I grew up in the United States speaking only English. My study of different languages in college eventually led me to a first career as a French literature professor. Studying other languages also gave me a different sense of the English language and some of its ambiguities. I believe that comparative knowledge of English and other languages leads to clearer and more effective writing, including in technical communication. John Kohl’s book, The Global English Style Guide, provides almost a shortcut to some of the insights gained from fluency in other languages. Global English is “written English that an author has optimized for a global audience” (Kohl 2). It reduces localization costs in part by avoiding unclear English constructions that require additional time from translators. This post shares a few such guidelines, and I encourage anyone interested to consult Kohl’s book directly.
Compensate for English’s lack of grammatical gender
Some takeaways: Start a new sentence and repeat the noun instead of using a pronoun with an unclear antecedent (36). The cardinal rule of Global English is to avoid any revisions that “sound unnatural to native speakers” (4). If there’s no satisfactory way to clarify a phrase, you might add a note that only the translator will see (13-14). “Translation glossaries” may serve a similar purpose (45).
Grammatical gender in other languages is usually arbitrary and consequently difficult to memorize. However, grammatical gender may also establish very explicit relationships between words. The gender of object pronouns in French differentiates between antecedents in situations where English would simply use it: “You must correct the error in your program before submitting it again” (98). Translators need to know whether it is the error or the program; do they write “avant de la soumettre” or “avant de le soumettre”? (99). When I tested this sentence with a machine translator, it guessed “la” (but error, again, might or might not be the correct antecedent of it). A conscientious human translator could need to take the time to inquire what the author intended.
Don’t omit clarifying words
Takeaway: Be conscious of optional, clarifying words and don’t leave them out.
Studying another language can create more awareness of omitting certain words in English. For example, English relative pronouns may sometimes be optional whereas, in many other languages, they are always necessary. Kohl recommends the systematic inclusion of “that” in phrases like: “The file that you selected” (116). It is also better to avoid using “this, that, these, and those” as pronouns on their own (105). Imagine a long sentence followed by one that begins: “This allows us to…” The reader wonders, “this what?” “This tool? Or this process?” Including a noun after a demonstrative adjective means anticipating the experience of actual readers, who can’t always guess what the author meant to say.
Account for natural frequency of the passive voice in English
Some takeaways: Use the active voice in order to clarify meaning and make translation more efficient, only there’s no need to get carried away. If the agent (the one doing the action) is a software program then the passive voice may be fine or even preferable (43). Recall that the cardinal rule of Global English is to reject changes that “sound unnatural” (4).
Condemnation of the passive voice is a commonplace in most style guides. Probably everyone has gotten a scolding for using the passive voice when it wasn’t necessary. Yet, other languages may provide multiple options for omitting the agent without using the passive voice. These options include reflexive verbs and third-person pronouns like “on” in French or “man” in German. The frequency of the passive voice is in the nature of the English language. All of which isn’t to say that everyone should use the passive voice. As Kohl observes, using the active voice makes localization easier because the translator won’t have to transpose the passive voice into some other construction (41). At the same time, there’s no strict prohibition of the passive voice in Global English. For example, if the software is the one doing most of the actions in a paragraph, then you should use passive voice rather than constantly repeating the name of the software (43).
This post itself has not strictly followed the rules of Global English but I hope that its content – emphasizing problems of translation and how English compares to other languages – has helped to illustrate what makes Kohl’s style guide “global”. Its principles will not only facilitate the localization of your documentation, they may also make you a better all-around writer.
Resource: Kohl, J. R. (2008). The Global English Style Guide: Writing Clear, Translatable Documentation for a Global Market. United States: SAS Institute.
Copyright 2008, SAS Institute Inc., Cary, NC, USA. All Rights Reserved. Reproduced with permission of SAS Institute Inc., Cary, NC.
Ben Williams is a technical writer with particular interests in localization, education, and user experience. He previously taught French literature at Syracuse University, Columbia University, and Connecticut College.
“This blog post was written as part of STC Carolina’s Mentor/Mentee Program. I’d like to thank Landra Cunningham for all her guidance and for her feedback on my post.”