Copy-wise: Don’t assume your English is the same as your audience’s

November 7, 2016 5:50 pm

English might be the go-to language choice when writing for an online, international audience. But what kind of English do you use?

There’s British English, Canadian English, Australian English and US English (just plain ‘American’ to some), not to mention other variants from countries where English is widely spoken, though not the native language. And then there’s something called ‘International English’ or ‘World English’ (or even ‘Globish’), which is a simplified version of the language designed to avoid slang and regional idioms.

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Jean-Paul Nerriere, a native Frenchman and retired IBM executive who came up with the ‘Globish’ concept, said the idea was born when he realised native speakers of other languages who also spoke English for international business used something that was “not English, but something vaguely like it”. And that type of not-quite-English, he found, was far more clear than typical British or American English.

“If you can communicate efficiently with limited, simple language you save time, avoid misinterpretation and you don’t have errors in communication,” Nerriere recently told the BBC.

In fact, it might seem odd, but – as English has become the lingua franca for online communication, international business, science, pop culture and other areas of our lives – native Engish speakers who don’t choose their words carefully can find themselves at a disadvantage in global conversations.

The BBC article, for example, began with the story of a major project failure that cost a multinational firm hundreds of thousands of dollars due to a poor word choice in an email from a native English-speaking employee to a non-native-English-speaking colleague.

“It all traced back to this one word,” said a communications trainer named Chia Suan Chong. “Things spiralled out of control because both parties were thinking the opposite.”

As US media critic Jay Rosen said in an interview with Salon: “You have to speak the language of the people you’re trying to inform.” While Rosen was speaking about the responsibility of journalists in US presidential election coverage, he added that reporters in general have “a positive duty to enlighten us with views from beyond our shores”.

The flip side, I could add, is also true in an even broader sense of communication: As writers, we have a duty to consider the views, perceptions, understanding and experiences of our readers, whether they’re native English speakers or not. That requires us to choose our words carefully when writing for an online, international audience to make sure our messages are conveyed as clearly as possible.