Get Your Writing Global

Is your command of English good enough for readers outside the United States?  This may seem an odd question, but consider that, after Mandarin Chinese and Spanish, English is the native language of a vast amount of people—many of whom are not from the United States.  Add in all nonnative English speakers and English is one of the most commonly spoken language in the world.  But, although we may speak the same language, we definitely don’t write the same.

Writing for a U.S. audience is vastly different from writing for those outside our borders. With today’s expansive markets, you need to write “Global English,” or a form of English that is understandable to people other than native U.S. speakers.

Here are some tips to get your writing global:

  • Seek simplicity and clarity—Generally, you want to be as clear as possible, sticking to simple sentences of less than 16 words. While native English speakers usually read phrases, global readers approach each sentence one word at a time, and a long sentence can be difficult to follow. That means avoiding semicolons whenever possible.
  • Use present tense—Varying tenses in any language are difficult, but the present tense is always well known. Whenever possible, use present tense. Never mix tenses—it is just too difficult to follow.
  • Use active voice—Active voice, where the subject is clearly identified, is generally better understood by nonnative English speakers. However, some cultures consider active voice to be condescending, aggressive, or rude. So, go for the active voice unless you know otherwise about your audience’s culture.
  • Avoid jargon—This tip is fairly obvious, but be aware of the recent trend toward “verbification,” which means making a noun a verb. “Googling” is a term everyone knows, but other nonwords such as “solutioning” or “anonymize” are just bad form. And never suggest a proposal be “workshopped.”
  • Negate the negative—Avoid negative words (no, don’t, not, won’t) when asking questions. For example, don’t write, “You’re not going to the party, are you?” It’s much clearer to write, “Are you going to the party?” And double negatives are just as confusing, as in “not unpleasant” or “not unwise.”
  • Avoid telegraph speak—Do you write sentences like, “Team deciding plan” in your texts or e-mails? This type of headline speech, void of articles or other cues, can be very confusing. Words such as “is” and “the” are used in English for a reason. Don’t confuse your reader by omitting them.

Also, be aware of certain language’s differences in grammatical structure that can be difficult for someone learning English as a second tongue. For example, there is no precise equivalent of the possessive form of a noun in Chinese. Therefore, instead of writing, “Joe’s car,” you can easily substitute with “the car belonging to Joe.” Pronouns are also not used in all languages, so be careful when using them, especially when it’s difficult to understand the pronoun’s intended subject. Contractions, too, can be confusing.

And, although English is the language of many countries—from Canada to Ghana to Liberia to Australia—there are important differences. Spelling is just one difference between American and British English, although it’s often problematic. There are hundreds of words that are spelled differently—not just color and colour. Many words ending in “ze” in the United States end with “se” in the United Kingdom. Similarly, Americans cut short British words such as “programme,” “tonne”  and “matte.”

Besides pronunciation of words, there are also a few grammatical quirks. Americans usually treat collective nouns as single units, so it’s more common to use the singular verb. In the United States, it is more acceptable to write, “The faculty is meeting in the conference room” than “The faculty are meeting in the conference room.” For the British, it’s more common to use the plural verb. For example, “The government are investigating” sounds incorrect in the United States, but it is correct in the United Kingdom. (In fact, my grammar checker is not happy with that sentence as I type!)

Now that we’ve reviewed grammar and sentence structure, tomorrow we’ll take on a few cultural tips for global writing.

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