4 Things to Be Aware of When Writing English Content for an International Audience

Differences between UK and US English that can cause misunderstanding


4 Things to Be Aware of When Writing English Content for an International Audience

by Christopher Heng, thesitewizard.com

You may think that since English is so widely used all over the world, that if you create your website in English, it can be easily understood all over the world by those conversant in the language. While it is true that the English spoken in one country is mostly the same as that spoken in another, there are some variations that you may want to be aware of, so that you can reduce misunderstanding when your site is read by English users in another country.

Note that this article is not designed to be an academic treatise on the subject. It is a practical article, written from the point of view of a webmaster, and meant for other webmasters writing in English.

"... [We] have really everything in common with America nowadays except, of course, language." -- Oscar Wilde, Canteville Ghost.

Major Differences Between UK and US English

Here are the main things I find that I need to look out for, language-wise, when writing my content. Note that although I refer only to the differences between US and UK English, there are undoubtedly differences with the other English variants as well. The basic ideas below are, however, relevant to all variants.

  1. The Most Obvious Difference: Spelling

    Probably the most obvious difference between the various forms of English used in the world is the spelling of a large number of English words. I have written about this previously, from the point of view of search engine visibility, in my article "Your Website's Spelling and the Search Engines". For example, numerous commonly-used words are spelt differently in the US compared to the UK and most of the world. I recently had a visitor inform me that many words on my site were misspelt with an "-ise" ending (the UK/International spelling) when it should have had what was to him the correct spelling, an "-ize" suffix (the US spelling). The list of spelling differences between US and UK English is surprisingly long, and includes my very use of "learnt" and "misspelt" above (US English usually uses "learned" and "misspelled").

    Although this difference is very glaring, it is also the least problematic where the comprehension of your content is concerned. Most people encountering a variant spelling are unlikely to misunderstand it. At worst, they'll regard it as a spelling error.

    There are however implications for your site's search engine listing. Since I've already discussed those implications at length in my above-mentioned article, I will simply refer you to that article.

  2. Different Words for the Same Concept

    Perhaps more problematic is that the different English variants have different words for the same concept. This extends even to the very basic things in the language like punctuation marks. For example, what UK English calls a "full stop" is in US English a "period". What I call "capital and small letters" is in the US "upper and lowercase letters". "Torch" and "petrol" in the UK are referred to as "flashlight" and "gas" in the US.

    If you want your content to be understood correctly no matter which country your reader comes from, it may sometimes be necessary to add explanatory notes or qualify such words that do not occur in the other variant of English.

    The problem for most webmasters, of course, is not that they are unwilling to add explanatory notes. Most of the time, the problem is that they don't know that other countries use different words. After all, if you have lived all your life using a particular word for that object or concept, chances are that you won't even think twice about using it. And quite frankly, it's impractical to search both the US and UK dictionaries every time you need to use a word, particularly since variant terms seem to occur with everyday objects and concepts rather than esoteric terms.

  3. Same Words with Different Meaning

    Far worse than the above two categories is the situation where a word has different meanings in different countries. This can lead to a major misunderstanding of your web pages. For example, "football" means a completely different game in the UK from the US. A "public school" has opposite meanings in the US and the UK. "Brackets" in the UK refer to "(" and ")" while a number of US English speakers take it to mean the square brackets "[" and "]". The "first floor" in the UK is the floor above the ground level while it is understood to mean the ground level in the US.

    (Yes, I know. It's a wonder we can communicate at all.)

    Once again, if you are aware of such possible differences in meaning, you should either substitute with words that mean the same thing in both countries, or mention the alternative for the other variant.

  4. Grammatical Differences

    We're all familiar with the need to use verbs that match the subject of our sentences. Those who have studied formal English grammar in school may recall that this is called subject-verb concord. For example, the rather hopeful sentence "Webmasters love thesitewizard.com." uses a plural verb "love" to match the plural number of the subject "webmasters". Similarly, the sentence "TheSiteWizard.com is a comprehensive tutorial site for webmasters." uses a singular verb "is" because we're only talking about one website.

    In British English, it is possible to use a plural verb for a subject that is represented by a singular collective noun if the subject refers to a group of individuals. For example, I recently read a headline that began with the words "Manchester United have won..." (referring to the football team). Sentences beginning with "Labour have taken control of..." (referring to the UK political party called Labour) and "The council have done their best..." are also regarded as grammatically correct. For the curious, this aspect of grammar is known as notional concord, where the verb matches the idea (notion) that the subject is actually plural, since it comprises many individuals, even though the word itself is grammatically singular.

    Like the spelling variants mentioned above, this difference between British and American English is, in my opinion, unlikely to cause any problem for your visitors, at least where the comprehension of your content is concerned. At most, they will merely think that you've made a grammatical error.

    (Actually, nowadays, I probably mostly use the US English version of subject-verb concord in the sentences on my sites, unless I've overlooked something when I proofread my articles. I caved in on this aspect some time ago because I got tired of answering people who write to me telling me I have a grammatical error. I find it easier to explain spelling differences than grammatical differences.)

Practical Suggestions

  1. Anticipating Problems: Is There a Way to Know if My Language is Going to Cause Problems?

    Apart from reading widely about the subject and being sensitive to the way those from other countries write/speak, I'm not sure that there is a simple method that you can use with 100% confidence to preempt communication hiccups. In fact, I notice that a number of books get converted from UK to US English (and probably vice versa) when they cross countries, probably for the same reasons I give in this article, so even if you were to buy (say) novels written by someone from another country, you may not be getting the words the author originally used.

  2. Aids to Writing: UK and US Editions of Dictionaries

    However, all is not lost. As you write the content of your site, look up crucial terms that you use in both the US and UK editions of your English dictionaries, to see if there are any variances that you need to take into account. Notice I said that you need both US and UK editions -- it won't do to simply have (say) the Merriam-Webster English Dictionary, which only gives the US version of English. You will also need a UK dictionary, like (say) Concise Oxford English Dictionary, to give the UK version.

    If your use of the dictionaries is sporadic, you may be able to get away with just checking one of the online dictionaries: thefreecountry.com's Free Online English Dictionaries page lists both US as well as UK dictionaries. I also note in my reviews on that page the variants of English supported in each dictionary, as well as those that provide both the US and UK variants of a word.

    As I said earlier, it's obviously impractical to look up every single word you are going to use on your website. Perhaps one way around this is to look up only important terms.

  3. After the Fact: Feedback from Your Visitors

    Another way to deal with this, albeit somewhat belatedly, is to learn from your website's visitors after you publish your page. This happens every now and then on my site. Kind-hearted visitors sometimes write in to tell me of errors they spot on a specific page. Even if these are not real errors that must be fixed, they are helpful in that they point to a possible difference in English used on my site and that expected by my visitor. If the "errors" are such that they can cause misunderstanding, I modify the article to clarify. After all, one of the benefits of publishing a website rather than a physical book is that you can easily correct errors or clarify misunderstandings.

Divided by a Common Language

There are of course also other differences between the English variants, including differences in punctuation, colloquial expressions used, etc. As far as I know, where my sites are concerned, the other differences have not posed a signficant hurdle to my visitors understanding my content, so I've not bothered to mention them above. Nonetheless, to use a cliché, knowing that there are possible problems is already half the battle won. Just the awareness of communication hurdles is enough to make one more careful.

It is my hope that this article will help you when writing the content for your site, so that you can minimise any misunderstanding arising from the many English variants extant in the world.

This article can be found at http://www.thesitewizard.com/general/beware-of-english-variants.shtml

Copyright © 2008-2014 by Christopher Heng. All rights reserved.
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