Writing English as a Global Language
by Martin A. Schell

Return to International Freelancing · Return to Article

How often do you consider the possibility that the words you write will travel beyond North America, either in their original form or in translation?

In most cases, you can't anticipate the number of languages that your work might be translated into nor the skill of the translators. However, there is something you can do to ensure that your meaning will be conveyed more accurately throughout the world: write the original English version as clearly as possible.

When writing for a global audience, it is essential to adopt an attitude of inclusiveness that embraces readers who are unfamiliar with North American idioms and who may be incompletely fluent in our language. Simplifying your syntax will have minimal effect on your style but it will greatly enhance the ability of worldwide readers to understand your content.

If a reader's native language is not among the handful of languages that your document has been translated into, he or she would much rather read "Global English" than English that is full of buzzwords, euphemisms, and unexplained acronyms. In addition, translators often find that Global English is easier to work with than American English, thereby reducing translation time and errors.

Here are some specific Global English tips for authors of articles, reports, manuals, brochures, press releases, web content, and other forms of nonfiction.

1. Reduce ambiguity. If it's possible to interpret a word in two different ways, chances are that some people will see it one way while others see it another way. In addition to being aware of multiple meanings, remember that some words can function as multiple parts of speech. Be particularly careful about using once or since as a conjunction:

Once a prompt appears, type the command.

Some readers or translators may see once as an adverb meaning one time. Others might confuse it with at once and misinterpret the instruction as something that needs to be performed immediately.

After a prompt appears, type the command.

Keep a log, since the installation of this equipment causes fluctuations in power consumption.

Some people may see since as an adverb or preposition meaning after and therefore delay starting a log until the first fluctuation has occurred.

Keep a log, because the installation of this equipment causes fluctuations in power consumption.

2. Simplify syntax by reducing subordinate clauses and modifier phrases.

An example of complexity:
The other day, during our annual meeting, when most of us were thinking about the company's future, we heard, for the first time, some forecasts which, you will agree, were very encouraging.

A simpler version:
Most of us were thinking about the company's future during our annual meeting. We heard some new forecasts which were very encouraging.

3. Minimize the total number of compound nouns, verbs, adjectives, and adverbs in your sentences.

Instead of:
The Chairman and the Directors warmly and heartily welcome and invite you to our beautiful and charming city.

Try something closer to:
The entire Board enthusiastically welcomes you to our beautiful city.

4. Express an action as a verb rather than as a gerund. If a simple verb doesn't work in a particular context, an infinitive will generally be less confusing than a gerund.

A convoluted use of a gerund:
The courier was late in bringing the documents.

A simpler form, which is less likely to be misinterpreted:
The courier brought the documents late.

A potentially confusing use of gerunds that can cause translation errors:
He likes exercising in many ways, from running to lifting weights.

The final preposition-gerund combination (to lifting) looks somewhat like an infinitive, but it isn't one. In addition, from running might be confused with running from.

One way to rewrite this sentence would be:
He likes to run, to lift weights, and to exercise in many other ways.

Broadening Your Cultural Perspective

In addition to the four restrictive tips, here are three more suggestions which may serve to loosen up your usual writing style. These suggestions are designed to broaden your perspective and make you aware of some language patterns used in other cultures.

1. Use active and passive voices judiciously. The tradition favoring active voice in expository writing goes back at least a century. However, some languages prefer the passive voice because it supports a cultural ideal that discourages the use of the first person as a subject.

For example, in some Asian cultures, it can be taken as a sign of immodesty or even arrogance to say I have decided... or We expect... Instead, the preferred phrases would be the equivalent of It was decided... and It is expected...

If one or more of these cultures are essential segments of your intended audience, you can make the translation of your document easier by restraining your normal emphasis on the active voice. In any case -- if your audience is worldwide or if you don't know which languages your document will be translated into -- don't force yourself to convert every verb into the active voice.

2. Be clear even when you need to be indirect. In international communication, the risk of arousing disagreement with a clear statement is usually a better gamble than the risk of causing confusion with an unclear statement.

An example of cloudiness:
We're not really saying "no" because we're still somewhat uncertain.

A clearer version:
We're not sure yet.

In situations that call for nuance, subtlety, or finesse, make sure that your indirect statements are clear statements: They should be easy to understand, or at least easy to translate. Consider the differences among the following three statements.

Indirect and unclear:
We were hoping that you would play ball with us.

This statement relies on an American idiom derived from sports.

Direct and clear:
The cost is too high. If you do not reduce your prices, we cannot buy the goods.

This approach will be perceived as blunt or crude in some cultures.

Indirect but clear:
We would like you to suggest some ways to reduce the total cost of our order.

Writing this way will challenge your creativity, but it will enhance your success.

3. Restate some of your key ideas using different terms. Some writers (and many editors) prefer a tight style that uses words sparingly. However, when writing for a global audience, you need to build flexibility into your content so that it can survive the possible mistranslation of one or more terms.

Many of us have heard that Eskimos use several words for our single word snow. On the other hand, Japanese people who study English find our distinction see-look-watch confusing because their language uses a single word for all three verbs.

A lack of one-to-one correspondence between a term in your English-language document and its nearest equivalent in another language can easily result in mistranslation or misunderstanding. For example, in some Southeast Asian cultures, the concept of formality and the concept of politeness are closely intertwined.

If you write:
The donkey is an informal symbol for the Democratic Party.

It might be misunderstood or mistranslated as:

The donkey is an impolite symbol for the Democratic Party.

To avoid this misunderstanding, it would be better to write:
The donkey is an unofficial symbol for the Democratic Party.

However, you can never anticipate all of the possible mismatches that could occur between the vocabulary of English and those of the various languages your document might be translated into. A better approach is to build some redundancy into your content by making sentences overlap so that they support each other and produce a clear context for all of the paragraph's ideas.

For example:
We recommend the purchase of this factory because it is a good medium-term investment. If our company buys the manufacturing facility this year, we will be able to upgrade it by the middle of next year. After we modernize the equipment, the factory will provide additional production capacity to help us meet the increase in demand for our products that is expected two years from now.

The subordinate clauses at the start of the second and third sentences may seem extraneous, but they enhance clarity by making the transitions between sentences more gradual. Notice that these clauses contain synonyms for key terms that appear in the main clauses: purchase... buy, factory... facility, upgrade...modernize. In addition, the references to time are in chronological order and support the use of medium-term.

In sum, it is always a good idea to write in clear, globally understood English. If your document is later translated, Global English will be easier for your translator(s) to work with. If you write for a global audience that includes people whose native language is not English, they will appreciate the fact that your document is easier to understand than most other English-language documents.

Find Out More...

Conducting Interviews in International English - Ysabel de la Rosa

Is "Intercultural" Communication a Moot Point? - Geoff Hart

Copyright © 2000 Martin Schell
This article may not be reprinted without the author's written permission.

Martin A. Schell lives in Central Java, in his wife's native city of Klaten. He has been living continuously in East Asia (Japan, Thailand, and Indonesia) since 1984, working as an editor of Japanese-to-English translations, an English skills instructor at two universities, a teacher of gemology with students from six different continents, export agent, and a marketing adviser. He is now a freelance editor and webmaster. He is co-author (with David W. Paul) of Globally Speaking.


Copyright © 2017 by Moira Allen. All rights reserved.
All materials on this site are the property of their authors and may not be reprinted
without the author's written permission, unless otherwise indicated.
For more information please contact Moira Allen, Editor