Marilynne Rudick and Leslie O’Flahavan’s article, “Web Writing For The World,” at E-WRITE gives tips on writing for internet users whose first language is not American English.
Rudick and O’Flahavan, authors of “Clear, Correct, Concise E-Mail: A Writing Workbook for Customer Service Agents” and partners in the web-writing training and consultancy company, E-WRITE, give five tips on making your web writing universally understood and appreciated.
1. Use literal expressions instead of idioms.
The authors point out that English idioms could be confusing to global readers since their meanings are very different from their literal meanings. They suggest the following replacements as examples:
- Use “change ownership” instead of “change hands”
- Use “special offer” instead of “hot deal”
- Use “very soon” instead of “before you know it”
- Use “do everything possible” instead of “bend over backwards”
- Use “incidentally” instead of “by the way”
- Use “in addition to” instead of “as well as”
- Use “as quickly” instead of “just as soon”
2. Do not make cultural references.
Rudick and O’Flahavan warn American writers against using references specific to American sports, books, TV, movies, and history that non-American writers may not recognize. They cite the term “to touch base” from American baseball, commonly meant as “to contact” among Americans but may not be comprehensible to other nationalities.
I would like to add that non-American writers should also be careful in this regard because English has often been “localized” in many countries with English words coming to mean something else. In the Philippines, for example, the repressive years under the Marcos dictatorship has produced the word “salvage” to mean summary execution.
3. Avoid jokes.
The authors believe that jokes usually do not work across cultures or languages. They recommend that writers avoid being funny while keeping their writing warm, friendly, upbeat and contemporary.
4. Use universal expressions of measurements, dates and time.
Rudick and O’Flahavan advise the following:
- Give metric equivalents of measurements and dimensions.
- Clothes sizes vary widely, so provide actual measurements, for example, “Size medium dresses are 52 inches long (132 cm).”
- Write out complete dates, for example, October 17, 2005.
- When referring to time, include the time zone.
- Use “24 hours a day, 7 days a week” instead of “24/7.”
5. Write short, simple and clear sentences in the active voice.
Avoid jargon and bureaucratic expressions, the authors emphasize. Use plain English.
Finally, Rudick and O’Flahavan urge writers to test their web writing with several global readers who could point out areas that are difficult to understand or that could be confusing.
To many of us, this will be a real challenge, indeed. Much of what the authors presented are things we often take for granted - especially idioms and cultural references. We need to be always conscious that our audience now spans the whole world.