Have you ever heard of global English? It’s a simplified version of the language that’s free of unusual terms and constructions that can confuse readers. The beauty of global English is that although it sounds natural to native English speakers, it’s more precise and therefore easier to understand. As a result, it’s not only helpful when writing for non-native speakers, but also for when you’re trying to communicate complex technical ideas simply and effectively. For that reason, it’s particularly useful for technical writers who want to make their content as clear as possible for their users.
Although global English is a loosely controlled language — for example, it’s not nearly as rigid as Simplified Technical English — there are some guidelines for writing global English that you won’t find in your typical style guide. John Kohl outlines them in detail in his book, “The Global English Style Guide.” We have described seven of John’s most important guidelines below.
1) Conform to Standard English
It’s important to ensure that whatever you write adheres to standard English. For example, you should always use standard verb complements. Consider the following sentence as an example:
You can select to display a floating command dialog box.
While native speakers understand this sentence — even though it sounds odd since a verb like select is usually followed by a direct object, not an infinitive — for non-native speakers it can be confusing since it’s not standard English. For that reason, a better way to write the sentence is:
You can choose to display a floating command dialog box.
This revision works because choose is a verb that’s commonly followed by an infinitive.
The above represents just one of many examples of standard English that you should adhere to; avoiding nonstandard comparative and superlative adjectives is another.
Of course keep what is and isn’t standard in your mind can be a challenge. That’s why John recommends consulting The BBI Dictionary of English Word Combinations whenever you’re in doubt.
2) Simplify Your Writing Style
In addition to the typical advice around simplifying your writing style, such as using shorter sentences and avoiding passive voice, there are other possibilities to consider. For example, whenever possible you should avoid using unusual or ambiguous constructions such as the “get” form of the passive:
When you press F6, the program gets submitted for execution.
While native English speakers will recognize that “get” creates a passive construction in the sentence above, it’s an unusual construction and one that may be unclear to non-native speakers. A better alternative is:
When you press F6, the program is submitted for execution.
The revised sentence above is simpler because the verb “to be” is a more common and widely recognized way of forming the passive voice.
3) Use Modifiers Clearly and Carefully
Whenever you are writing for a global audience, you need to think about what’s modifying what in your sentences. For example, be sure to clarify what the prepositional phrases in your sentences are modifying. Consider the following:
Only 17 characters are available for the table name on a standard label.
Whenever a prepositional phrase (such as “on a standard table”) follows both a noun phrase (table name) and the verb (are available) in a sentence, there’s ambiguity. In other words, the reader doesn’t know if “on a standard table” is modifying “are available” or “table name.” You can clarify the sentence by re-wording it as:
Only 17 characters are available for the table name that is on a standard label.
4) Make Pronouns Clear and Easy to Translate
Although pronouns like “I” and “you” are always clear, third-person pronouns such as “it,” “they,” and “them” can often confuse readers. For example, consider what the “it” refers to in the following:
You must correct the error in your program before submitting it again.
What “it” refers to should be immediately clear to readers and, in particular, to translators. If you were translating this sentence into a language like French, for example, where pronouns have to agree in gender and number with what they refer to, this ambiguity could be problematic. Consider for example the two possible translations for the sentence above:
Vous devez corriger l’erreur dans votre programme avant de la soumettre encore. (assumes that it refers back to the error)
Vous devez corriger l’erreur dans votre programme avant de le soumettre encore. (assumes that it refers back to the program)
For that reason, it may be better replace the pronoun with the noun or noun phrase that it’s referring to, thereby eliminating ambiguity:
You must correct the error in your program before resubmitting the program.
5) Eliminate Undesirable Terms and Phrases
Get rid of unnecessary and unusual non-technical terms. For example, why use the word “extraneous” when a more common word like “unnecessary” works just as well or “albeit” when you can just say “but?” These more common words are more familiar to non-native speakers and make your writing easier to understand.
It’s also a good idea to eliminate abbreviations such as i.e., e.g., etc., which often aren’t used accurately or consistently (which leads to confusion), as well as a.k.a. or n.a. which may not be familiar to non-native speakers or clear to translators. (For instance, “n.a.” could be interpreted to mean “not available” or “not applicable.”)
6) Follow Appropriate Punctuation and Capitalization Guidelines
There are a quite a few guidelines around punctuation and capitalization that you should follow to preserve consistency. For example, Kohl suggests using a period instead of a semicolon before certain transitional words and phrases as in the example below:
Because the shares add up to one, the system is singular; therefore, one equation is omitted from the estimation process.
Because the shares add up to one, the system is singular. Therefore, one equation is omitted from the estimation process.
Making sure that you have a standard way of using capitalization and punctuation will help ensure that people understand the intended meaning of your content.
7) Use Syntactic Cues
A syntactic cue is any element or aspect of language that helps readers identify parts of speech and analyze sentence structure. Non-native speakers rely more heavily on syntactic cues than native speakers do though they help improve readability for everyone. Plus, syntactic cues eliminate ambiguities that would otherwise impede translation. Consider the following sentence:
If you’re ready to master the basics of the software, take your SAS skills to the next level, become SAS Certified, or simply need access to SAS software to practice along with a course or book, check out SAS OnDemand for Professionals.
It doesn’t make a lot of sense until you add in the appropriate syntactic cues:
If you’re ready to master the basics of the software, to take your SAS skills to the next level, or to become SAS Certified, or if you simply need access to SAS software in order to practice along with a course or a book, check out SAS OnDemand for Professionals.
Editor’s note: This post was adapted from a presentation given by John Kohl, Linguistic Engineer at SAS Institute, Inc. during Acrolinx’s 2014 Online Conference. You can access the full presentation on video.
To learn more about global English, check out John Kohl’s full presentation on the Acrolinx website. Even experienced writers will learn something.
What do you think? Do any other writing problems come to mind that inhibit quick comprehension?