Plain-spoken Online Conversion Rate Newsletter - covering web design, sales, marketing, copywriting, usability, SEO, relationship marketing and consumer psychology.


Writing “Basic” with a Global Reach

Contrary to popular belief, I did not land here speaking any human tongue. It actually took me a few days to get the hang of English, which happens to be the language used by about 80% of all Web sites. I did read somewhere it could be Chinese by the year 2007.

But for now, the lingua franca is English. So what do you do if your business has a more global reach and you have to make sense to non-native readers of English? You write basic!

Now, I make no bones about it. Do NOT use my stuff as a model, ‘cause the last thing I’m about is writing basic English. You get me as I am. And that’s a perfectly acceptable model - you gotta figure you’re never going to appeal to all the folks all the time no matter what you do. Sometimes you choose to “target” your writing.

But I know some of you out there need to communicate effectively with those for whom English is a second language (hi, Faith!). So here’s what you do:

· Use short sentences

15 to 20 words, and 20 words puts you close to the danger zone. Writing concise, direct sentences is most of the battle.

· Use simple sentence constructions

Subject - verb - object (if any), followed by any extra information. You start confusing folks when you insert lots of phrases between the core elements of a sentence.

· Use the active voice

When you use passive verbs, you risk making your meaning ambiguous.

· Avoid “phrasal” and “modal auxiliary” verbs

Phrasal verbs have two or more words, verbs like call up, pull in, pick away at and drop down. Choose a one-word verb that says the same thing.

Modal auxiliary verbs include stuff like should, could, can, would, might and may.

A representative should contact you within 48 hours.

Does that mean he will, he might not, he has a moral obligation to or that it could take longer than 48 hours? Native English readers understand these words based on context. They usually confuse non-native English readers.

· Use pronouns clearly

Notice the last two sentences in the previous section. The “they” in the last sentence refers to a noun in the previous sentence, but which one? Words? Native English “readers”? Or did I make a grammatical mistake and refer in the plural to “context”? See what I mean?

· Use simple, common words with clear meanings

· Use positive language

Stay away from negative constructions (which can be hard to translate) and negative images (which are depressing and can be insulting). “Don’t you just hate it when …” is a negative construction (don’t) with a negative image (hate). Double negatives (as in “not uncommon”) are doubly troublesome.

· Avoid clichés and slang

I wrote “I make no bones about it.” Can you imagine what that means to this audience? Nothing.

· Proof very carefully

Writing that is grammatically correct and free of typos is enormously important with this audience! These folks are generally good with English grammar and if you break the rules, you risk confusing them.

· Get some help

If you know people who speak English as a second language, ask them to read your copy for clarity and to help you identify potentially offensive language. This is especially important if you are using humor.

P.S. If you want to study a good model for International English, pick up a copy of the Herald Tribune, a newspaper that writes in English for a global audience.

P.P.S. About those flags, animated and otherwise … ditch ‘em. If you offer your site in multiple translations, use the correct name of the language instead of the country’s flag for identification. Which flag would you use for English (you can choose from USA, Great Britain, Australia, New Zealand, Canada and Singapore)? And which of four languages would you be indicating by using the Swiss flag?


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GROK is taken from the landmark novel "Stranger in a Strange Land", by Robert A. Heinlein. It is a Martian word that implies the presence of intimate and exhaustive knowledges and understanding. Our "GROK" is a keen observer of the world around him and he takes a particular interest in the World Wide Web. The folks at Future Now like him a lot because he's taught them that "sometimes the price of clarity is the risk of insult."

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