Editing for an international audience

Here are some things to consider when editing for an international audience.

Date formats

A major problem in international communication is the variation in all-number date formats.

Does 3/12/99 mean March 12, 1999 or 3 December 1999? It depends on where you live. Although some dates can’t be mistaken (3/25/99 can’t be the 3rd of the 25th month), they can still cause a reader to stumble. Often the context will make a date clear, but at least as often it won’t.

This problem is easy to fix: always use a format that spells out part or all of the month, for example, 3 Dec 99 is a common international format.

Telephone and fax numbers

To internationalize your telephone and fax numbers, you need to do three things:

1) Use digits only—no letters (or give your phone number both ways). Not all countries have letters marked on their telephone keys, and if they do, the letters might not correspond to the same digits as in your country!

2) Include the Country Code as well as the Area Code, in this form:

+61 7 4948 0450 (optionally +61-7-4948-0450 or +61+7+4948-0450)

Here +61 is the Country Code (Australia), 7 is the Area Code (Australians will know to translate that into 07 for internal use), and the other numbers are an 8-digit Australian telephone number. I’ve seen this get translated into 617-4948-0450 (which looks like a North American number with too many digits) or the final zero gets dropped off completely, leaving 617-494-8045 which may or may not exist but certainly isn’t the correct number!

A U.S. or Canadian telephone number would be given in international style as:

+1 617 494-8045 (optionally +1-617-494-8045), where +1 is the Country Code, or in this case a Regional Code.

3) Provide alternative telephone and fax numbers if you publicise “free call” (1-800 or the equivalent) numbers, unless your “free call” number is good for incoming international calls—in which case you’ll want to publicise that fact.

Be wary of seasons and holidays

Editors should be wary of documents that refer to seasons instead of, say, the name of a month or “first quarter” or similar—especially if the document is aimed at a worldwide audience, or will be put on the Web—or is an email you’re sending to an Internet discussion group. When I see something labeled “Summer 1999” I have to stop and think, “Where is this published? Do they mean July or December?” And just to further confuse the issue, don’t forget that “Fall” is called “Autumn” by many English-speakers.

Then there’s holidays. Americans seem to be the worst at forgetting that not everyone knows when Thanksgiving is, for example (and I understand Canadians have a Thanksgiving day, too, but it’s in October), but everyone has blind spots at times. One of our jobs as editors is to notice

these little slips and correct (or at least query) them.

English as a second language

Many people are suddenly being asked to write or edit English-language materials for an international audience, but are not sure what special considerations this might involve. I’ve recently seen several questions posted on various discussion lists, so I thought I’d add a few words from my own experience (over many years) working with a wide range of well-educated recent migrants to Australia, most of whom were in some scientific or technical discipline.

  1. Some people whose first language is not English learned English at a very early age, so are quite bilingual. Related to that, some people whose first language is not English actually have a much better grasp of English grammar than many native speakers who weren’t taught grammar in school. Do not assume “ESL” means “poor skills in English.”
  2. Idiom, colloquialisms and slang are the biggest problems for most ESL readers.
  3. Cultural differences and references to sports analogies, current events, and so on can also be major problems, even among native English speakers from different countries and cultures.
  4. Even if they have weak overall English skills, many people understand the jargon or special vocabulary of their area of expertise or interest.
  5. The biggest group of English-speaking people is in India, not North America or the UK or the other places many of us commonly think of (Australia, New Zealand or South Africa).
  6. Writing in plain English is always a good idea. In case that term isn’t in common use wherever you live, I offer this description from Robert Eagleson’s “Writing in Plain English,” a publication from the Australian Government.
  7. “Plain English is clear, straightforward expression, using only as many words as are necessary. It is language that avoids obscurity, inflated vocabulary and convoluted sentence construction. It is not baby talk, nor is it a simplified version of the English language. Writers of plain English let their audience concentrate on the message instead of being distracted by complicated language. They make sure that their audience understands the message easily. This means that writers of plain English must vary the way they write their documents according to the composition of their audience. For instance, a document can contain a number of technical words and still be plain.”

Here’s a site you may find interesting: Dave’s ESL Cafe http://www.eslcafe.com/

It contains lots of useful content, including a database of idiomatic expressions and slang, with explanations.


Last updated 30 March 2002

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