Non-English Words in English Text
  • 5-minute read
  • 28th August 2023

Non-English Words in English Text

This microlearning will show how to distinguish between and treat words that now “belong” to English and those that it hasn’t (yet…) appropriated.

Launch the microlearning module below to learn more about using non-English words in English text and to test your knowledge using our interactive quiz.

 

 

Alternatively, read on for a text-only version of the microlearning.

That Word's Mine Now—Or Is It?

[The English language doesn't] just borrow words; on occasion, English has pursued other languages down alleyways to beat them unconscious and rifle their pockets for new vocabulary.

As the above well-known quote by Nicoll attests, English is famed for its habit of acquiring words from other languages. Sometimes these are anglicized (or hyperforeignized), other times English just repurposes them and/or uses them as is.

Check Your Dictionary

If you come across a word that looks like it might need to be treated as a non-English term, then check the chosen dictionary for the dialect you’re proofreading in (usually, the Oxford Dictionary for UK English, Merriam–Webster for US English, and Macquarie for Australian English).

As a general rule, if the word appears in your dictionary, treat it as an English word. No additional formatting is required, and you don’t need to translate it unless the context or a particular style guide requires.

Occasionally, you may come across words that appear in a field-specific dictionary (legal, most likely) but not in a general dictionary. Follow the rules of the appropriate style or referencing guide, or maintain consistency and leave a comment to explain your approach.

A few examples of “foreign” words that appear in one or more general English dictionaries are mukbang (Korean), mea culpa (Latin), maggid (Hebrew), and a cappella (Italian).

It's Not There—Now What?

Okay, so you know the word is one you need to treat as non-English. As a general rule (i.e., unless a referencing or style guide says otherwise), here’s what we advise you do.

  1. Is it a proper noun (e.g., a title such as Gyalwang Drukpa) or a place name? If so, there’s no need to do anything to it.
  2. Is it something that the readers of the text will be very familiar with? For example, fricassé in a text directed at expert chefs. If so, you probably don’t need to do anything to it (but you can follow the customer’s lead if they’ve chosen to do so).
  3. Is it a non-English word in a document whose style guide has specifically said not to italicize it? For example, OSCOLA specifies that Latin words that are in common usage in legal English, such as stare decisis and obiter dicta, should not be italicized. If so, you should follow the guide’s dictates.
  4. If none of the above apply, italicize the word and, if appropriate, advise that the customer provide a translation (and, if necessary, a transliteration) the first time any such words are used.

Style Guides

If there is a chosen style guide and it has an opinion on how to treat foreign terms, then you should follow that approach. Most style guides follow the definition of a “foreign” word given above; it’s how they then treat the foreign word that differs. For example:

  • APA: Italicize the foreign (and unfamiliar) term only the first time you use it.
  • Chicago: Italicize isolated foreign words and phrases. If a term is used frequently, only italicize it the first time it is used.
  • MLA: Italicize foreign terms unless they form an entire quotation (plus some other isolated instances).
  • MHRA: Italicize throughout, providing the term has not “passed into regular English usage.” If in doubt, do not italicize the term.

Transliterations

Transliteration is the act of converting one script (e.g., kanji) into another (e.g., roman).

A good approach with in-text transliterations is, the first time the term is used, to provide the original script first (and use this throughout). Then, in parentheses, give the transliteration of the term followed by the English translation.

มหาวิทยาลัย (ma hǎa wít tha yaa lai; university)

However, this can vary, and you should follow the customer’s lead (for example, if they have used transliterations throughout, you would put the original text in the parentheses). You should also take heed of any style or referencing guide preferences, as noted above.

Italicizing i.e. and e.g.

According to the vast majority of style guides, you do not need to italicize i.e. and e.g.

However, if a customer has done so consistently throughout a document, it’s likely that their professor has dug up a dusty and esoteric form of referencing from the 1920s, or else just really likes the look of italics.

In such instances, and if there is no contradicting authority (e.g., OSCOLA specifies that i.e. and e.g. should not be italicized), it’s best to leave as is, together with a comment noting the issue and explaining the reasoning behind your decision to the customer.

Summary

A foreign term is one that does not appear in the English dictionary you are using, or in any field-specific English dictionaries that may apply. As a rule of thumb, italicize any foreign terms, ensuring that a definition and transliteration (if appropriate) are provided the first time the term is used.

Any rules imposed by style guides take precedence, but do keep an eye out for any consistent unorthodox approach by the customer. As always, if you think that your changes may benefit from an explanation, leave a comment providing one.

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