Write in plain English for a global audience

27 Aug

Here are a few ways to write more clearly for people whose first language isn’t English. They could be useful if you publish content for any international audience.

1. Use plain English – that means common, shorter words.
2. Limit the number of words – around 15 for sentences and 35 for paragraphs.
3. Avoid idioms – there is always a more straightforward alternative.
These three tips come from more than seven years’ experience of writing for multinationals’ employees and other worldwide audiences.  Let’s look at them in  more detail.

Plain English
Common words are preferable because lesser-known vocabulary can lead to misunderstandings. Most people whose first language isn’t English – even advanced speakers – have a much smaller vocabulary than native speakers. Research shows that an educated English speaker aged 40 is likely to know between 20,000 and 30,000 words. Other language speakers using English for professional reasons tend to know between 2,000 and 9,000 words. These are generalisations, of course.

Fortunately, most uncommon language has a more widely used alternative. Here are a few random examples:

to be cognisant of something = to know about it
to take a brief respite = to take a short break
an extremely daunting task = a very difficult job
an array of = some
alterations = changes

Shorter sentences and paragraphs
These are easier to comprehend, especially when written in a direct, active style. Compare these two sentences which give the same information:
Original (taken from the web)

“With communication tools (real-time, multi-media, social and collaborative) incrementing many aspects of their external lives, it will only be a matter of time before employees demand the same internally.”

Shorter, more direct version

“Employees who increasingly use social media in their personal lives will demand the same at work.”

An idiom is a phrase with a particular meaning which is different to that of the individual words. It is very difficult for non-native English speakers to understand them.
“In a nutshell …” can be used to sum up information. It means “to summarise briefly …” as in “…in a nutshell, the company is cutting 1,000 jobs”. But “nutshell”? It has nothing to do with the hard outer layer of an almond or walnut. Replace it with “That means …

English contains many idiomatic phrases. Some of them become well-known like “to keep someone in the loop”. Others are best avoided – like these

I got it straight from the horse’s mouth

They couldn’t make head or tail of it

You’ve got the wrong end of the stick!

New words or phrases can pose the same problem until they become well-known. Even for native English speakers. Take this headline: “Have you ever been fraped?” Fraped? Thanks to Macmillan Dictionaries for the definition: frape – verb meaning to make changes to someone’s Facebook page without their permission.

Careful choice of words helps create copy that’s quick and easy for global audiences to understand. There are many other techniques – watch out for my open workshops or contact me for advice. 


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