now lived in Finland for twenty-eight years and have been editing and translating for seventeen. My areas of specialization are work life-related topics, occupational health and occupational safety.
I love my job!
In my blog, I hope to give multilingual writers of English tips for writing good English, based on the problem areas I most often come across in my language editing work.
Altexta tarjoaa kielentarkistus- ja käännöspalveluita. Olen syntyperäinen britti, kasvanut Walesissa, mutta viettänyt lapsuuteni kesät Suomessa, mummolassa. Äitini on suomalainen, isäni irlantilainen. Kiitos äitini sinnikkyyden, olen kaksikielinen. Olen asunut Suomessa 28 vuotta, ja työskennellyt kielentarkistajana ja kääntäjänä 17 vuotta. Erikoisalani ovat työelämään liittyvät tekijät, työterveys ja työturvallisuus.
Blogissani annan suomalaisille neuvoja hyvän englanninkielisen tekstin kirjoittamiseen, käyttäen esimerkkeinä ongelmakohtia, joita eniten kohtaan kielenhuoltotyössäni.