Audience Dialogue

How to write Global English
Some principles for clear writing

This page follows from our page on Global English.

Here are some guidelines we use on this website. They should be useful for writers who want to be understood by people with a limited knowledge of English. Some of these principles come from my own experience with teaching courses in non-English-speaking countries. Other principles come from findings of research into readability. The guidelines (each explained in more detail below) are...

1. Avoid words with multiple meanings
2. Use lots of subheadings
3. Write concisely
4. Avoid metaphors
5. Avoid slang
6. Avoid tiny fonts
7. Repeat important points using different words.
8. Try to keep the reader interested
9. Keep sentences short
10. Conveying meaning is more important than correct grammar
11. Use universally understood symbols where possible
12. Don't try to use words if a picture is more appropriate.
13. Avoid variation of synonyms
14. Bullet points are often enough 15. Don't skimp on punctuation
16. Limit lines of text to about 70 characters
17. Use words that are common - but not too common
18. If you use a rare word, either explain it or provide clues
19. Be aware of the frequency of words you use
20. Make sure that "it" is unambiguous
21. Avoid using nouns as adjectives, specially several in a row
22. Hyphens between words can sometimes clarify meanings
23. Avoid words that aren't in dictionaries yet 24. Avoid or explain abbreviations

Writing clear English for non-native speakers is a matter of juggling all the above guidelines, because some of them contradict others - so please regard them as hints rather than rules.


1. Avoid words with multiple meanings

...or use the context to make the meaning unambiguous. Some of the worst words for this are "fix", "get", "go", "put", and "run" - each of these has many different meanings. Often, to avoid ambiguity, you have to add extra words. If a word has both a common meaning and a rare meaning, try not to use the rare meaning. For example, don't use "once" to mean "after", as in "Once you have written the document, check it carefully." If you follow this principle, and somebody (or automatic translation software) has to look up the word in a dictionary, they have a better chance of understanding you correctly. For example, instead of "hard", write "difficult" - unless "easy" is written nearby. If you mean "repair" don't write "fix."

2. Use lots of subheadings

...specially in web pages, where not many lines of text are visible at once.

(Here I paused to consider principle 2: should the previous sentence end with "at a time" or "at once" or "together"? All three could be ambiguous. "Simultaneously" is too obscure.)

This makes it easier for readers to find the most relevant sections. A heading can summarize the contents below it. It's easier for readers when a heading is a whole sentence, not just a word or two. Because most printed pages have about 60 characters per line, it's a good challenge to write a descriptive sentence as a one-line heading. For example, a heading for this paragraph would be "A heading should summarize the paragraphs below it."

3. Write concisely

When people read a foreign language, they are usually slow - so don't waste words. However, to follow Principle 1, sometimes you have to use extra words to avoid ambiguity. So Principle 1 overrides Principle 4.

("Overrides"? Does that mean riding over it - on a horse, perhaps?)

4. Avoid metaphors

...unless their meaning is likely to be universal. For example, "overrides" is probably clear to most people. But the baseball and golf metaphors used by many American writers make no sense to people in developing countries. (Soccer terms would be OK, though, because Soccer is played everywhere.)

5. Avoid slang

Slang may not be known even in other English-speaking countries. For example, Australia and New Zealand have similar traditions, both are English-speaking, and the two countries share a lot of slang. But when I moved from New Zealand to Australia, I found that some slang terms had small differences in meaning, and others were simply unknown in Australia. Worse still, some slang terms, such as "dag" had almost opposite meanings. In New Zealand, a dag is a funny person, with a dry sense of humour. In Australia, to call a person a dag is abusive.

6. Avoid tiny fonts

...specially on web pages, where a small letter is reduced to a few dots on a screen. Native speakers will know the word, but others may have to guess.

(Here I chose the word "fonts" rather than "type" - following Principle 4.)

7. Repeat important points using different words.

"This lifeboat is designed to hold no more than 20 passengers" as well as "Maximum of 20 people in this boat." Though this contravenes Principle 4, sometimes it's vital.

8. Try to keep the reader interested

If you use a restricted vocabulary, avoiding idioms and slang, the writing can become dull. To counteract that, you need to take more effort to hold the reader's interest. An informal tone (like this) often makes the writing more interesting to read.

9. Keep sentences short

This is so obvious that perhaps it should be Principle 1. To keep sentences short, don't try to express more than a few ideas in one sentence. To test a sentence, read it aloud to a native English speaker, and ask them to repeat it back to you. If they can't do that, it's too long. 25 words is about the limit, and an average of 10 to 15 words is good.

10. Conveying meaning is more important than correct grammar

Did you wince at "if they ask" in the previous principle? Technically, they" should have been "that person" or "he or she". Since most English speakers would say "they" in this context, why not write it like that?

11. Use universally understood symbols where possible

For example, % instead of percent, and 2 instead of two. But probably not 1 instead of one, because in sans-serif fonts 1 can look too much like I (me) or l (lower-case L).

The common Arial font is a bad example of this, which you can probably see right now. Look at the top of your screen, and notice the name of this page: "english2.html". It's probably in Arial, and you're probably guessing that the letter after the "eng" is a lower-case L. But if it was a capital letter I, or a number 1, you wouldn't be able to tell. And might this: Ill1 mean Illustration 1? That's one reason why this web site specifies the Trebuchet font, which doesn't have that problem.

12. Use pictures as well as words

When you are describing a complex thing that is also visible, you could add a photo or diagram of it. This was once difficult to do, but it's much easier these days, with widely available scanners, digital cameras, and the millions of images on the Web. If you want a picture of something, go to Google Image Search (the "Image" tab on the Google search page), and type in its name. If you're using word processing software, you can easily copy and paste that image into your document. But be warned: most images on the web are copyright, and their owners want to be paid copyright fees if you republish their images in any way. So if you want to distribute a document that includes a picture you didn't create, it's easier to use a picture from a free image library - such as those supplied with most Office-type software.

13. Avoid variation of synonyms

One of the strange customs in English is the unwritten rule that you must not use the same word twice in a paragraph. Instead of repeating a word, "good" English writing uses a synonym in its place. (Oops! I've used the word "use" and its derivatives three times in this paragraph. Smack!)

This practice often confuses learners. "Why did the writer put 'big' here and 'large' there?" they wonder. "Is there some subtle difference?"

Usually there's no difference at all. Other languages, without so many synonyms, don't vary words in this way. If you really want to be understood by non-native English speakers, I suggest you avoid the luxury of synonyms. If you're referring to the same word as before, why not use it? There's no problem with this in spoken English, only in written English.

14. Bullet points are often enough - but they should be full sentences

.

Bullet points are often only a few words, which is not enough to convey meaning without being ambiguous. You often see this when a Powerpoint presentation has been uploaded to the Web: the meaning might have been clear when the bullet point was being discussed, but out of context it has little meaning. So a bullet point should be a whole sentence.

15. Use plenty of punctuation

Some sentences are hard to understand, because you can't work out where the punctuation should go. To make long sentences easier to understand, insert commas and dashes between parts of the sentence. An alternative to punctuation symbols is what I call "punctuation words" - which act as punctuation, but add meaning at the same time. For example, the word "because" in the first sentence of this paragraph. Other punctuation words are "but", "so that", and "therefore". A reader who doesn't know English well can use these words to split sentences into shorter groups of words.

16. Limit lines of text to about 70 characters

On the Web, this is something that the reader can control. If the heading of Principle14 (above) used less than one line on your computer screen, the window is probably too wide for you to read easily. Why not make the window narrower? As a guide, the ideal width of a line of text is about 60 characters, like this:
12345nnn10nnnnnnnn20nnnnnnnn20nnnnnnnn40nnnnnnnn50nnnnnnnn60

17. Use words that are common - but not too common

Your writing will be clearer if you replace words that are very common (but ambiguous) with words that are less common (but have only one meaning). For example, "difficult" instead of "hard" (as in Principle 2). But if the replacement word is too uncommon, the readers won't know it.

Another suggestion is to use one fairly common word instead of several very common words. For example, instead of saying "it's likely to be a mistake", say "it's probably a mistake". That's less work for any reader who knows the meaning of "probably" - a fairly common word.

18. If you use a rare word, either explain it or provide clues

By "provide clues" I mean placing the word in a context that helps to make the meaning clear. For example, "ambiguous" in Principle 17 above.

19. Be aware of the frequency of words you use

In other words, don't use a rare word, believing it to be common. This is easy to say, but not so easy to do. Simplicity-checking software (if it existed) could check this for you (more about this). Also, it's not only rare words you need to avoid, but rare phrases - even if they are made up of common words. If you don't know the frequencies of words, consult this file of the 5,000 or so commonest words in English, from the Brown and LOB corpuses combined. Alternatively, our lists of the 15,000 commonest words from the British National Corpus. Information on the frequency of phrases can be found at this Explore N-Grams website.

20. Make sure that "it" is unambiguous

What's "it"? Some languages don't have this concept - "the topic previously mentioned" - and people who speak those languages have trouble with "it" in English. So when you write "it" make sure there's only one noun it can refer to. (Was that last sentence clear?)

21. Avoid using nouns as adjectives, specially several in a row

Many nouns in English can also be used as adjectives. When a noun is preceded by several adjectives, and some of those adjectives are normally nouns, confusion can arise. For example, I read in a newspaper about the "low income tax offset" - the noun "offset" was preceded by the adjective "low", then two nouns used as adjectives. I first interpreted this as meaning "low income-tax offset" - in other words, some type of offset for low income-tax. Later in the article it became clear that I should have interpreted this as "low-income tax offset" - in other words, a "tax offset for people with low incomes". If the article had phrased it that way, there would be less confusion.

22. Hyphens between words can sometimes clarify meanings

In English, compound words usually have hyphens for the first few 100 years or so, but when a word becomes common, people begin to omit the hyphen. When a rare or recent word has an optional hyphen, I suggest you use the hyphen. Then, if the reader doesn't know the word, it's easier to look up in a dictionary - because the reader can look up each part separately, and have a good chance of understanding the compound word. Examples are semi-structured, inter-racial, and re-publication (nothing to do with a republic). All you need to remember here is to spell in a slightly old-fashioned style, specially if the word doesn't appear in small dictionaries and the meaning of the two halves indicates the meaning of the whole.

Did you notice "low income-tax" in the previous section? ("Low-income tax" has quite a different meaning.)The hyphen between "income" and "tax" links the two words closely together, but still makes it clear that they are two words. Sometimes adding a hyphen in this way can make a meaning more obvious. As in the previous example, this applies mainly when a noun is preceded by more than one adjective.

23. Avoid new words that aren't in dictionaries - unless they are very common

Dictionaries take years to add new words, and many people in developing countries use old dictionaries. So if you use a fairly new word, and your readers don't have fairly new dictionaries, they won't be able to look it up. This doesn't matter so much for very common words, such as "email" or when you're writing for the Web and using new technical terms (such as "blog") that readers can look up online. If you can't avoid a new word, you can just explain it.

24. Abbreviations: avoid them or explain them

A lot of documents written at workplaces are filled with abbreviations. The authors seem to assume that everybody else knows what they mean, and they use these terms so often that it's tedious to write them out. But a high proportion of abbreviations can make a document almost unintelligible. Perhaps there was a good reason to use abbreviations in the days of handwriting, when type was set by hand, and paper was expensive. But on the Web, documents are written with word processing software, which has labour-saving options such as auto-completion; paper is unnecessary. So why not write obscure abbreviations out in full?

Another way of increasing readability is to mark abbreviations clearly - either writing them all in capital letters, or ending them with full stops - unless those full stops could be confused with the end of a sentence.

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