Six Things to Check in European Union Style

When working on European Union (EU) documents, consistency is key. Most documents in all 24 official languages have to be translated into English. That's a lot of text to be made consistent! The EU produces the English Style Guide to help prepare the thousands of documents written in and translated into English every year. The 13 EU institutions and bodies and the more-than-40 EU agencies rely on the style guide, and so should you.

The style guide is dense—108 pages—and complemented by its own 110-page appendix with specific information on the 28 Member States. In short, it's a lot to remember. Here are some key elements to keep in mind.

Spelling: Use Your Best Judg[e]ment

The Concise Oxford English Dictionary is the preferred spelling resource for EU documents. However, a major exception is that the -ise- version of a word (stabilise, maximise, theorise) is preferred over the -ize- version. However, watch out for the spelling of organizations. The EU keeps the original spelling of organizations and bodies depending on where the organization is located and whether that country uses the the -ize- form as a rule. For example, you’ll keep the -iz- in the ‘United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization’. 

Place Names: Plzeň or Pilsen?

Should you write Mosel or Moselle? Florence or Firenze? Each Member State’s listing in the Country Compendium details which spelling to use for local geographical names. Names of places on borders can be especially tricky—for example, use ‘Mosel’ when writing about a strictly German context and ‘Moselle’ everywhere else. If in doubt, remember that the English Style Guide suggests using the native form for geographical names, unless the English version is overwhelmingly accepted. Thus, you’ll write ‘the Arno River flows through Florence’ because ‘Florence’ is more recognizable in English than ‘Firenze.’

In Order To Make Your Writing Clearer, Avoid Legalese

Each EU law must be transposed into each Member State’s legislation. Considering that the EU has 24 official languages, that’s a lot of translating and a whole lot of legalese. English is a stylistically succinct language (at least compared to grandiose French or bureaucratic Polish) and English sentences can quickly lose their meaning with excessive legal phrasing and terminology, especially when translated from more verbose languages.

The EU produces a guide called How to Write Clearly, to help you streamline your writing in English. Strip legalese down to its simplest meaning: Edit ‘conduct a review of’ to be simply ‘review’ and ‘in view of the fact that’ as just plain old ‘as.’ The EU reminds us, ‘Simple language will … make you more credible.’

An Honest Enemy Is Better Than a False Friend

When editing translations, be on the lookout for false friends—pairs of similarly spelled words in two languages that have very different meanings. Wouldn’t it be nice if the French word ‘important’ meant the same as the English ‘important’? How to Write Clearly, with its chart of examples of false friends, reminds us that ‘important’ is the correct translation if you mean ‘significant’, but not if you mean ‘large’.

Keep It Together with Hard Spaces

Get your fingers used to typing out hard spaces when working on EU texts. Hard spaces are hidden characters that prevent the words or numbers on either side from splitting up if they fall at the end of a line. Add hard spaces:

  • in place of the comma in numbers over three digits (20 000)
  • in between numbers and their currency or abbreviations (EUR 1 000 or EUR 1 bn)
  • for measurements (100 km/h)
  • for legal articles or their symbols and numbers (Article 123 or § 123)
  • in between the day, month and year (6 July 2013)
  • before the per cent symbol (100 %)
  • before a second initial in a name (V. S. Naipaul).

On a PC, a hard space is: ctrl+shift+space bar; on a Mac it’s: option+space.

EU-Speak

Familiarize yourself with a few key phrases that are always the same—even when they’re a bit clunky. Perhaps the most important example is the phrase ‘of the Parliament and of the Council’. Following the rule that ‘short is better’ in English writing, an editor with an itchy trigger finger might cut the second ‘of’ in that phrase. Section 18.13 of the English Style Guide admits the second ‘of’ is inherently ‘unwieldy,’ yet reiterates that this is the only accepted way to refer to joint acts of the Parliament and of the Council.

After the Treaty of Lisbon in 2007, the phrase ‘the European Union’ replaced ‘the European Communities’ and the ‘European Commission’ replaced the ‘Commission of the European Communities.’ The EU’s shared economic market is specifically referred to as the ‘single market’ and not the EU ‘internal market.’

A Faster Way to Check

Checking text manually is time-consuming and prone to error. Even the best editors and translators can let a hard space slip by. And it’s almost impossible to keep each preferred geographic term in mind without constantly referring back to the Country Compendium. So a faster, more accurate way to check is to use PerfectIt.

PerfectIt is an MS Word add-in that checks consistency. Built into PerfectIt is an option to check with EU style preferences. Selecting that option means that PerfectIt will automatically look for over 5,000 common errors in EU documents. It checks for British spellings, -ise- endings, preferred place names and non-breaking spaces. It even has built-in checks for false friends, legalese and EU terminology.

Select EU StyleFigure 1: Select EU Style in PerfectIt

PerfectIt’s EU style check is based on the EU’s English Style Guide and How to Write Clearly and created in collaboration with Language Creations. It helps you clean up your EU documents and save time (and brain space) for substantive editing so that your copy reads succinctly and clearly.

Conclusion

Clarity of language and consistency in terminology and spelling matters. Whether your assignment is a simple webpage for the public or a 1,000-page resolution of far-reaching importance, remember that the vast library of EU documents is accessible not only to government workers but also every EU citizen. Though you needn’t become an expert on the minutia of the EU English Style Guide, familiarizing yourself with the key points mentioned in this article will help polish your document to the EU’s high standards.

To deliver the very best documents, PerfectIt’s check for European Union Style finds more errors and saves you time on document preparation. It’s used by over a thousand editors and translators, and it’s an inexpensive way to help ensure documents conform to European Union Style. There’s a free trial at www.intelligentediting.com.