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I'm German, and I try to speak British English as best I can, it's the language I've learned at school, and I'm always trying to be consistent. However, much of my English vocabulary and phrasing I picked up from British television programmes, films and books. Which is why I often use phrases like these:

  • It's not at all confusing

  • Thank you very much indeed

I also use the British English spelling even if both forms are accepted and in use:

Right click to open the Preferences dialogue

And even mix the two if needed:

You need to set the --color=always argument so that colours are escaped properly

My question therefore: Do I sound posh? Does my language come across as professorial or holier-than-thou? If so, what can I do to sound more appropriate?

Please underpin your answers with some references. This is not meant to be a discussion of opinion; I'm sure there is some evidence available on the subject.(Or vote to close it as argumentative if you disagree)

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Your English seems fine and appropriate to me (to the extent that it can be determined from the very little context available). (Disclaimer: I'm not a native English speaker.) I don't think it's easy to "sound posh" in written English…. Actually, I find this modern anxiety about one's English being "too good" or "too upper-class" incomprehensible, especially when it's by non-native speakers. :-) –  ShreevatsaR Jan 3 '11 at 13:10
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Colour me confused. Your name sounds so … un-German. ;-) –  Konrad Rudolph Jan 3 '11 at 15:29
    
I'm an ignorant American, so take this with a grain of salt, but I always thought "posh" referred to pronunciation, not word choice. –  Marthaª Jan 3 '11 at 16:01
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@Konrad: that's what I thought! The name is soo Italian :-) –  Suvrit Jan 3 '11 at 17:37
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@Neil: really? only the "thank you very much indeed" seems somewhat affected. However, disregarding affectations, without hearing the speaker, it is hard to judge how his English is received --- the dialogue delivery can make all the difference ;-) –  Suvrit Jan 3 '11 at 17:40
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6 Answers

up vote 2 down vote accepted

For technical documentations, you can sound as sophisticated as you want: if the reader gets immediately what he/she is supposed to do, it doesn't matter.

I would however follow the advices of “The Elements of International English Style” by Edmond Weiss, as they refer to a more "neutral" form of English, which has greater chance to be understood by any reader.

  • write with sentence simple enough to understand without any ambiguity (i.e., the Principle of Simplicity).
  • write with sentence clear enough to understand without any ambiguity (i.e., the Principle of Clarity).
  • reduce the visual burden of reading due to lazy punctuation, page layout, or a combination of other factors (i.e., the Principle of Reducing the Burden).

The last chapter addresses the inescapable need for cultural adaptation.
Even if one is a master of English he or she can still make errors in technical documentation of the cultural context is ignored.

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For technical documentation, you should also know your target audience. Americans tend to dislike non-American English. If you are targeting an international audience, it would be worth considering standardising (standardizing) on American English spellings and vocabulary. Furthermore, it is possible to over-Anglicise words. Arguably, dialogue (as cited in the original example) is incorrect, I have never seen a 'Dialog box' referred to as a 'Dialogue box'. This is from an Australian perspective. –  dave Jan 3 '11 at 19:53
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It's really hard to judge your command of the language based on your writing alone. To properly answer this question, native speakers would need to listen to you having a conversation.

That being said, you are using "posh sounding" words (professorial, underpin) incorrectly in your question, or at least not as a native speaker would. This makes it read as if you were using a thesaurus to come up with these words. Rather than seeming posh, your writing reads awkwardly and has a somewhat pretentious feel to it.

EDIT: To explain what I mean by incorrect use of professorial and underpin.

Underpin: @invariant says it best in the comments: a native speaker would say "support" or "back up" in this situation. Underpin is really never used as a command. A native speaker, instead, would refer to the "underpinnings" of something: the "foundation" upon which it is built. The theoretical underpinnings of calculus are difficult for new students to understand. A native speaker might also say that something underpins something else. Xenophobia underpins the recent gains made by the Party for Freedom.

Professorial: The OP seems to be using "professorial" to mean "aloof", "distant", "arrogant", or something similar here, which are things a native speaker might say. Professorial, as an adjective, does not necessarily imply any of those things. As far as I'm aware, it has no clear and generally accepted connotation. In most of the example usage of "professorial" that you find with Google, the word is used to describe things directly related to or done by professors: professorial entrepreneurship, professorial fashions, professorial lectures, professorial sabbaticals, etc.

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Out of curiosity, what would you say is wrong with his use of "professorial" there? And what with his use of "underpin"? –  Cerberus Jan 3 '11 at 13:49
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As a native English speaker I would not say "please underpin your answer", rather "please support your answer" or "please back up your answer". –  invariant Jan 3 '11 at 14:30
    
I don't speak German, but could those English posh words be cognates of their common German equivalents? I used many posh Latin-based terms (my native language is Spanish) when learning English because of my limited vocabulary. –  Jaime Soto Jan 3 '11 at 14:54
    
@Jaime: “professorial” is (kind of), “underpin” isn’t. But the thesaurus does cite it as synonymous to “support” and it’s very hard for non-native speakers to sort out the subtleties of such largely equivalent words and when they’re used. –  Konrad Rudolph Jan 3 '11 at 15:33
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@Cerberus: I think the point is that it sounds stilted/unexpected in such a way that it might lead one to think the writer is non-native. Another example: a German friend of mine uses the word for to mean because a lot (e.g. "I think I should return home, for I am very tired"). This is not wrong by any means, but this phrasing is extremely rare (in the US anyway). He would sound more native if he used because instead. –  Kosmonaut Jan 3 '11 at 16:41
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Be very wary of the confusion between sounding posh and sounding educated.

The two are highly confused in British society at the moment, as there is a culture of disrespect for education amongst a large section of the populous.

There are modes of speech that indicate an educated tongue, particularly use of lesser used words, for instance, underpin in the question. A strong vocabulary often sits with a good standard of education. Also, use of archaic words and a rhetorical style tend to indicate a greater enjoyment of word play, as opposed to sounding "posh" at all.

The concept of speaking in a "posh" fashion is more to do with affectations, pronunciation, cultural inclusions unfamiliar to the rank and file.

A sentence such as "I say, did you see the performance of Carmen this season? Superb I felt." sounds posh, due to the content and style, not the vocabulary in play. If delivered in RP, then all the more so.

Sounding "holier-than-thou" is also a distance apart from sounding posh. That phrase tends to indicate talking down to someone, condescending content to the speech, with a refined air that indicates distaste and superiority. That can come over without any element of being "posh", particularly from strongly religious folk.

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Right you are. I didn't pay any attention to the distinction. I don't mind sounding educated, I am. And if the whole world knows about it, that's fine. I do mind sounding condescending. Take this comment as an example. :P –  Stefano Palazzo Jan 3 '11 at 15:33
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It is not my place to comment on your use of language, because I am in a similar situation. I will say a few things that are only partly on topic.

I have been told by some that the quality of academic English, even by native speakers, is often not that great, and that those well versed in literature will sometimes cringe at its verbosity and formulaic phrasing. So the English of a foreigner need not be worse than that of a native speaker, nor should he blindly follow a native speaker's lead.

One reason for this is the fact that there are numerous "schools" in any language: some say the split infinitive is all right, others call it anathema; some consider the past subjunctive dead and buried, others insist upon it; etc. There is probably an "average" group that has certain opinions, and several other, smaller groups that have other opinions. Such a group sometimes condemns what is common practice in another group; this should not be mistaken for what is universally condemned because it sounds foreign, which it is indeed undesirable for anyone.

In my language (Dutch), for example, I believe that some would consider my usage a tiny bit old fashioned and unusual, occasionally. This does not concern me; it is the way I was brought up, it is the way my family speaks and many of my old friends. However, because we are a minority, a foreigner speaking Dutch might be "corrected" by other native speakers if he learnt to speak as I do. Because they do not get my language, they do not get it in a foreigner, and they might say that he was using unusual idioms.

Should this foreigner be concerned? I believe not, though I can imagine that others might disagree. Even so, it is generally not a bad idea to avoid sounding too conspicuous in any way: if you are aware of the fact that a phrase sounds very unusual, it might be a good idea to change it; striving after a balance is never wrong.


I believe that, at least in conservative circles in Northern Europe, the trend has long been to use plain words as much as possible, to avoid using words more complicated or unusual than necessary. I can vouch for those in modern-day Holland and England, and, since this was also the case in the Latin of the age of Cicero, I believe it to be a somewhat universal tendency that may rise in various circumstances at various times. I have also seen signs of this trend in German.

How this tendency manifests itself depends on many things. In English, it means that a writer should be alert when using many words that come from Latin, many proverbs, metaphors, local idioms, passive constructions, novel words, abstract nouns, noun adjectives, etc. This is not to say that he should not use any of those, which is impossible: just that he should not use them too often or in the wrong places. Several branches of this trend have developed in non-conservative circles too, though they are sometimes less rigorous.

So it is best for a foreigner to resist the use of "sophisticated" words for no reason, and use them only when he feels sure that they express his intentions better than simpler words. I do what I can, but resistance is not always easy. Even so, abstaining from any and all idioms and abstractions for fear of doing it wrong will, I believe, generally result in language of lower quality than would taking some risks.


P.S. I am always trying to improve my English, so please feel free to post any tips on my language in the comments. I know I must be making mistakes, and it is hard to correct them if nobody will point them out.

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Why not say It's clear rather than It's not at all confusing and Thanks a lot rather than Thank you very much indeed?

Fowler says this about variation, but it applies to your syntax as well:

Many writers of the present day abound in types of variation that are not justified by expediency, and have consequently the air of cheap ornament.

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If someone asks "Is it confusing" (or if they say that something is confusing and I want to disagree), I may say "No / It's not confusing" or, for emphasis, "Not at all / It's not at all confusing". That is to say, "It's not at all confusing" has a purpose and is not always effectively replaceable by "It's clear". –  ShreevatsaR Jan 3 '11 at 18:11
    
@ShreevatsaR, you're right. However, if every sentence is a ridiculous circumlocution, people will justifiably ignore you. –  Neil G Jan 3 '11 at 19:31
    
Long live Fowler! Wait, he is dead. Wait, he isn't! I really wish someone like him would stand up today and write a modernised Modern English Usage... the 3rd edition is good, but it just isn't the same genre. –  Cerberus Jan 3 '11 at 20:43
    
@Cerberus, I agree. –  Neil G Jan 4 '11 at 3:13
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Coming from the opposite direction, I am an educated Australia who has worked hard to develop a more colloquial accent. After many years of people asking me when I moved to Australia (I was born here) I decided it may be better just to fit in. I will now adjust my accent and vocabulary to fit the people I am talking to and the situation. In this country, being 'posh' is not always a benefit. Using five dollar words can just annoy people.

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I agree that it is a good idea to adjust vocabulary and content of what you are saying to the people you are with; that is only proper etiquette. But can't you speak your normal way with your friends and family? If your family thinks you moved to Australia, then something funny is going on. –  Cerberus Jan 3 '11 at 20:59
    
I assume everyone adjusts the combination of vocabulary, accent, interjection of swear words, etc based upon their target audience. I have certainly found it easier to get on with blokey people, especially tradies, by being blokey. It gets trickier with my in-laws since their English is not fluent, so I've pretty much had to learn what their vocabulary is. –  dave Jan 4 '11 at 0:47
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