I first encountered Wiley Miller’s comic strip Non Sequitur before I learned French. The title intrigued me–and tied up my un-tutored tongue–enough to force me to find out what it meant. And thus, a scrawny 11-year-old could now wrinkle her nose and reply to any argument, “Well, that was a non sequitur” with the certainty that all in ear-shot had been mystified into silence. Even though I couldn’t pronounce it yet.
If you’ve ever been frustrated by an author’s inept use of a non-English phrase, you know the entire piece tends to lack a certain je ne sais quoi. But because they’re often irreplaceable, fun, and provide an interesting new layer to your communication, they shouldn’t be left by the wayside. Here’s when and how to use foreign words in English understandably and enjoyably.
Italicize, por favor. Don’t sneak a phrase from another language unannounced. It’s awkward, because readers are never expecting to run into it untl they do, and if they don’t know what it means, it can be annoying.
Know your audience. Editing a paper for a doctoral candidate in economics, I came upon the word zaibatsu, sans italics. I assumed my author didn’t know any better and globally italicized every occurrence before I looked up the term. It turns out the word (which refers to pre-WWII Japanese business cliques) is so commonly used in economy and finance circles it’s never italicized in their publications. I quietly removed the italics and tiptoed away. Don’t tell anyone.
Location, location, localidad. Context is especially important when using a phrase from another language. If you don’t want the awkwardness of having to stop and directly define it, make sure it’s clear what it means by describing it or elaborating on it in some way.
Make sure it means what you think it means. We constantly confuse the meanings of English words and end up looking dumb, so there’s no reason to feel confident when deciding to use a foreign word or phrase. I like Google translate, but don’t trust it because it’s a machine. Try finding a dictionary of the language you’re using, a list of words if there’s no dictionary available, or reaching out to speakers of the language on social media.
Don’t italicize everything. There are some words and phrases we use without translating on paper or even in our heads because they’re so common. How do you know which they are? Look them up in the dictionary. If they’re there, you probably don’t need to italicize.