Response to Moderna Språk’s review of Leon Barkho’s
Where Swedes Get it Wrong When Writing English1
The review2 by Professor Arne Olofsson gets it wrong in almost every single point raised to hit out at the book.
1. The reviewer says the author’s use of “Jönköping University” is misleading.
On the contrary. The reviewer’s term “university college” is misleading. Swedish “högskola” is not
a “university college.” A university college in the English-speaking world is often part of a larger
university. In Sweden a “högskola” is not. And for this reason “högskolan i Jönköping” calls itself
in English “Jönköping University,” because it is independent and has the academic powers and
privileges enjoyed by any British or U.S. university. The distinction is purely Swedish in character. I
took part in the latest seminar Högskoleverket had brought together on how to translate Swedish
terms into English. The seminar featured top translators in Sweden, among them native speakers.
We were unanimous that translating “högskola” into “university college” was wrong. The reviewer
should have checked how “Högskolan i Jönköping” presents itself in English. There are cultural,
academic and administrative nuances that separate the two terms in Swedish, which are not there in English. In American
English the term “university college” is not only misleading but confusing.
2. The reviewer says presenting the book as “corpus-based” is misleading.
The book is based on a collection of written texts. Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary, which we all use, defines “cor-
pus” as “a collection of written or spoken texts.”
3. The reviewer finds the author not being a native speaker of English a major shortcoming.
Evidence shows that non-native speakers can master the skill of writing. The list of prominent non-native English language
linguists, grammarians, writers, poets, journalists, etc. is very long. One good example is the prominent English language
grammarian, Jan Svartvik, a native of Sweden. The head of the language quality unit in Reuters News Agency for the years
I was one of its bureau chiefs was an Arab from Syria. My articles as a journalist have appeared in major U.S. and British
4. The reviewer finds the author not being a native speaker of Swedish a major shortcoming.
Show me a piece of academic evidence which supports this claim. If we go by this unfounded assumption, every English
language teacher or specialist, trying to improve, mark or correct an English text written by a Chinese student must be a na-
tive speaker of Chinese.
5. The reviewer says the author is not a grammarian.
The author has won the best paper award for an essay on the shortcomings of BBC language published in Journalism Studies,
the international blind-refereed journal. The author’s critique of BBC language, based on Halliday’s functional grammar, is
published in the blind-reviewed American Communication Journal, another top publication in the field. His new book on the
language of the BBC, CNN and al-Jazeera adopts a systematic functional approach in its analysis. According to its publishers,
(Hampton Press), the book is a great success in the U.S. with several U.S. universities either adopting it as a textbook or add-
ing it to their reading lists.
6. The reviewer finds the repeated use of meantime a shortcoming.
The book is 148 pages and has more than 50,000 words. In fact meantime is only used five times in the book.
7. The reviewer alleges that the author makes “sweeping statements in the spirit of unfounded generaliza-
tions.” Let us discuss them one by one.
a. The reviewer quotes the author as saying: “Swedes love talking in languages other than their own.” The
quotation is out of context. The reviewer should have read the whole paragraph to get the meaning. My own ex-
perience, which is shared by many other foreigners in Sweden, shows that many Swedes switch happily
between Swedish and English. Compare this with the situation in other European countries like Germany
and France. This particular love of foreign languages, namely English, has turned into a commercial asset
for Sweden. There is academic evidence in support of this claim. One such study is cited in the book. Inter-
national financiers, bankers and brokers find Stockholm linguistically as hospitable as The City in London
and the main reason is this love Swedes have for English and other foreign languages.
b. The author’s statements: “Many Swedes are fond of punctuation marks ... Many Swedes are fond
of writing long sentences which are difficult and awkward ... Generally, Swedes love sentences
with several clauses” are based on the corpus and the type of the English language texts the author has
examined. This is valid as far as the corpus goes. And as an academic, the author sees his data as quite
c. Another sweeping and unfounded generalization in the reviewer’s opinion is the author’s saying: “In English,
we usually do not prefer to start a sentence with a number.” Note the following two examples from
The New York Times:
Twenty tons of marijuana were found less than a block from another passage.
Twenty-nine people were charged with drawing girls into prostitution.
This is how we write in contemporary English. In English, we usually do not prefer to start the two sen-
tences above with “20” and “29”.
8. The reviewer says the author never explains how symbols like Q and R are seen in Sweden.
The symbols are almost universal in the English-speaking world. And it seems the reviewer has not read the introduction
where the author states very clearly that the first sample is thought to be erroneous or in need of rewriting and the one fol owing
it is a suggested correct version. Even a highly inexperienced English language learner would guess which sample is correct
and which is not from the context in which errors are explained and analyzed.
9. The reviewer says the author finds fault with “Faculty members plan to write a report to see what pro-
gress they have achieved.”
The statement is not true. The author does not say the sentence is wrong. The sentence is one of scores of others which the
author discusses under the notion of ‘redundancy’ in writing. The author provides a new suggested version which is shorter
and to the point. As for the claim that the suggested version “changes the modality of the sentence,” yes it does in terms of
prescriptive grammar but not in terms communicative and pragmatic values through which many of us see language today.
10. The reviewer says the author finds the metaphor “showering students with impressions” too bold.
It is true. The metaphor is not only “too bold” but very odd. I hope English language teachers in Sweden would not
encourage students to employ “too bold” metaphors unless they are absolutely sure of their currency in English.
11. The reviewer says some changes are completely unnecessary and quotes: “It is the dean who decides on
these matters,” which the author changes to: “The dean decides on these matters”. He also mocks the
author’s use of the word “expletive.”
The sentences are cited as examples where we normally use some words which can be deleted without drastically changing
the meaning of what we write. The sentence is part of an exercise on ‘redundancy.’ As for an “expletive” being part of “his
terminology,” here is American Heritage Dictionary’s definition of the term: “A word or phrase that does not contribute any
meaning but is added only to fill out a sentence or metrical line.” And all the examples in this exercise, including the one cited
by the reviewer, fall into this category.
12. The reviewer says: “[T]he author seems to think that Swedes risk using hair instead of here because of the
Swedish word här. Similarly, he says that it takes a very inexperienced learner to copy Swedish sin for use
as an English possessive determiner.
This is not what the author says. This distorts the message the author wants to give. No comparison is made between här and
here in the book. And the Swedish sin is never contrasted with an English possessive determiner.
13. The reviewer describes as “mind-boggling” the following example: “A young woman would not fart in
her husband’s lap.”
What is it that is “mind-boggling” about this? The BBC uses the sentence: http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/7536918.stm
And so does the ABC: http://www.google.se/#hl=sv&biw=1076&bih=530&q=%22a+young+woman+did+not+fart+in
14. The reviewer says the author “claims that there is a semantic difference between the interrogatives if and whether.
The semantic difference the author refers to is there in English. They are interchangeable mainly in reporting questions
which expect a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ answer, although whether sounds more natural, as Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary tells us,
with verbs such as discuss, consider and decide.
15. The reviewer says: “Sections 9.16-9.25, still under Subject and verb agreement,” have nothing to do with
verbs but deal with pronouns.
Does the reviewer think that pronouns cannot be subjects? Does he think that pronouns have no agreement with verbs?
16. In his discussion of inversion, the reviewer claims the author says nothing about the shared properties
of the words (Seldom, Nowhere, etc.), namely negation and restriction. He also claims the author men-
tions no example of (main verb + subject).
First, not all words in question can be viewed as providing total negation of the predicate from a communicative and prag-
matic viewpoint. Second, the author provides one good example from the BBC of the kind of inversion which involves
(main verb + subject).
17. The reviewer charges that the author “never exemplified” that it is “acceptable today to use a plural verb
… when referring back to pronouns such as each, everybody, someone, anybody … .”
Again, this is not true. There are several examples in the book exemplifying this.
18. The reviewer criticizes the author’s statement: “The main verbs that help form non-finite clauses are: to
+ infinitive … -ing participle …-ed participle.”
Giants of the English language like Quirk, Greebaum, Leech and Svartvik say that and talk about non-finite verb phrases
and refer to “to + infinitive … -ing participle … -ed participle.”
19. The reviewer finds something wrong with the author’s definition of reporting verbs, which in his opinion
should not include condemn, denounce, demand and discourage.
The author sees paraphrasing and quoting not in terms of the traditional “direct and indirect speech” but within the prag-
matic and dialogic notions of language philosophers such as Austin and Bakhtin. It is the presence of voices which tells us
that these verbs have a reporting function. Consider the following examples:
a. Parana (2008) demands the return of foreign investors to the region. (Paraphrase)
b. Parana (2008: 30) said: “I ask the government to allow these individuals to come back home.” (Quote)
c. Parana (2008) says it is necessary to let foreign investors return to the region. (Paraphrase)
Each of the three sentences has two voices. They are quite distinct in (b) and merged in (a) and (c). So, demand like say is a
reporting verb here.
Note the following two sentences where the verb denounce in (d) has the same reporting function as said in (e):
d. Parana (2008: 30) denounced as “false and groundless” claims that Iran was producing nuclear weapons.
e. Parana (2008: 30) said reports that Iran was producing nuclear weapons were “false and groundless.”
20. The reviewer says the book should have been submitted to an editor or referee.
It was submitted to a referee. The report was positive.
21. The reviewer says the book should have been read by a native speaker.
I wonder whether the reviewer had read the book carefully. Otherwise, how could he have missed reading page viii?
22. The reviewer says: “Occasionally his (the author’s) changes result in ungrammatical and/or pragmatically
odd sentences.” The only example he provides is: “Died in 2003, Mrs. Duncan’s husband, Neil, an archi-
tect, supported her work.”
To get it straight from the horse’s mouth, I sent the sentence to two professors in England: Greg Philo of Glasgow Univer-
sity and John Richardson of Lancaster University. Both said the sentence was OK when viewed within the context of the
exercise. Their suggestion was either to start with a subject or change died to deceased in the 2nd print.
The discussion above illustrates how pretentious and wrong Professor Olofsson has been throughout his review. It also
shows how biased Moderna Språk has been in rejecting the response to a piece which is full of errors and false linguistic
assumptions. This proves how badly books like this one are needed in Sweden. The book has been an astounding success
so far and it has topped the best seller list in its field in Sweden3. Discussing language is often a hot issue and the main point
of my book is to open up a discussion centered on possible and alternative solutions on how to address some of the errors
Swedes make when writing. I cannot claim I am the authority on 2nd language learning. Therefore, I repeatedly mention in
the book that many of my solutions are suggestions. Ordinary readers have been writing to me, sometimes providing better
solutions, which certainly will go into the 2nd print. And despite his unfair critique of the book, there are at least two good
points which I will need to consider in Olofsson’s 1,964-word review. The first relates to page 142 where u should have been
united, and the second relates to the use of the word “progressive” on page 54 rather than “-ing form.”
May 7, 2011
1 This essay was sent to the journal, but the editors, after nearly five months of discussions, did not agree to publish it on
the pretext that from now on “Moderna Språk will not allow anyone to comment on articles or reviews in previous issues.”
The decision is unfair and biased. Credible academic journals only reject submissions after blind reviewing. Any respected
scholarly journal would have sent the essay, Olofsson’s review and the book to independent reviewers. The decision to print
or not would have been taken in light of their remarks. That is how issues like these are settled in respectable academic
circles. It seems the editors turned it down, nearly five months after its submission, because it proves that Moderna Språk’s
review of the book is pretentious, unfair and full of errors and false assumptions – a blunder instead of correcting the edi-
tors preferred to sit on.
2 The review is electronically available at: http://ojs.ub.gu.se/ojs/index.php/modernasprak+/article/viewFile/476/452