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Five things Finns stumble on when writing in English

Posted on 12th April 2017

As a bit of a break from my ramblings, I thought I'd ask a Finnish colleague of mine, Laura Kortelainen, to write a guest post about her experiences of Finns writing in English.

Finns generally have a good command of English. In fact, Finns are the fifth best at English as a second language.

But we do struggle with certain things, mostly due to our linguistic and cultural background. Let's take a closer look at the five things Finns, in my experience, stumble on the most often.

1. Culture-bound elements

With culture-bound elements, Finns often fall at the first hurdle: we fail to recognise culture-bound elements at all. This stems from Finland being a highly homogenous country where you can safely assume everyone will share your general knowledge. Giving up this notion and looking at familiar things from an outsider's perspective is difficult, causing us to write in a way that can be perplexing to someone not familiar with the Finnish society and culture.

Even when we do recognise a culture-bound element, consulting a dictionary can lead the innocent user further into trouble. For example, even prestigious bilingual dictionaries offer 'mining counsellor' as the English equivalent for the Finnish 'vuorineuvos' (literally 'mountain counsellor'). Now, contrary to what you might expect, 'vuorineuvos' has nothing to do with mining or counselling (or mountains, for that matter). Instead, it is an honorary title that the President of Finland grants to the leading figures in industry and commerce. Not the first thing you would think when you see 'mining counsellor'? Me neither.

Switching into a different mindset takes practice. In learning to recognise and handle culture-bound elements, a trusted editor who points out these elements and helps solve them is worth her weight in gold.

2. Making the reader work for it

This issue boils down to differences in attitude: if a Finn has to read a sentence twice to understand it, it's the reader's fault. If an Anglophone reader has to read a sentence twice to understand it, it's the writer's fault.

In general, Finnish tolerates much more implicitness than English. For us, it is okay to work hard to understand a text. This is why the English writing culture, in which you are expected to write so clearly that even busy or tired readers can easily understand you, can feel like dumbing a text down – which is of course by no means the case.

Compared to Finns writing in English, native English speakers tend to make clearer points, highlight the connections between things and sell their texts to the reader. Where a Finnish writer will give you the pieces of a puzzle for you to put together, an Anglophone writer will serve you bite-sized nuggets of well-presented information in a pretty package.

Finns' pet peeve is the lack of connectors and metatext. Anglophone writers are great at signposting and leaving a clear trail of crumbs for the reader to follow. In contrast, Finnish writers expect the readers to find their own way. I once heard someone ask (and it was no joke): if everyone knows what's going to happen anyway, why bother spelling it out? Talk about differences in attitude.

3. Register

To simplify, register is the level of formality in speech or writing. In our first language, we all skilfully switch between different registers without a second thought, but getting it right in a second (or third) language is much more difficult.

In academic writing, Finns lean towards language that is too informal both at the level of grammar and vocabulary, including the use of contractions and colloquial expressions. In other text types, however, we err on the side of the overly formal because we love fancy English words and constructions. We think using 'utilise' instead of 'use' or 'notwithstanding the fact that' instead of 'although' will make us sound smarter. It doesn't.

Attempts to impress with vocabulary rarely succeed. Non-native writers are in danger zone especially when we consult a dictionary or a thesaurus and pick a word we don't know how to use. (Think 'snottinger' instead of 'handkerchief'.) Writing website copy – or anything, really – using vocabulary most native speakers have to look up just isn't good writing.

4. Passive voice

Finns have a thing for the passive voice. The more formal the text, the more we like to use the passive voice when we write in English. This traces largely back to grammatical differences between Finnish and English.

In Finnish, verbs have two possible voices, active and passive, and the passive voice is often considered the fourth person. Contrary to English, in the Finnish passive, the agent is always human and never mentioned. A word-for-word Finnish translation of 'a tree was blown down' would suggest that there is a group of people trying to blow down the tree.

Moreover, colloquial Finnish almost exclusively uses the passive verb form instead of the active first-person plural in the indicative and the imperative. Our writing and speech in particular often reflect this: instead of saying 'I went there with my friend Elli', we say 'we went there with my friend Elli'.

Our love for the passive voice is so great that I'll bet any editor who's worked with Finnish writers has noticed how partial we are to it. (Have you?)

5. The bits and pieces: articles and prepositions

Typologically, Finnish falls between fusional and agglutinative languages, meaning that it modifies and inflects words. To oversimplify, instead of using articles and prepositions, Finnish mainly uses suffixes, i.e. sticks stuff at the end of words. Finnish has no articles, but it does have prepositions and postpositions.

Thanks to the agglutinative nature of our language, Finnish can pack a lot of information into one word: the question 'Do you mean in my houses, too?' becomes 'Taloissanikinko?'. The 48-letter 'epäjärjestelmällistyttämättömyydellänsäkäänköhän' is often cited as the longest non-compound Finnish word, and Finnish also holds the Guinness World Record for the longest palindromic word with the 19-letter 'saippuakauppias'.

Largely due to these structural differences, we really struggle with articles and prepositions when writing in English. (It doesn't help that the rules are somewhat illogical...) Writers with a good ear are better at getting it right, but even they make mistakes. For this reason, an excellent editor is a non-native writer's best friend.

Laura Kortelainen runs Säärmä Communications, a translation and editing company based in Finland. Laura specialises in marketing communications, popular science and academic writing and has a secret love for organisation and scheduling. As Laura mostly translates from Finnish to English, she couldn't imagine life without brilliant editors. Connect with Laura on LinkedIn or Facebook for networking or a chat.