German Manager discovers the secret to writing product information in English

Sometimes, we are asked by German clients to improve the English text in their product information sheets. Although their staff speak and write excellent English, they recognise their marketing copy can appear a little stilted, “wordy” and unclear. The sentences may be grammatically correct, but no native-English speaker would ever write them in that way.

So, here are a few tips for German native speakers who need to write marketing copy in English:

  1. Take care when translating Möglichkeit(en)/möglich.  Often, this is translated as “possible”, when a native English speaker might say “options”, “available”, “capabilities”, “optional”, “the ability to” or “able to”.
  2. “Information” is always singular. There is no such word as “informations”.
  3. Don’t use “thus” or “hence” in marketing documents. They are fine for scientific papers, but not in marketing documents or Web sites. You could use “this means” instead.
  4. Keep your sentences short, so they are clearer to the reader. Subordinate and relative clauses are used enthusiastically in German, but in English they can make a sentence appear unnaturally long.  In each sentence, it’s best to be clear what is the subject, direct object, indirect object and verb. Think Cluedo – ask yourself, who is “the murderer”? Who is “the victim”? What was “the weapon”?
  5. Watch out for pseudo-anglicisms (Denglisch) and “false friends”. For example, “Labor” in German is not the same thing as “labor” in English.
  6. Using “a” or “an” depends on whether the next word sounds like it begins with a vowel. For example, “an F.E.B.” and “a unique”.
  7. Remember even native English speakers use specialists to write their marketing copy.

Here is Henning Wehn, German comedy ambassador to the United Kingdom, providing some examples:

Any more suggestions?

3 Comments

Kai

I would add the Germans’ almost fanatical devotion to the passive. In my experience, passive is much rarer in English than in German, especially in marketing copy.

Oh, and another pet peeve of mine in marketing lingo, though I don’t know whether it’s prevalent or permissible in English: “Nur so können Sie…” Is it common in English marketing copy to claim possession of the holy grail, the one and only path to success?

ellis

You’re right about the passive/Passiv tense, although I’d disagree with you about its rarity in English. Lawyers and politicians are often accused to using the passive tense to obscure the facts.

I’ve not heard “Nur so können Sie…”(=”you can only”?) in English marketing copy. “So können Sie” does have an equivalent in English: “that means…”. This phrase is used to address the “so what? question”, where you are meant to explain how each feature in a product would benefit the customer.

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