Ever wonder how to write English suited for international readers? Edward Weiss’s Elements of International English Style is a comprehensive and thoughtful guide that gives concrete strategies while being sensitive to the cultural implications of an international English.
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Communicating in English with international audiences—that’s at the core of my work.
Direct, plain English can help those who aren’t highly fluent in English understand and make use of whatever is written because
- sentences and words are shorter, so there’s simply less text to wade through
- expressions are more direct, so the meaning is more apparent and there’s less need to read between the lines
- text is structured and visually clear so it’s easier to follow
But does it, really?
Is there really such a thing as a default international “culture-free” English that will help global communication no matter who the audience is?
I think about this a lot, so was happy when this book landed in my mailbox.
Plain language also helps people with disabilities and those who don’t have time, energy or attention to struggle through complex text.
- How can we make English more “international”?
- The challenges of international English
- Recommended for: Anyone who writes for international audiences
- Book details
So what are some features of an “international” English that could be accessible to all kinds of readers?
Weiss reviews some ways to make English more “international,” including using a limited vocabulary.
How can we make English more “international”?
▶ Start with Ogden’s Basic English
You can read Ogden’s book, Basic English, or see a summary.
In the 1930s, C.K. Ogden developed his Basic English, in which he reduced the number of English words to about 850. He argued that these (with some other rules) were enough to convey most meaning.
You may be a bit hard-pressed to write subtle text but I wonder if this could work for Easy English, for example?
▶ Limit to words in a basic dictionary
Even if you don’t go quite the extreme of Ogden’s Basic English, you could still limit yourself to a smaller number of words. For example, words (Weiss suggests) in the Beginner’s Dictionary of American English Usage.
To me, this seems a reasonable option—although I would have to get the dictionary and carefully check the words I’d like to use.
▶ Use Simplified English
For technical writing (e.g., writing instruction manuals), especially in the aerospace and tech industries, there is in fact such a thing as Simplified English. It also limits writers’ vocabulary but includes what is relevant to that industry.
▶ Choose words with fewer meanings
Weiss points out that some of the simpler words we’re encouraged to use (such as in plain language) may not always be the best choice for international English.
Some words have multiple meanings, and it can be difficult for a reader to de-code which meaning is intended.
See more phrasal verbs, from Dave’s ESL Cafe: Phrasal Verbs.
For example, the word “address” has (in the Oxford Dictionary) three meanings as a noun (with five sub-meanings) and four more as a verb. If you want to say “address the problem,” it may be clearer to write “explain the problem” because “explain” has fewer definitions.
Similarly, we should avoid verbs with two or three words in them (phrasal verbs) because the root verb by itself does not have the same meaning.
|take advantage of||exploit|
The challenges of international English
▶ Interesting vs. simple?
Weiss acknowledges the inherent tension between understandability and “interesting” writing.
If we’re limited to a smaller set of words and advised to be repetitive for clarity … well, it does constrain our expression.
This is a challenge that all writers will need to grapple with. (Thank goodness I work with informational text, not literary!)
▶ Can this be cultural imposition?
I also appreciated very much his discussion of cultural imposition.
Is promoting plain language that goes straight to the point a Western cultural imposition?
On one hand, more direct, simpler language could help those who aren’t highly fluent.
It could help those readers read, understand, and make use of what is written.
On the other, different cultures and languages have different approaches to writing.
What is ideal in America (a low-context culture where people prefer to be explicit in writing) may not be so in Japan (a high-context culture where people like to keep things open, implicit).
So if I advocate for more direct (and, in my mind, clearer) writing, am I imposing the values of one culture on another?
Here, too, is there no resolution. However, if you have a specific audience, then by all means adapt your tone and style.
Added 22 April 2023: I did get some answers at a plain language conference in Japan. Plain language can be a bridge when there is no shared culture.
(Weiss shares three versions of a business letter: one in a direct Australian/New Zealander style, one couched diplomatically for Japan, and one that emphasizes the personal connection for Mexico. I was amused that I definitely preferred the Japanese style!)
Recommended for: Anyone who writes for international audiences
Weiss shares more practical strategies for writing clearly for international audiences, beyond what I commented on here. Many of the strategies are the same as plain language advice.
This book is an interesting read and useful for anyone trying to optimize English communications with an international audience.
Edmond H. Weiss. The Elements of International English Style: A Guide to Writing Correspondence, Reports, Technical Documents, and Internet Pages for a Global Audience, 1st ed. Routledge: 2005.
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