Emails and Word Choice: Examining the Lexical Choices in a Student Housing Correspondence – by Isabella Mey


In a multicultural and multilingual country, English is beginning to take on more and more of an important role. Also playing an important role in this globalisation is the medium of emails. Thanks to today’s technology, larger scale communications can take place simultaneously and anachronistically. One does not have to immediately be available to still receive all the relevant information. The formal aspects of an email, especially in a place of business, can offer interesting insights into how one communicates with others. This small-scale project  examined various emails sent by a student housing organization on the lexical choice of words in an English translation and what effect this has on the reading of the emails. As a collaborative research project, Kim Brägger’s blog post focuses on the syntaxial aspects of these emails!

The emails selected were sent to the tenants of the housing offered by the organization and are written in both German and English. A total of 12 emails were available for examination, sent by the student housing organization throughout the years 2021 and 2022. To start us off with, here is an email that talked about an “open house” event, where the housing was opened to the public and contained the following opening line:

Aus diesem Grund informieren wir euch,
Translated to:
We herewith inform you,

The choice was made to translate the German aus diesem Grund with the English herewith. The literal translation of the German would be something along the lines of ‘because of this reason’. Shortening the sentence with the use of ‘herewith’ strikes one as very formal. The theme of translating the German with very, at times almost over-formal English is a continuing one. From the same email we also find the sentence

Zwischen 11 – 13 Uhr finden Führungen statt.
Translated to:
Between 11:00 am – 1:00 pm several guidances will take place.

The lexical choice here too was kept on a very formal level, translating Führungen with guidances. When doing a layman translation, perhaps the more common word ‘tour’ would be one’s first choice. According to the frequency data compiled in Top 60,000 “Lemmas” by, which examines the frequency of word usage in various mediums, the word ‘tour’ comes in at ranking 1705, while the used term ‘guidance’ is not even featured in the top 60’000-word compilation. The closest approximation would be the term ‘guided’, listed at ranking 9835. Therefore, one can conclude that the word choice in this case, while indeed a formal one, is also an uncommon one in the sense of frequency and association. One is more likely to go to the word ‘tour’ for this particular context.

We have a similar case of uncommon lexical translation choices in an email that concerned furniture being stored incorrectly, as seen here:

Falls die Möbel bis nächsten Montag nicht entfernt werden, lassen wir diese entsorgen
Translated to:
 All furniture which will not be stowed away by next Monday, will be disposed.

For the translation of entfernen¸ we have the usage of stowed. In a similar case to the previous email, the more frequent association one would have with entfernen would be the English ‘remove’ (Featured in the statistical analysis at ranking 31’735), while the used term stowed is also far more uncommon, not being featured in the top 60’000 words. While the uncommonness of the term does not equal formality, I would argue that it does give it a more formal character, by the reason that it “feels” more formal because it is not the term one would immediately expect if one read through the German version first.

An interesting variation found throughout some of the emails sent by the student housing organization is the omission of certain words. In an E-mail concerning maintenance on the internet in the housing, the following information can be read:

Falls ihr in letzter Zeit Probleme mit dem Internet hattet, bitten wir um Mitteilung bis spätestens am 23. Januar 2022, damit wir diese noch rechtzeitig an die Wartungsfirma “xxxx” weiterleiten können.
Translated to:
If you have realised any issues lately with the internet connections we kindly ask you to inform us lately by January 23rd, 2022, so we can forward these informations to the maintenance company.

What stands out in the German portion, is that the name of the maintenance company is mentioned yet is absent in the English one (anonymised here). Regardless of whether the name was left out for shortness’ sake or to avoid repetition, it was removed from the English version. A similar case occurs in an E-mail concerning disposal of bulky goods and issues with Graffiti. For comparison:

Die Entsorgung solcher Möbelstücke o.ä. ist für die «xxxxx» nicht kostenlos und erhöht die Haus-Nebenkosten, dadurch würden sich längerfristig auch eure Mieten erhöhen, was nicht in unserem Sinn ist.
Gleiches gilt für die Entfernung von Graffitis. In den letzten Wochen haben sich die Sprayereien in der Liftkabine mehrere Male wiederholt. Diese werden durch unsere Reinigungsleute jeweils entfernt und erscheinen ebenfalls als Zusatzaufwand in den Nebenkosten.

Translated to:

The disposal of furniture causes extra cost for “xxxxx” and we do not want to increase your rents because of higher extra charges.
Also lately the clearning personal had to remove graffitis in the elevator several times. Please, note, that this also causes extra costs for “xxxxx” and will increase the charges.

Already visually, the German text is evidently longer. Reading through it, one can see that, for example, the text regarding the fact that in the long-term the rent would be raised: […] dadurch würden sich langfristig auch eure Mieten erhöhen […], has been significantly shortened in the English version, with […] we do not want to increase your rents only because of higher extra charges. Another example from this same E-mail comes in the latter paragraph detailing the graffiti. The German text is a bit more rounded out, while the English text succinctly goes straight to the point, without mentioning the cleaning personnel, Reinigungsleute, from the German Paragraph.

And so, although the English version manages to convey the necessary information, certain details that might be helpful for background or further information are omitted, which might be good to know for a tenant.

Nowadays, where studying and business opportunities are becoming more and more globalized, it is indeed important to offer an English option in official documents. The student housing organization makes sure to include this option in its emails. Concerning the examined emails, the word choice is formal, which is appropriate for the contents and context of the emails, yet some details that might be important for tenants or could provide background information are omitted in the English translations. Thus, one can conclude that the German versions are the primary focus when sending these emails to tenants. While this is certainly not a negative point, it reveals that the primary group of tenants is presumably of German-speaking backgrounds. Even so, hopefully this small research project will encourage you, the reader, to keep an eye on emails you might receive! If they are ever featured in two languages, it is a fun little exercise to take note of how the translation can differ and what effect this can have on your reading and understanding of an email.

by Isabella Mey