How to answer the question “Do people really say that?”


An easy translator’s trick to help you check the accuracy and tonality of a specific phrase.

What new popcorn flavours will the famous Chagrin Falls Popcorn Shop serve in future?

Photo credit: Dave P  (photo modified)

It’s a situation a lot of writers face: you’re polishing a text, maybe it’s your own copy or maybe it’s a translation you’re editing, and suddenly you stumble over a phrase. “Wait”, you say aloud, “do people really say that?” For example: what new popcorn flavours will the famous Chagrin Falls Popcorn Shop serve in future? “In future?” you say to the empty room. Is that correct or should it be “in the future”? You try out a couple of other sentences with those phrases and see how they sound. Yet still that gut feeling that’s always guided you in the past is giving you radio silence. This happens to all writers and editors, even the pros.

You can of course turn to the dictionary – we recommend Merriam-Webster for US English and Oxford for UK English. But, even with the examples they offer, dictionaries can’t always point you in the right direction. Sometimes you need more context. When you have a specific question about which preposition goes with which verb or if a phrase takes a definite article or not, when you’re not sure about the tonality of a certain phrase, or even when you’re unsure if an expression is common parlance or not, the dictionary sometimes lets you down.

Here’s the ace up your sleeve: site-specific Google searches.

Choose a gold-standard newspaper or magazine that fits the industry and target group you are writing for and scour it for instances of that phrase. Just type its URL into your browser like so – site:nytimes.com "phrase".

                      

                                           Note, there is no space after the colon.

After you perform the search, you can see how often a phrase has been used by a newspaper. The number of search results isn’t always enough information. You have to check the context, too. Even if the newspaper you’re looking at is behind a paywall, you’ll at least be able to see a snippet of the text in the Google results. That’s usually enough for me to assess whether a phrase sounds natural or not. Of course, I occasionally need to read the whole article to get an idea of how the phrase is used in context if it’s something unfamiliar to me. So having access to these newspapers also helps. But even without it, there’s still a lot you can do.

Here are the resources we use the most at EB Translation for well-written formal English:

Target group

Newspaper

US English (general)

The New York Times

US English (financial)

Bloomberg or The Wall Street Journal

UK English (general)

The Guardian

UK English (financial)

Financial Times

You can also get even more precise in terms of region and industry with your site-specific Google searches.

Let’s go back to the question above, what new popcorn flavours will the famous Chagrin Falls Popcorn Shop serve in future? That is correct for British English. But if you’re writing for an American audience, you’ll search the New York Times. Google search reveals over one million hits for “in the future” and only 20,000 hits for “in future”. When you check the context of those, you see that all results for “in future” are either quotes from individuals who are not American or they are embedded in other phrases, such as “in future policy decisions” or “in future iPhones”. The Google search of “in the future”, however, shows you many stand-alone uses of this phrase.

So, how would you edit that sentence for US English?

What new popcorn flavors will the famous Chagrin Falls Popcorn Shop serve in the future?

Mmm, popcorn.


By Mara T.