Greetings, Earthlings.

To commemorate Grammar Cat having been viewed in over ninety countries around the globe, let’s talk foreign languages! Well, not actually talk them, because we don’t know many. What we do know, however, is how to integrate them into English text.

cute-animals-japanese-cat-wearing-kimono-pics

The Grammar Cat has been viewed in fourteen countries across Asia! But not China. Never China.

The way to set apart foreign language text from the surrounding English is to add italics. It’s a visual device that’s kind to readers, especially if the language is close to English and may share many words, like, say, French, Spanish, or German.  Since English is essentially the lovechild of French and German, it’s riddled with words that were originally French or German. However, not every French word is italicized, because that would be endlessly annoying. The rule for when to add italics is basically contingent upon one question: How stupid are your readers? Okay, so that’s harsh (maybe). But basically, the first use of foreign words and phrases in a text should only be italicized if they are ones with which average readers may be unfamiliar.

This cat has that je ne sais quoi that makes him so very chic!

If you’re unsure whether or not readers will know the foreign word, see if it appears in Merriam-Webster’s dictionary. If it appears in an English dictionary, assume that readers will be familiar with it (or as familiar as they are with the other words in there).

The same goes for when the phrase is found in dialogue.

Example: The man looked longingly at le chat through the glass divider before turning to the clerk. “Combien coûte-t-il?”

While translating “cat” to the French word doesn’t make much sense here, it’s to prove a point, people. Were it not italicized, the sentence might be even more confusing and nonsensical than it already is, because “chat” means different things in each language. You will do your readers a great service if you follow that rule.

At the same time, italicizing every foreign word or phrase is going to become an eyesore.

"Well said! Oh that's jolly good."

Too many eyesores leads to glasses, so unless you’re a swanky British cat and can pull off glasses like you were born to wear them, do avoid eyesores.

Example of eyesore: I met the attaché for our weekly rendezvous at the café. She was a brunette southern belle and a bon vivant, and she spent her days eating croissants and éclairs.

Admittedly, most sentences that aren’t about baked goods have many fewer French terms, but hopefully my point is made.

Sometimes, authors think it’d be cool to have their characters speak a lot of a language that isn’t English (looking at you, Agatha Christie!), and the courteous thing to do is often to include a translation into English.

Example: While he called himself le chat sosie de Poirot (Poirot’s cat lookalike), we all knew who he really was.

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Bonjour. Je m’appelle Inspecteur Poirot Chat. Vous avez tué mon père. Préparez-vous à mourir.

For those of you unfamiliar with French, I suggest you Google Translate that caption, because I just killed it with that reference to a previous post.

Anyway, you can also use quotation marks in lieu of parentheses, if that tickles your fancy feast. But we all know how some people deserve to be in QMA (Quotation Marks Anonymous), and so for those of you who can’t have nice things, stick with the parentheses.

¿Entiendes?
Comprenez-vous?
Verstehen Sie?
Capisce?
Skilur þú?
Καταλαβαίνετε;
Ooday ouyay understanday?

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