This post was updated on May 20th, 2021. A kind reader pointed out that the apology I obtained from the Belgian Embassy’s Facebook page was an edited second draft. The English version of the original apology made reference to moving on from this incident. But the Korean text used much less informal language. I’ve added the original apology and some additional commentary below about the importance of tone in your writing.
(Jump to update)

Several times, I’ve explained why you should use an English copywriter or copy editor. I’ve discussed how difficult it is to write well. Grammar can be confusing. Choosing the correct word can be a challenge. Who can remember all those punctuation rules? Getting your words to flow requires rewrite after rewrite. Writing can be challenging for native speakers. It can be downright agonizing for non-native speakers.

Choosing the right words, proper spelling, and correct punctuation is a great start. But there’s another aspect of writing that can be even harder to master for non-native speakers—tone. Mastering tone in your writing is challenging because it requires a deep understanding of the language. And it’s important. The wrong tone in your writing can make you sound arrogant, insincere, or snobbish.

What you say isn’t always important, but tone in your writing is key

Of course, this isn’t limited to English. In fact, I’m going to use a Korean example to illustrate my point. I shared a post about this on my Facebook page back in April. On April 9th in Seoul, there was an incident involving the Belgian ambassador’s wife at a clothing shop. A shop worker accused Xiang Xueqiu of shoplifting. She reacted to the accusation by striking two of the shop workers.

A stock photo of a woman slapping a man, representing the fact that Xiang Xueqiu struck a shop worker

I’m not going to comment on the ambassador’s wife’s behavior or diplomatic immunity. I am going to comment on the apology offered by the Belgian ambassador, Peter Lescouhier. On April 22nd, 13 days after the incident, the ambassador apologized—on the Belgian embassy’s Facebook page. The apology was in English and Korean. Here is the text from that Facebook post:

Shopping incident clothing store

The Ambassador of Belgium sincerely regrets the incident involving his wife which happened on April 9th and wants to apologize on her behalf. No matter the circumstances, the way she reacted is unacceptable. The Ambassador was informed by the police that an investigation is ongoing on the day his wife was hospitalized. Given the investigation is still ongoing, he will not comment any further on the incident nor give interviews. He confirms that his wife will go to the police once her health is sufficiently restored, that she will assist with the police investigation and that she will apologize in person to the shopkeeper.

(비공식 번역문)

주한 벨기에 대사는 지난 4월 9일 발생한 그의 부인과 관련된 사건에 대해 진심 어린 유감을 표하며, 부인을 대신하여 피해자분들께 사과의 말씀을 전합니다. 어떠한 상황에서도 대사 부인이 저지른 행동은 용납될 수 없는 일입니다. 대사는 부인이 입원한 그날에 관련 수사가 진행 중이라는 사실을 경찰로부터 통보받았습니다. 수사가 아직 진행 중인만큼 이번 사건에 대한 추가적인 언급이나 인터뷰는 하지 않겠습니다. 대사는 그의 부인의 건강이 회복되는 대로 경찰에 출두하여 조사에 임할 것이며 피해자에게 직접 사과 할 것임을 분명히 말씀드립니다.

Original Facebook Post

Words convey meaning, but tone in your writing also conveys nuance

Belgium has three official languages: Dutch, French, and German. According to Wikipedia, 38% of Belgians speak English as a second language. Reading the apology above, there are clues that a native English speaker didn’t write it.

A vector image of the Belgian flag

First of all, the title “Shopping incident clothing store” is quite awkward. Something like, “Regarding the clothing store incident,” would’ve been more natural. Or even better, “Apology for the incident at the clothing store.” While the grammar is correct, the whole apology has an awkward feel to it. It doesn’t flow. The lines about his wife being hospitalized and her health being “sufficiently restored” are awkward.

Furthermore, it doesn’t feel very sincere. Ambassador Lescouhier doesn’t attempt to excuse his wife’s behavior. He states that he “regrets the incident” and wants to “apologize on her[his wife’s] behalf.” But that’s it for the apology. 

The English version reads more like an official statement on the matter than an apology. And that may have been the intention. But it was an odd choice to post it on the embassy’s Facebook page. I can’t find any reference to the incident or the apology on the embassy’s homepage.

An unprofessional translation can do more harm than good

My Korean readers will no doubt be aware the Korean public did not react favorably to the Korean apology. Like the English version, the Korean version is grammatically correct. Discussing the Korean text with my wife (a native Korean), she also felt that the apology wasn’t heartfelt. It was too short and more explanatory than apologetic.

An image of a jumble of Korean characters, representing Hangul—the Korean alphabet

Korean differs from English in that the use of honorifics is very important. It’s something that learners of Korean often struggle with when starting out. You have to conjugate verbs differently when speaking to older people than when speaking to people younger than you. An apology should, of course, use the most polite form of the language. But the Korean public felt that the proper honorifics weren’t used. There were even claims that an automatic translator produced the Korean text.

My wife (a professional translator) does not think this was the case. But she doesn’t think it was professionally translated either. She felt the English text was translated into Korean, but very literally. The translator didn’t make any edits to make the Korean version more acceptable.

Sometimes saying, “Sorry” isn’t enough

On May 7th, The Guardian reported on the poor reception of the Korean translation.

“You are apologising in that tone?” asked a poster on Naver, the country’s largest portal. “Do you really reflect your country’s stature?”

This supports one of the other complaints my wife had with the Korean translation—that it wasn’t professionally translated. This was an official communication from an ambassador. It would seem logical to have used a professional translator to ensure that the tone of the apology was right. That doesn’t seem to have been the case. 

A vector image of a close-up of a computer keyboard with one key displaying the word translate, representing the idea of automatic translation

My wife felt the apology would’ve been acceptable if a normal citizen had been apologizing for this incident. But coming from an official, like an ambassador, she felt it should’ve been more formal. It also should’ve been professionally translated.

I do not know if the ambassador intended to keep the apology so neutral and seemingly insincere. But I do know that this story got quite a bit of traction in the Korean news. The Korean version of the apology has been the main point of discussion. Many feel the apology should have been made in person rather than posting it on social media. A well-written apology may have been better received.

An old style typewriter with a single word on the piece of paper—Update

Update (May 20, 2021)—Original English/Korean version of the apology

Shopping incident clothing store
벨기에 대사부인 사건 관련 보도자료
The Ambassador of Belgium sincerely regrets the incident involving his wife which happened on April 9th and wants to apologize on her behalf.
주한 벨기에 대사는 지난 4월 9일 벌어진 그의 부인에 관련된 사건에 대해 깊은 유감을 표하며, 그의 부인을 대신하여 피해자에게 사과 드린다.
No matter the circumstances, the way she reacted is unacceptable.
어떠한 상황에서도 그녀가 한 행동은 용납될 수 없다.
The Ambassador was informed by the police that an investigation is ongoing on the day his wife was hospitalized.
주한 벨기에 대사는 부인이 입원하던 당일 이번 사건에 대한 수사가 진행 중임을 경찰로부터 전달받았다.
Given the investigation is still ongoing, he will not comment any further on the incident nor give interviews.
사건에 대한 조사가 아직 진행 중이므로, 주한 벨기에 대사는 이번 사건에 대해 코멘트(comment) 하거나 인터뷰 하지 않을 것이다.
He confirms his wife will go to the police once possible.
주한 벨기에 대사는 그의 부인이 가능한 빨리 경찰 조사 받을 것임을 확인한다.
Unfortunately, she is unable to respond to the police invitation right now as she is under medical care following a stroke she suffered in the beginning of last week.
그러나 그녀는 지난주부터 지금까지 뇌졸중으로 인해 입원 치료 중으로, 현재 경찰 조사에 임할 수 없는 상태이다.
We hope her health will improve quickly, so she will soon be able to assist with the police investigation, so we can all put this regrettable incident behind us.
우리는 대사 부인이 하루속히 건강을 회복하고 경찰 조사에 협조하여, 이 같은 불미스러운 일이 마무리 되기를 바라는 바이다.

Screen Capture from 뉴스핌

Examining the original English version, there are more clues a native English speaker didn’t write it. It is unlikely a native English speaker would’ve written “…in the beginning of last week.” It would’ve been more natural to write “…at the beginning of last week.” The tone of the apology is even more striking. I can see why they edited the English version.

First, there seems to be an attempt to garner sympathy for the ambassador’s wife. The revised version doesn’t mention why she was hospitalized. Second, and much more egregious, is the reference to putting “this regrettable incident behind us.” This comes off as, “Oops, my wife made a mistake. Can we please move on?” Again, I can see why the revised apology did not include this.

The revised English apology is certainly more neutral, and looking at the first version, I can see why. As stated earlier, it’s not always what you say but how you say it.

Tone in your writing matters—especially in an apology

After looking at the original Korean apology, I better understand what upset netizens so much. It is much less formal. It reads like a factual account of what happened. The meaning is clear, but it would appear the author had no idea about Korean culture or language. It doesn’t use any honorifics at all.

The original apology perplexed my wife. It seems like a native Korean speaker wrote it. But a native Korean speaker would never have used such an informal tone in an apology. Nor would they have failed to use honorifics. Perhaps the thing that sticks out the most is ending the apology with (끝), which means “the end.” Who in their right mind would end an apology in that manner? Office memos end in this fashion, not apologies.

Though not perfect, the revised version is closer in tone to a proper Korean apology. My wife added that if the current version of the apology had been posted initially, there likely wouldn’t have been nearly as much uproar. Reviewing the original English and Korean apologies, the embassy would’ve done well to have chosen their words much more carefully.

A skilled English proofreader will do more than just correct your grammar—they’ll fix the tone in your writing

Language can convey more than just literal meaning. Selecting your words with care can influence the perception of your brand. Overly casual language can undermine your attempt to appear professional and sophisticated. Want to appear friendly and approachable? Choosing the wrong synonym from the thesaurus may come across as cold or distant. Getting the language on your page perfect is no easy task.

A compilation picture 4x4 of 16 pictures of the same woman displaying a wide range of emotions representing how you can convey emotion or tone in your writing

It is unlikely you would offend visitors to your site so much that they’d leave and never come back. But several errors in tone might cause you to lose a sale. You may come across as too strong or too informal—without intending to. If your word choice contradicts your tone, you may confuse your customers. Consider these as some of the many reasons to use a professional English copywriter or proofreader. Not only will your copy be free of errors, but the tone of your page will also be on brand.

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2 thoughts on “Fixed all your grammar and spelling mistakes? But did you remember this?

  1. The same “kind reader” that alerted me to the earlier version of the apology notified me that Ambassador Lescouhier’s tenure will end this summer. This time, the announcement was made on Facebook, Instagram, and the embassy website.

    Though making the announcement on the embassy webpage is a step in the right direction, I’m not so sure the headline sets the right tone:

    Belgium turns the page after incident in the Republic of Korea

    Again, this has a very cavalier and dismissive tone. It gives the vibe of, “Let’s just put this behind us, okay?”

    Also, the article mentions that Xiang Xueqiu’s diplomatic immunity was partially waived by the Belgian Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Further digging indicates that her immunity was only waived in so far as she agreed to police questioning, but it has not been completely waived, and she will not face prosecution of punishment.

    Many mistakes were made during this unfortunate incident. Let’s just hope lessons were learned.

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