Bad Sample Sentences

I’m currently doing some editing work for a Taiwanese book on English. It’s one of those books that takes the most common English words, organizes them alphabetically, then provides a Chinese translation, English sample sentence, and Chinese translation of said sample sentence for each word. Now, since each word only gets one sample sentence, it’s important that the usage in each sentence (1) corresponds to the most common meaning of that word, and (2) provides clear usage of the word.

OK, now let’s look at two entries I was given:

1. are (v. 是): You are kindly. 你很亲切。

2. bun (n. 小圆面包) Mary always wore her hair in a bun. 玛莉总是把她的头发挽成一个圆髻。

Even if you can’t understand the sample sentence in #1, if you look carefully, you can see that the definition (v. 是) given is nowhere to be found in the sample sentence. This is because of a major difference between Chinese and English grammar. The person writing the sentence seems to be completely unaware of this point. Since the author is choosing the definitions, doesn’t it make sense to choose sample sentences in English which can be translated in such a way that the word in the definition will appear in the sample translated sentence? Well, not to some people, apparently.

I think my complaint with #2 is pretty clear. A sample sentence should use the basic meaning of the sentence, not some relatively obscure derived meaning.

Man, I thought I was going to breeze through this editing job in a few hours, but since I have to rewrite/retranslate so many of these sentences, I’ve already spent over 2 hours on vocabulary for letters A and B alone. Good thing it pays by the hour.


John Pasden

John is a Shanghai-based linguist and entrepreneur, founder of AllSet Learning.


  1. Yes! Please shed light on this topic!

    Considering those materials were written by professionals in the ESL business, now maybe you can understand why I absolutely can’t stand Taiwanese teachers (or parents) trying to teach my students English. I can’t say that none are qualified, but I’ve dealt with dozens of English teachers in Taiwanese public schools and none of them had decent English pronunciation or grammar themselves. Even some of the teachers at nearby schools who are using my school’s curriculum (pirated, of course) have added to it and screwed up the grammar in the process.

    The question I have is why, in the name of all things holy, would mainland Chinese schools be importing Taiwanese materials? Are the mainland materials… <gulp> worse?

    Are we talking Japan levels of Engrish!!?

  2. Mark,

    The book is not actually for use in the mainland. I just do work for a Taiwanese company sometimes. Also, I should mention that it’s not safe to assume the the book was written by professionals in the ESL business (although I suppose it depends on how you define “professional”)…

  3. Are you going to become the Noah Webster of China?

  4. I remember a so-called proofreading job that was forced on me once. The author believed she had ‘translated’ a book into English, and since (after all that hard work) it was to be published and needed to go to the printer in just a few days — she thought I could give it a quick-over to see if there were any little mistakes left. Well… quick-over wasn’t the appropriate word. Even given the small size of the book and the fact that 1/2 of the pages were pictures, and 1/2 contained no more than 1 paragraph of explainatory text, it still took more than 10 hours. She didn’t translate anything, she just wrote a bunch of shit that should not be considered “English” by even the most ABSURDLY lenient standard, and then she had me do the translation, essentially.

    Ever notice how it is 10x harder to fix a Chinese “English sentence” than it would have been to come up with the sentence yourself ? Multiply the frustration of one sentence out for 10 hours, page after page. It was a nightmare. This is why for me, my instant emotional reaction to hearing Chinese-accented spoken English is an overwhelming desire to hit the person.

    Chinese tend to have a serious problem with believing the mere fact that they have wasted 20 years of their lives studying English somehow qualifies them to speak it, write their uncorrected s@%$ in a book, or even even sell their book. Ever notice how any book written to help foreigners learn Chinese will have a price which is jacked up at least 2-5x the cost of a normal Chinese book of similar size ? Having paid absurd amount for one set, and being frustrated nearly to death by the horrible horrible English in it, I’m almost considering sending death threats to the author, just because he is such a SON OF A @#$)(@#$ @)#$#@$ for having the nerve to even sell his piece of … Oh — and since I know no one else will do anything about it, I’d consider it a public service to all the other poor souls who bought it.

  5. Yikes, Justin. Did you ever consider declining the editing job instead of developing an irrational hatred?

  6. Parasite:
    How’s your Chinese? Maybe you should find a place where people make no effort at all to learn or use English, before you pull out the remaining hairs on your head.

  7. If you’re going through all the trouble of editing and rewriting the sentences in this book why not go the extra step and write your own. At least you get the credit for all the work and get some money to boot.

  8. Justin (Parasite) Says: February 26, 2006 at 12:38 pm

    John: Haha. I don’t want to get into details (after saying all that!) but it wasn’t really optional, and in fact, it wasn’t even compensated! It had to do with scratching someone’s back and getting mine scratched in return. (Lets say SARS time it was difficult to get your guests admitted into university entrances, etc. without a ‘special privledge’)

    proteal: That’s my dream, finding Chinese people who HATE English. My most optimistic encounters always turn sour after just a few days. My new friend don’t seem to take any interest in English, and I’m so happy, and then suddenly they show up with a textbook… “Can you teach me?” !! It is even hard for me to comprehend how it can be so hard to find someone at least indifferent to learning English — given I think in the US you’d be searching for a student who cares to even learn ANY language at all, let alone chase people around begging for free lessons.

  9. It think these two issues are linked. I’d argue that a lot of the absolutely horrid translations and “English” compositions stem from the wide spread obsession with English. In my first comment on this thread I complained about Taiwanese English teachers. One might wonder how it is that there are so many Taiwanese people who can’t differentiate simple vowel sounds and don’t realize that is/am/are are used with nouns or adjectives, rather than verbs or adverbs. How is it that people who say things like “She is kindly” can hold a job TEACHING the language or making language learning materials?

    The answer is a simple one of supply and demand. So many Chinese people want to learn English, that there just aren’t anywhere near enough competent teachers to meet the demand. In America, you’ll rarely see a high school Russian teacher, or a German translator who is incompetent. Why? In America, there’s a relatively small demand for Russian teachers and German translators. If EVERBODY American company suddenly wanted to use Chinese in their advertisements you can be sure the results would be nearly as bad as the English advertisements Japanese companies make. The only language that American local governments and companies DO want to plaster everywhere is Spanish. Fortunately, since that’s done for the very valid reason that 15% of the population speaks Spanish at home, getting the decent translators isn’t too tough. In general, the main time Americans want to use another language is if they, or a lot of people they interact with use it (i.e. Korean signs in LA). Only with sudden pop-trends, like Chinese tattoos, will you find language mistakes of similar number to those made in Asia.

    I strongly suspect that the English of the average professional translator in China would be better if everyone weren’t so crazy about learning English.

  10. Mark–isn’t kindly also an adjective? ‘Kindly’ has more of a down home ring to it. Maybe it’s not used in your parts. 🙂

    As for ni hen qinqie, I know that shi is not required for adjectival predicates, but it is possible, right? I suppose it would have an emphatic effect, right? Something like:

    A: Ni hen qinqie.
    B: Nali nali. Bus shi. Bu qinqie.
    A: Ni shi hen qinqie. Ni shi ge haoren.
    (A kisses B.)

    Is the above dialogue possible?

    As an aside, I think 26 English love dialogues from A-Z would make more interesting reading. Hmmmm… “You’ve got great buns!”

    (John–not disputing anything you said. Just investigating the grammar more closely.)

  11. Good point about kindly, Laska. I’ve never heard “You are kindly”, but I have occasionally heard something like “the kindly old man”. However, that really has no bearing on what I was saying, since I’ve also seen sentences like “He is handsomely”, “The big bad wolf was hurry away”, and “They are politely” in materials used by the public schools and huge private chains. People who write that kind of “English” shouldn’t be using it professionally. Unfortunately there are hordes of them.

  12. Mark: In America, you’ll rarely see a high school Russian teacher, or a German translator who is incompetent. Why? In America, there’s a relatively small demand for Russian teachers and German translators.

    It’s not the demand – it’s the supply. In reality, there are hordes of native Russian and German speakers stateside – tens of thousands move here permanently every year. In addition, Russian and German speakers who teach their native languages stateside can get paid wages equal or superior to what they can get in their homelands, so there are no disincentives for teaching Russian or German here. In China, wages for ESL teachers are about 6,000 yuan a month, or about $800. Compare that with the average teacher’s starting wage, stateside, of about $2000 a month, which eventually translates to tenure and a pension at retirement, not to mention 4 months of paid holidays every year. The moment China starts paying foreign ESL teachers $4000 a month (hardship pay plus compensation for lack of tenure and benefits), plus expenses, the skilled ESL teacher shortage will end. I’m not holding my breath.

  13. Why not shrug your shoulders, say “差不多就行了” and call it a day?


  14. I agree with Mark when he mentions the supply-demand imbalance.

    I can tell you that in the case of my mother tongue -Spanish-, the situation is exactly the same you all have depicted.

    I am presently finishing a thesis on (grosso modo) Spanish for Mandarin Chinese Speakers. I have had to struggle to even UNDERSTAND the texts of dozens of Taiwanese informants. Did I mention they were taking the last university year?

    Even though the majority of them are obviously underprepared, they are likely to jump from being students to hold positions as teachers/translators of Spanish, even if they still produce sentences that seem written by… ehrm… a monkey randomly picking words from a dictionary.

    I guess the reason is that they have been taught by incompetent teachers with a poor level of Spanish, so that the lack of accuracy of their knowledge reflects the situation in their classrooms.

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