How to write English for international readers

February 3, 2009

Note: The following guest post is written by Mike Unwalla. Mike operates the TechScribe software documentation consultancy in South Yorkshire, UK. TechScribe produces user documentation for computer software. Recently, Mike established a service to write international English. I asked Mike to write this guest post based on comments he left on the post I wrote about plain English. – D. Zanke


TechScribe's Mike Unwalla

Many years ago, I taught English as a foreign language. I remember one incident in which students were confused by the word ‘mine’. The students knew the word as a possessive pronoun (“the book is mine”). When the course book introduced the word ‘mine’ as a noun (“the mine contains much gold”), some students struggled.

In this article, I use the term ‘international reader’ to mean ‘someone who reads English as a second language’. Firstly, I discuss controlled language. Next, I give some examples of problems that international readers can have. Finally, I introduce international English.

Controlled language

The announcement was, “Clear the runway.” All the vehicles moved off the runway, except the snowplough. The driver thought that he had to remove snow from the runway.

In the aerospace industry, technical documentation is mostly in English. However, many readers have only a basic knowledge of English. To prevent confusion, ASD Simplified Technical English (ASD-STE100) was developed.

ASD-STE100 is a set of rules for writing and a dictionary of controlled vocabulary. Usually, one word has one meaning. Synonyms are not permitted. For example, ‘start’ is used instead of ‘begin’, ‘set off’, or ‘commence’. If a word has many meanings, the specification uses one meaning and excludes other meanings. For example, ‘to fall’ means ‘to move down by the force of gravity’, not ‘to decrease’.

Many of the rules that are in ASD-STE100 can be used to make brochures, websites, and other business texts clear for international readers.

Use a word with its primary meaning

On a website about plain English, I found the sentence, “Take pride in using everyday English, sound grammar and accurate punctuation.” The sentence is grammatically correct, and native English readers can understand the sentence easily. However, international readers can be confused, because they know the word ‘sound’ as a noun.

International readers with a basic knowledge of English do not know that the word ‘sound’ is also an adjective that means ‘free from error’. To minimise the risk of confusion, keep the text simple, and write ‘correct grammar’.

Surprisingly, idioms appear frequently in business texts. For example, on a UK government website, I found the sentence, “Many of the respondents (57%) reported that they were first contacted by the boiler room out of the blue on the telephone.” Native English readers know that ‘out of the blue’ means ‘unexpectedly’ or ‘suddenly’. However, many international readers do not know English idioms. Therefore, do not use idioms.

If you write for international readers, do not ‘follow’ the guidelines in this article! The primary meaning of ‘follow’ is ‘to come after’. Conform to the guidelines, obey the guidelines, or comply with the guidelines, but do not follow the guidelines.

Be careful with multi-word verbs

Multi-word verbs are categorized as phrasal verbs, prepositional verbs, and phrasal-prepositional verbs. Often, the meaning of a verb is different from the meanings of the individual words in the verb. Some examples follow:

  • ‘Carry out’ means ‘do’.
  • ‘Put up with’ means ‘tolerate’.
  • ‘Work out’ means ‘calculate’.

Research shows that multi-word verbs are difficult for international readers. In ‘A Study of Plain English Vocabulary and International Audiences’, Emily Thrush wrote, “Even very advanced learners of English have not mastered these idiomatic expressions. Furthermore, many of these verb phrases have different meanings in British versus American English.”

The parts of a phrasal verb can be separated by a noun. If you must use a phrasal verbs, keep the parts of the verb together.

Do not omit syntactic cues

A syntactic cue is a part of language that helps a reader to analyze the structure of a sentence.

Sometimes, syntactic cues are optional. For example, both of the following sentences are correct:

  • Make sure the temperature is correct.
  • Make sure that the temperature is correct.

The second sentence contains the optional word ‘that’, which helps to make the sentence clear, because the word shows the start of the subordinate clause.

International English

‘International English’ is English that is written for people who do not read English as a first language. (Instead of the term ‘international English’, some people use the terms ‘global English’, or ‘worldwide English’).

This article explains only some of the guidelines that help to make text clear for international readers. ‘The Global English Style Guide: Writing Clear, Translatable Documentation for a Global Market’ by John Kohl contains the best guidelines that I have seen about how to write for international readers. For more information, see ‘The Global English style guide: a review’.

An additional benefit of international English is that machine translation gives good results. This article is written in international English. Therefore, you can use a machine translation tool, and the translation will probably be clear. Google Translate is a good machine translation tool.

International English does have disadvantages. Sometimes, compared to the average marketing text, international English is repetitive and boring. Instead of pronouns, international English repeats a noun as much as possible. International English does not have small differences of meaning. For example, ‘azure’, ‘navy’, and ‘cobalt blue’ are all types of blue. In international English, the word ‘blue’ is usually sufficient.

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One Response to “How to write English for international readers”

  1. messagecom Says:

    Thanks for your post Mike and for the links to various resources. I think many writers believe that writing in plain English addresses all comprehension issues. Clearly, if writing for an audience that does not have English as a first language, there are other considerations.

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