Writing for an International Readership

An ABC News Online report for February 24th 2002 quotes an eMarketer claim that

Some 445 million people were using the Internet at the end of 2001, with 27 per cent of those in the United States.

I believe the report quoted is the eGlobal report published by eMarketer but, not having US$800.00 to throw around, this is only a reasonable surmise on my part.

Even the ABC’s report brings up potential problems with this claim (and eMarketer’s CEO is quoted acknowledging some of these problems as well) but the broad thrust of the claim seems reasonable: the US-centric basis of the Internet is waning. The Web is slowly living up to its attendant adjective and becoming almost genuinely worldwide.

Setting aside issues of language for a moment, even those of us who write mainly or exclusively in English need to consider how to effectively communicate with this changing audience. Whether you are writing articles for a major Web-site or a quick post to your favourite mailing list, an increasing portion of those reading your words will not be residents of the US. If you don’t want to spend extra time reiterating what you wrote or correcting misapprehensions, consider the following specific suggestions. As an Australian writing mainly for US and European audiences over the last seven years I’ve find them more than useful. Moreover, I’ve not found any of them prevent me from maintaining a personal style.

Don’t miss your date

The shorthand ‘mm/dd’ is not universal. In Australia and Great Britain, for example, dd/mm is used. Consequently, unqualified shorthand dates are very confusing, especially when both figures are below 12. Is 04/05 the fifth of April or the fourth of May?

Whilst I’d not recommend it for anything other than technical writing, it’s worth learning the clear and unambiguous ISO standard for shorthand, numeric-only dates and times based on the Gregorian calendar and the twenty-four hour clock. As noted in Standard #8601 the ISO sets out a shorthand system as follows:

yyyy-mm-dd hh:mm:ss

This system works from largest unit (years) to smallest unit (seconds) reading from left-to-right and insists on four-digits for the year to avoid ambiguity (at least until the year 10,000). This standard also allows for easy abbreviation to the level of precision desired. To represent just the date, simply leave the ‘hh:mm:ss’ off the end. Likewise if only the month and year are needed, just present the information as ‘yyyy-mm’.

For those not wanting to download a large PDF file, Markus Kuhn has posted an excellent summary of the standard along with arguments regarding the standard’s utility and value.

Speaking personally, I’ve a few problems with the standard, mostly related to its use of the hyphen as a demarcating character. The folks at the ISO want the solidus (aka forward slash or oblique: the character most of us use to demarcate elements of a shorthand date) used to delimit two fully-described dates as follows:

yyyy-mm-dd hh:mm:ss/yyyy-mm-dd hh:mm:ss

With two dates written out thus, a person — or more likely a computer — is to interpret the string as representing the period of time between the two dates so noted.

The ISO’s reasons are sound enough, but put programming concerns above those of everyday grammar.

In English the hyphen has two related uses: it acts to conjoin compound words (eg pedestrian-crossing) and it serves to identify a word broken in two by the end of a line.

In both uses hyphens act to connect two grammatical elements together, which makes the ISO’s use of the mark as a separator problematic and (for me, at least) irritating. (And the ISO’s further use of the hyphen ‘to indicate omitted components’ of shorthand dates is barbarous.)

Happily, my concern is clearer writing, not easier programming. Given this, and assuming a shorthand date is still desirable, I’d recommend adopting the ISO’s arrangement of data but sticking with the well-established solidus thus:

yyyy/mm/dd hh:mm:ss

This presentation has the advantage of familiarity to almost everyone reading the date, no matter if they are come from the mm/dd or dd/mm side of the ocean.

In most circumstances, of course, the best approach is to use words instead of numbers for months. Instead of ‘04/05’ write ‘April 5th’ (or 4th May, if you are Australian or English: and yes, even when writing the month out in full, we put the day before the month).

Check your figures

The year noted above as presenting a problem to the latest ISO standard for writing unambiguous shorthand dates is a clear example of yet another problem to consider: the representation of large and small values.

Throughout the English-speaking world, numbers are delmited as follows:

xx,yyy.zz

Values below one (1) and above zero (0) are demarcated by the use of a full stop (period) to separate them from the units column. As well, commas are used as a visual aid, breaking up large values every three columns (although it’s common to not bother with a comma for values below ten-thousand).

Through much of Europe, however, usage is the reverse of English language habit. Which makes a number like 10,000 problematic. To native-English readers this is clearly ‘ten-thousand.’ To most English-as-a-Second-Language (ESL) readers this is equally clearly ‘ten, and rather precisely ten at that, since the writer has bothered to note the tenths, hundredths and thousandths columns all have zero value.’

The ISO-take on this — as noted in ISO 31 — makes the following presentation the formal standard:

xx yyy,zz

That is, the ISO standard requires the use of a space as a visual aid for reading very large numbers (or very small numbers: eg 0.000 000 001) and the comma as the demarcating character between values above one and those below one and above zero.

Which is all well and good but does nothing to make a writer’s or editor’s job any easier. Spaces as a replacement for commas are awful to start with. The reduced readability this introduces is the first objection.

In written English (and in almost every other alphabetic language) the space separates words. Which makes using a space to separate parts of a word presented in numeric form an almost certain source of confusion and mis-reading.

Speaking for myself, I can’t help but see ‘10 500’ as two separate figures, one denoting ten and the other five-hundred. I suspect I’m not alone in this.

Moreover, every typesetter, grammarian and editor who ever lived is quite rightly rolling over in their grave or groaning in abject pain at such mis-use of white space. In print it’s possible to ameliorate this problem and still follow the ISO rules by taking advantage of thin spaces and kerning.

Such luxuries are unavailable to on-line editors, however. On-line editors looking to follow the ISO 31 standard are also faced with a further problem: how to keep large numbers from being broken across a line as a consequence of a space character.

The non-breaking space entity —   — is available as a workaround, but only in HMTL-aware reading environments, which does nothing for editor’s of e-mail publications who need or want to provide text-only versions of their wares.

Moreover, none of these niceties correct the basic problem: this recommendation overloads the space character’s use in a way guaranteed to cause confusion.

So, assuming the space is unacceptable as a reading aid for large or small numbers (and it is to me), the problem remains: comma or full stop for a decimal point?

The use of the comma in place of the full stop is entirely defensible, since this is the standard use of the character throughout Europe (England notwithstanding). Unfortunately, using it as a decimal point in written English will only serve to confuse native-English readers as thoroughly as the full-stop-as-decimal-point will confuse ESL-readers.

Given this, I can only recommend sticking with standard English usage. Use the full stop as the decimal marker if a number absolutely has to be expressed as a decimal and use commas to make very large or very small values easier to read.

Taking care with the context you present the number should make it easier for ESL readers to not mis-read the value.

For example, if the number you are presenting is a measured value, a parenthetical re-presentation of the value at a different scale is a useful, if inelegant, way of making the meaning of the decimal point clear. Using this trick

It’s 10.5 km from the top of the hill to the end of the valley below

becomes

It’s 10.5 km (10,500 m) from the top of the hill to the end of the valley below

Even better is to find alternative ways of expressing the same information:

It’s ten-and-a-half kilometres…

for example.

With regards numbers less-than-one, these can often be expressed as a fraction which can be written in words (two-thirds; seven-eighths and so on) or as a percentage (66%, 88% and so on).

Finally, if long numbers are necessary (eg, in annual reports or technical documentation), include a short aside, explaining which way you are using commas and full stops, as a link or sidebar.

Be careful with money

An almost guaranteed way of losing a customer: mislead them about the cost of an item. And it doesn’t matter if you do this unintentionally. If someone jumps through the hoops necessary to get to the check-out page of your e-commerce site and only then realises the purchase price is different than they thought, the very least they’ll do is close the browser window and make a note to never come back.

Even if you’re not offering a good or service for sale, people don’t take kindly to being misled when it comes to money. So don’t assume a dollar is a dollar is a dollar.

In the English-speaking world alone there are about a dozen countries that use the word ‘dollar’ for their local currency. Aside from the usual suspects (Australia, Canada, New Zealand and the United States) there are Barbadan, Fijian, Guyanan and Zimbabwean dollars and more.

It’s much the same with Pesos, a currency name used by at least half-a-dozen nations.

As before the ISO has a standard, known as ISO 4217, for this occasion. This standard provides a mechanism for constructing standard codes for every extant and future national currency. Put briefly the standard, which has long been used by the banking industry, requires a currency abbreviation consist of the two-letter country code abbreviation (defined in ISO 3166) followed by the first letter of the currency name. For those who prefer a local copy, a similar list is available via FTP as a plain text file.

Using this system currencies commonly used and referred to by English-speakers can be abbreviated as follows:

Australian Dollar AUD
British Pound GBP
Japanese Yen JPY
New Zealand Dollar NZD
South African Rand ZAR
US Dollar USD

Which is fine but only replaces one problem with another. AUD is an unambigous shorthand for ‘Australian Dollar’ but doesn’t convey any meaning to someone who doesn’t already know the two ISO standards upon which the shorthand is built.

In time this will likely change. If nothing else, people will see the two-and three-letter ISO country codes during international sporting events such as the Olympics and the World Cup.

Until then, however, and assuming these codes are your preferred solution to the money problem, use the abbreviation only after establishing what any given shorthand term means. Don’t write:

Our widgets are AUD20.00 each, including shipping and our doohickies are AUD35.00 each, also with shipping included.

Instead write:

Our widgets are $20.00 (Australian Dollars or AUD) each, including shipping and our doohickies are AUD35.00 each, also with shipping included.

This is nothing more than a minor variation on the standard academic rule: write the term out in full the first time it is used, present the abbreviation in parentheses immediately afterward, and use the abbreviation from then on.

All that said, I don’t like this solution very much.

Like the ISO’s preferred date and number presentations above, this approach puts administrative needs above editorial concerns.

Three-letter codes make for safe currency shorthands in e-mail newsletters (and should probably be used in such circumstances) but needlessly deprive other publishers, editors and writers of useful and long-used currency symbols.

English-language writers the world over routinely use the dollar symbol ($) for Dollars; the pound symbol (£) for Sterling; the yen symbol (¥) for Yen; the capital R for Rands and the newly-created euro symbol (€) for Euros.

And English-language readers understand these symbols and will need more than ‘it’s an ISO standard’ to be convinced it’s an improvement replacing them with unintuitive three-letter codes.

The problem for writers isn’t the use of currency symbols, it’s being sure the correct currency is understood by the reader.

And the simplest solution is to state the currency you mean clearly and unambigously. Something as simple as:

All prices are listed in US dollars

at the top of every page in your on-line catalogue is a pretty decent solution to the problem.

Likewise if you are using the pound symbol. Even given the recent conversion of Ireland and Italy to the Euro, there is still a chance someone will read the £ symbol to mean Punts or Lira. A line of text reminding readers the prices are Pounds Sterling takes almost no time to write and even less time to download.

Finally, and wandering away from editorial concerns to commercial issues, if you’re really concerned to make life easy for potential customers, regardless of where they reside, take the trouble to present prices in a range of currencies.

For example, the Belfast-based video and DVD retailer, BlackStar, earned my regular custom because they have an option to display their prices in Australian Dollars rather than Pounds Sterling. (Of course, it also helped they have a bunch of stuff for sale which is difficult to get in Oz.)

I’m uncertain the technology BlackStar uses but I’m aware of at least one company — RateStream — which is wholly-focussed on providing tools to e-commerce sites that enable the presentation of prices in multiple currencies.

Watch the weather

As I edited this document for its first posting to the Web it was Sunday February 13, 2000, the 75th day of Summer in Australia and much of the southern hemisphere. Here in Adelaide, South Australia specifically we were heading into a very hot week (35C/95F predicted for Tuesday and Wednesday).

This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t talk about the delights and trials of a New England winter (assuming you are experiencing same). Presuming ‘July’ means hot days, sun and surf is probably unwise, however. For me July means cold, rainy days and the delight of wearing a thick woollen jumper when I go for a walk. Of course this doesn’t just apply across hemispheres: I’m not sure folk living in Alaska or the Orkneys automatically relate July to broiling days in the sun either.

In similar fashion, the wind’s direction will mean different things climactically as you travel across the globe. Dragging my perspective out once again, here in Adelaide the northerlies and north-easterlies blow across our ancient deserts and bring baking heat. It’s the onset of a cool southerly change, sometimes bringing air straight up from the Antarctic, that we all yearn for after several days or weeks of hot weather.

Again, this isn’t to suggest you refrain from writing about the bitter winds marching down from the North. Rather it is to suggest you not assume a shorthand like ‘the North wind’ will mean ‘cold, winter winds’ to all your readers.

Deck the halls with boughs of Eucalyptus

Putting it generally, don’t presume that the rhythms of your calendar year are universal. Even when you share a significant date with people half-a-world away (eg Christmas in much of the so-called Western world), the seasonal differences noted above change the tone and tenor of such celebrations.

I’m not a Christian but, to the extent I’m aware of the rhythms of the various churches here in Australia, they are clearly quite distinct from their Northern Hemisphere brethren. Just the fact that Christmas happens during our summer affects basic things like what food is served and in what circumstances families and congregations gather (informal outdoor gatherings are quite common, for example). Even without crossing the equator, Christmas is probably quite different in Florida when compared to New Hampshire.

US-specific holidays, such as Halloween, Thanksgiving and the US Labor Day holiday (which I understand is something of an informal marker for the end of Summer) can be a trap as well. Again, there is no good reason not to mention these events, but a paragraph or two explaining their regional significance will help your international readers, and probably some of your domestic audience as well.

If marking significant events is a part of the normal run of your newsletter or publication consider learning about some of the days of significance that aren’t US-based. If nothing else, they provide useful fodder for articles or stories in their own right. Here in Australia, Anzac Day, celebrated on April 25, is a significant national holiday with a character and symbolism profoundly different from both Independence Day and Veterans Day (which latter is known as Remembrance Day in Australia and yes, this day is marked differently here when compared to the US holiday on the same calendar date).

Measure twice

You might have noted the dual-temperature listing above regarding Adelaide’s forecast temperatures. This is a quick example of how to deal with the problem of the US being almost the last country on earth to adopt the SI system of measurements. The SI measurement system is, very roughly speaking, a superset of the Metric system first used in June 1799 by the French. SI is now used as the standard measurement system by virtually everyone except the US.

If you produce material which includes measurements, whether it be a travelogue or a recipe, take the time to use both Imperial and metric measurements. There are plenty of computer tools available that make this a simple task.

On the Mac OS I’m happy with the extensive array of unit conversions available as part of John Brochu’s CalcWorks. CalcWorks also happens to be an full-featured scientific calculator, which I’m pleased to have for all sorts of other reasons.

On Mac OS X, the built in Calculator (found in /Applications/Utilities) has a Convert menu which offers a fair array of metric and Imperial measures. For a much more comprehensive range of conversion options, and a simpler interface, try Eric Tremblay’s freeware Balance Pro.

I almost never use Windows but a couple of unit conversion applications which others think highly of include Converter Pro from AccSoft Shareware and Unios from Basta Computing. Both these utilities run under Windows 95/98/ME and Windows NT/2000/XP.

Although I use various Unix flavours fairly regularly I’ve not had cause to do unit conversions on such machines but there is a console utility available for doing such tasks: Simon 0.3a. For Linux users there’s the recently released (and un-tested by yours truly) MetEngVerter.

If you want to do conversions by hand, Frank Tapson from the University of Exeter’s Centre for Innovation in Mathematics Teaching has created a Dictionary of Units which includes a nifty summary table of conversion factors as well as some general information on various systems of measurement.

To fix this problem permanently, the best approach is to help the US to metricate. The rest of us will never switch back to the messy Imperial system or its even messier American variant (Pints, quarts, gallons and tons are different in the American system when compared to the Imperial system once used throughout the Commonwealth).

For more information on the slow burn movement to get the US to make the switch, pay a quick visit to the US Metric Association’s web site. For a slightly more aggressive take on the issue see the Metric 4 Us site. (This latter also includes links to some anti-metrication sites which I’ll admit to finding just a touch amusing.)

Where are you?

EST means Eastern Standard Time for Australians and USonians but the two time zones are more than half-a-day apart. And EST will not mean anything at all for others.

US EST is slightly better but better still is to spell it out completely: US Eastern Standard Time. If you really don’t want to do this, consider using generic phrases like ‘local time’ and making the location of the event unambiguous from context. Even an events listing page can get away without time zone abbreviations if it is headed with a note about ‘all times listed are local times for each event’ and includes full address or location details with each listing.

If you really do need to pinpoint the time zone, consider a dual approach noting both the local zone and Greenwich Mean Time (GMT or, more properly these days, UTC for Universal Time Co-ordinated). For more information on GMT, as well as tables for converting a given local time to GMT, see the Greenwich 2000 web-site.

Watch your accent

Always take a moment to consider if a regionalism makes assumptions that might cause misunderstanding in readers unfamiliar with such useage. Speaking generically about the ‘mid-west’ or the ‘east coast’ (or, worse, the ‘right coast’) for example could leave many of your readers literally wondering where on earth you are referring to. Is it any less convenient to say the US mid-west or the Atlantic coast of the US?

And US-based writers aren’t the only ones who need to keep this in mind. Most people in Britain will know where the Midlands and the Home Counties are. Most people outside Britain will not.

Perhaps the trickiest moments come when you consider cultural homonyms (as it were). I know what I mean when I say ‘football’ but it’s very different to what someone in the US or UK means (and they don’t mean the same thing as each other either). And here in Australia a biscuit is, I believe, what folk in the US call a cookie.

If you’re writing in an informal style an occasional parenthetical aside to deal with such moments can be effective. A reference to the ‘Packers,’ for example, could have something like the following appended:

(that’s a football team for all you folk outside the US, and I mean American football with the huge shoulder pads and thousands of coaches)

This shouldn’t bother US readers (since the tone hasn’t changed) but gives non-US readers the needed context. For more formal work take the time to establish the meaning of a regional term the first time it is used and use the shortened version from then on.

All of this, of course, gets harder the closer to your own experience your language gets. For example I’ve only just noticed my use of the word ‘jumper’ in the section on seasons above. A jumper is a woolen pullover or longsleeve top without buttons (putting buttons on it makes it a cardigan or cardy) but I didn’t stop to think as I wrote the paragraph above that this is a largely Oz-specific term.

Love [too strong? –ed] thy [archaic form –ed] neighbour [sp? –ed]

Given a broadly international audience, it might be worth re-considering some of your personal or editorial style-guide rules. This is a suggestion more for editors and others commisioning work for on-line publication than those of us undertaking such commissions. For those of us undertaking work for web-sites outside our local area, don’t forget rules change as you travel across borders. Getting a clear sense of what these rules are will save all concerned time and hassle.

If an overseas (to you) editor decides to respect local spellings, treasure and encourage them. But also go that extra step to make their life easier. At the very least, get your work proof-read by a competent third-party. Deciding to respect local spellings involves extra work by default. It isn’t made any easier if your editor is trying to distinguish between a local spelling and a typo. Nonetheless I’m always pleased when a US editor lets my ‘honour’ stand and makes no mention of my ‘colour.’

Editors, please make it very clear what your style-guide requirements are, either in response to a query letter or, better still, via your web-site. Writers are more than capable of living with a clear set of rules for presentation of copy (at least, those that are serious about making a living at it are). Arbitrary and inconsistent editorial decisions, however, quickly become both annoying and frustrating.

With regards style guides in general: remember a little recognition of the legitimacy of regional differences goes a long way. You may be utterly convinced of the holy truth of The Chicago Manual of Style but don’t be too surprised if your British correspondents feel just as strongly about Hart’s Rules. Of course Australian editors can get just as passionate about the Oxford Manual of Style for Writers and Editors.

Regular contributors can certainly be expected to learn the specific style guide your web-site or publication is using but don’t expect others, especially first-time contributors, to know the subtleties of your preferred system, even if you do mention the need to ‘follow the Chicago rules’ in your writers’ guidelines. I happen to have a copy of the Chicago Manual of Style on my bookshelf, but it was and is a lot easier to find the Oxford Manual of Style for Writers and Editors in my local bookshops.

Why bother?

Like editing for gender neutrality, editing with an international readership in mind can seem an exercise in pointless political correctness. As with gender neutrality, however, keeping distant readers in mind is really about removing ambiguity, reducing the risk of misunderstanding, and improving what you publish for all your readers. It’s not materially different from any other editorial task, once you accept it as a routine part of quality control. And, like any editing task, the more you do it, the easier it gets.

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