Mother-tongue interference. How to avoid Danglishness

Danes are generally good at English


Danes are generally good at speaking English, but writing academic English is not easy. This text discusses some of the recurrent stumbling blocks to writing scientific texts that non-native English speakers in general and Danish writers in particular are facing; stumbling blocks that often make Danish writers’ papers appear somewhat un-English, or Danglish, in tone and style because what is good writing in Danish is copied unwittingly into English.

There are important differences between Danish and English

However, when communicating the results of your research, the comparatively solid background in everyday spoken English is rarely sufficient. Nor is the often used approach of using second-language vocabulary in sentences built accoring to the principles of one’s mother tongue necessarily productive. Although Danish and English are relatively close, there are important differences. These differences are seen both at the level of words and sentences.

In this text, which is inspired by Knud Sørensen: English and Danish Contrasted. A Guide for Translators, I will not focus on phonology, stress and intonation or other aspects of the production of oral English; nor will I address the issue of how we use language differently in English and Danish as a tool for social interaction; rather the focus will be on a few of the most recurrent stumbling blocks for Danish writers of medical research papers; stumbling blocks that often make Danish writers’ papers appear somewhat un-English, or Danglish, in tone and style because what is good writing in Danish is copied unwittingly into English.

Collocations, clichés and imagery often merge into each other to form fixed expressions

Word level differences between English and Danish

Every language has its formulas: fixed word combinations that are normally invariable. It is important for any writer of scientific articles to be thoroughly familiar with them in order to come across as a competent writer. Collocations, cliché and imagery often blend into each other, so that it may be reasonable to deal with them together. Words that collocate appear together habitually and may come to form fixed combinations, like to raise an issue, to encounter resistance and to produce predictions. When we combine words in unusual ways, we may occasionally achieve a desired effect; but more often we show lack of mastery, e.g. a computer with a lot of processing power is powerful, and if a tea bag has been in a cup of hot water too long, the tea is strong. In both cases, we would use the Danish adjective “stærk”, and if we did not know the fixed word combinations in English we might write a strong computer and a powerful tea, both of which would be rather unusual.
English is often more colourful than Danish
Expressiveness English has a rich repertoire of different words basically designating the same thing; and in English science writing there is generally scope for more expressiveness or colourfulness than in Danish science writing. Some of this colourfulness lies in the word combinations. Of course, there are many similarities between English and Danish in this respect. Consider, for example, ample opportunity (“rig lejlighed”), lavishly illustrated (“rigt illustreret”), a burning question (“et brændende spørgsmål”). Many of these doublets are structured in the same way in English and Danish (e.g. twist and turn, “vende og dreje sig”; cares and worries, “glæder og sorger”; slowly but surely, “langsomt men sikkert”).  But there are also many differences between the two languages both at the level of collocations (e.g. as dead as a doornail, “så død som en sild”) and metaphor, e.g. he shot down all my arguments, “han nedgjorde alle mine argumenter”; he is barking up the wrong tree, “han er galt afmarcheret”; he usually sits on the fence, “han indtager gerne en afventende holdning”. It appears that sometimes a colourful English expression can only be rendered by a somewhat paler Danish equivalent.
It is ok to be more expressive in English than in Danish
The greater scope for expressivity at the level of words should be exploited, notably in the Introduction and Discussion parts of the paper where Danes tend often to be rather cautious, and occasionally dull, in their choice of words. Consider for example the difference between The burning question is whether we have now succeeded in combating this disease altogether and the duller equivalent: The important question is whether we have now managed to make this disease disappear altogether. Another pair with the more down-toned variant first: The importance of penicillin is well documented in many early studies of .. Now consider the more expressive variant: The importance of penicillin is amply illustrated in a multitude of early studies of … It is perfectly alright to go for the more expressive alternative in genres like editorials and in expository subgenres like Introductions and Discussions.

Actual in English means real

False friends

Some English words, mainly those of Roman origin, have corresponding Danish words that resemble the English words but mean something different. These “false friends” are notoriously difficult. And there are many. A few relevant examples: The English word actual means real, whereas the Danish “aktuel” corresponds to English topical like in the expression a topical issue. Where Danish authors want to say “det aktuelle studie” in the sense “herværende”, they should use present, i.e. the present study.

In the more frivolous department we have perverse
Another example is the English frivolous which is far more ‘innocent’ than the Danish “frivol”. Frivolous simply means “silly” or “not serious”, e.g.: This is a frivolous way of attacking the problem. In the same line of words, the English perverse simply describes a behaviour that is unreasonable or contrary, like in He takes a perverse delight in irritating people. In Danish “pervers” denotes deviant sexual behaviour, corresponding roughly to the English word perverted.

Eventual in English means finally

The Danish word “eventuelt” does not correspond to eventual in English where it means at long last or finally. If we want to express possibility in English, we use the modal verb may or lexicalise the possibility using possibly, like in We may possibly use this approach. There are other stumbling blocks, for sure, some of which are rooted in German. The problem is the same: despite their formal similarity, they are semantically different from Danish. For example the adjective forbidding means “stern” or “repulsive” in English (e.g. He looked rather forbidding).

Depression, eminence and other words have more than physical meanings
Words of Latin origin can occur in concrete, physical senses that differ from the more abstract senses in which they are usually used. For instance, the word depression denotes a state of mental unhappiness in both Danish and English, but in English it is used in a much wider sense than in Danish. Examples include We noticed a depression in the ground (“a sunken place”); He depressed the lever (“pushed it downwards”). Another such word is eminence (physical protrusion in the medical sense of the word) as in the example: They were surveying the surrounding country from an eminence (“a hill”).
Both is used only with two items
Classic word mistakes One of the classic Danglish mistakes is the use of the word both for lists of more than two items. The Danish “både” can be used for a long list of items, but in English, both means just two things. You can like both wine and beer, but you cannot like both wine, beer, coffee and tea.
Possibility and opportunity mean two different things
The Danish word “mulighed” has two equivalent versions in English, viz. either possibility or opportunity English, but those words mean different things. An opportunity is something you want and must take action to achieve, e.g. You may have the opportunity to become an excellent writer if you spend half an hour every day practicing writing. An opportunity is always a positive thing. A possibility, on the other hand, is something that is out of your control; e.g. There is the possibility that your paper will be rejected because it is not on the journal’s priority list.
Change word-class to improve idiomacy

Word class changes

In some cases a change of word-class produces a more generally accepted expression in English than if the Danish writer stuck to the word-class that would be used in Danish. In other cases, word-class changes are obligatory. Indeed, the use of appropriate style and idiomacy of the target language expressions are essential to ensure well-written and successful texts.
Be cautious about using adjectives as if they were nouns in English
Danish adjective – English noun In Danish, an adjective is often used to pinpoint an essential characteristic, whereas a noun is preferred in English in such cases. Thus, “det fordelagtige ved fremgangsmåden” corresponds to the advantage of the approach.  Danish, of course, also occasionally uses nouns (“Fordelen ved fremgangsmåden var”), but more often Danish will use a definite adjective in this situation. A few examples to illustrate the point: “Det sande i denne version er ikke til at få øje på”, The truth of this vision is not easy to spot; “Patienten er følsom indtil det sygelige”, The patient is sensitive to the point of morbidity”.
English prefers nouns to designate whole groups
An adjective preceded by the definite article can refer to a whole group in both Danish and English (e.g. “de blinde”, the blind; “de unge”). Where reference is to a whole group or class, Danish uses the adjective, whereas English prefers a noun instead, viz. the blind patients; the young subjects.
Turn the adjective into a noun or add a noun
Special attention should be paid to Danish present participles which are used as nouns in the singular and plural. Some of these participles have noun equivalents in English, for example “de lidende”, the sufferers; “de overlevende”, the survivors; “de protesterende”, the protesters; other such participles have no direct equivalent nouns, so nouns must either be created by adding –es (e.g. the inteviewees; the cohortees; the respondees) or nouns must be added (e.g. the deceased males; the bereaved spouses; the multiparous woman).
English prefers adjectival constructions over adverbial ones
Danish adverbial construction – English adjectival construction Both Danish and English alternate between adjectival (e.g. He speaks fluent English; In the early mitosis) and adverbial (e.g. He speaks English fluently; Early in the mitosis) constructions. Still, there is a tendency for English to prefer the adjectival construction and for Danish to prefer the adverbial construction. Therefore, it is advisable occasionally to turn the adverbial construction into an adjectival one, for example: The patient admitted to smoking a cigarette occasionally could be phrased The patient admitted to smoking an occasional cigarette. The English equivalent to the Danish sentence “Den patient, der kom ind, var tydeligvis hypokondrisk” would hence be The patient entering the surgery was an obvious hypochondriac.
English prefers verbs over adverbs
Danish adverb – English verbal construction In some cases, English verbal constructions are the most natural equivalents of Danish adverbs. For example the Danish sentence “Problemet er stadig uløst” (The problem is still unsolved) becomes slightly more comme-il-faut in English if it reads The problem remains unsolved. A few more examples: Nonlinear equations are unsolvable (adverbial) should be changed into Nonlinear equations defy (verb) solution; and The shortage of penicillin still (adverbial) gives cause for concern should be changed into The shortage of penicillin continues (verb) to cause concern. The use of the verb makes the text more expressive.
English sometimes prefers –ing-forms over prepositions
Danish preposition – English participle (+ preposition) Danish prepositions will often correspond to English prepositions, but sometimes an idiomatic expression with a preposition in Danish is better rendered as an English participle (mainly the present participle). Like with the change from adverb to verb, the change from preposition to participle makes the text more expressive and vivid. A few examples to illustrate the point: The rules for (preposition) this procedure are explained in the manufacturer’s instructions can be changed into The rules governing (participle) this procedure are explained in the manufacturer’s instructions; and The surgical principle for (preposition) abdominorectal incision  is X can be changed into The surgical principle underlying (participle) abdominorectal incision is X.

Differences of syntax

The differences between English and Danish also pose problems at the level of syntax, i.e. phrases, clauses and sentences.
Danish “der/det”, English it or zero
Danish “der/det”, English it or zero In English as well as Danish “der” and there both function as dummy subjects that are followed by a form of the copula (a kind of linking verb; typically forms of the verb to be), when the real subject (always indefinite) is placed at the end of the clause. For example: “Der er mange bøger om videnskabelig skrivning”, There are many books on scientific writing. Where part of the subject is a pronoun, a Dane will normally prefer a formulation with “der er” followed by a relative clause, which we call a cleft sentence, while the Englishman would prefer a single clause (i.e. a non-cleft construction, zero). Thus, rather than writing There is nobody who knows this which would correspond to Danish syntax, an Englishman would write Nobody knows this. Likewise, Danlish sentences such as “Der er mange, der mener” (There are many people who think..)  becomes Many people think.. and “Der var nogle, der protesterede” (There were some who protested) becomes Some people protested.
Avoid preliminary subjects
Danish passive construction with “der”, an auxiliary and a past participle, English zero In Danish/Danglish, we often see a passive construction with an indefinite subject introduced by “der”. This is sometimes called a “preliminary subject”. However, the English passive usually begins with the subject; and in English there is nothing that corresponds to the Danish “der” used in this sense. For example: It appears that clinical evaluation is largely secondary to hyperthyroidism is rendered better in English as follows: Clinical evaluation appears to be largely secondary to hyperthyroidism. And a few slightly less technical examples illustrating the same point: “Der blev holdt et møde”, A meeting was held; “Der blev gjort forberedelser til mødet”, Preparations for the meeting were made”.
Turn objects of prep-ositions into subjects
Object of Danish preposition becomes subject in English sentence In some situations we find subjects in English that would be unusual in Danish, where one would use “man”. Likewise it is important to note the frequent syntactic equivalence between the object of a Danish preposition and the subject in English, illustrated in the following examples: According to this view (preposition + object), even young children may contract this disease is better rendered This view (subject) assumes that even young children may contract this disease; By this formulation (preposition + object), the narrow definition of diabetes is broadened may be changed into This formulation (subject) broadens the narrow definition of diabetes. And perhaps the most frequently seen Danglish phrase in this category: According to medical indications (preposition + object, “efter en lægelig bedømmelse”) , the patient was unfit for work  is better rendered as follows: Medical indications (subject) suggested that the patient was unfit for work.
Danish finite, English non-finite
Finite and non-finite constructions Danish and English are also quite different in terms of the use of finite and non-finite sentences. Instead of using a full subordinate clause as we do in Danish (e.g. “Der opstod en situation, der var livstruende” (A situation arose that was life-threatening), good English tends to use a shortened version, which in most cases corresponds to a non-finite (often participial) construction; hence A life-threatening situation arose. Another few examples: The steps that were taken were surprising should be reduced to The steps taken were surprising. This applies in particular to clauses introduced by conjunctions like after, before, if, since, though, when and while.
Clear thematic pro-gression and short sentences

Differences of rhetorical style

One of the changes I make to almost every Danglish text is to reduce the length of the sentences and to thematically focus the paragraphs.  In Danish scientific writing, a well-written Danish sentence, in which all of the commas are placed perfectly, tends to consist of many subordinate and coordinate clauses and sentences. However, English sentences are generally much shorter and more direct as discussed in the text Writing proper English. What is good writing in British and American English.  Apart from using shorter sentences, the Anglo-Saxon writer will also be very focused on the thematic progression of the text, and on the transition between sentences and ideas presented in the text. These issues will be further discussed in the text entitled The red thread. How to join statements and sentences; and how to make transitions later in this module.