STC Summit day 3 – Introduction to Global English

I’m at the STC 2012, the annual conference of the Society for Technical Communication. These are my notes from a session called “Introduction to Global English”, by John Kohl.

John is the author of the book, The Global English Style Guide: Writing Clear, Translatable Documentation for a Global Market. His aim was to come up with a set of guidelines that help us avoid the type of language that makes translation difficult, without being as prescriptive or complex as Simplified Technical English.

In this presentation:

  • Selected guidelines
  • Benefits of developing Global English skills
  • How will you implement Global English?

Introduction

For non-native speakers, we need to simplify our language as much as possible, and avoid unusual terms. On the other hand, we want to keep native speakers feeling comfortable.

The use of translation memory underscores the importance of consistency. For any kind of translation, but especially machine translation, consistency and clarity are very important. We need to avoid ambiguity.

John took us through some selected guidelines, and gave his recommendations on each.

Guideline 1: Conforming to standard English

Don’t just blindly apply the guidelines. Think about whether there’s a better way of achieving your purpose.

If something doesn’t sound quite right, it probably isn’t standard English. John recommended a book, against which you can check your assumptions:  The Bbi Dictionary of English Word Combinations.

Guideline 2: Simplifying your writing style

Examples:

  • Use short sentence
  • Avoid passive voice
  • Avoid unusual constructions.

Following these guideline also helps you to avoid inconsistency in your language usage. Also be careful about constructions that may be read ambiguously.

Guideline 3: Using modifiers clearly and carefully

Examples:

  • Be careful where you put the word “only”.
  • Be sure that it’s clear what each prepositional phrase is modifying. Example: “Only 17 characters are available for the table name on a standard tape label.”

Guideline 4: Making pronouns clear and easy to translate

Make sure it’s clear what the pronoun is referring to. Even if native English speakers may correctly deduce the correct meaning, the translator may not. This is especially important in languages where the gender of the pronoun must reflect that of the noun.

Guideline 5: Eliminating undesirable terms and phrases

Why use words like “albeit” and “extraneous”, when simpler ones are available?

Avoid abbreviations, as they are difficult to translate. An abbreviation can stand for more than one thing. Also avoid truncated spellings. But note that there are exceptions, such as the word “app”. Consider what is in common usage, and what will be familiar to the audience.

Guideline 6: Punctuation and capitalisation

Often there’s no right and wrong. It’s a matter of consistency.

Guideline 7: Using syntactic cues

A syntactic cue is an element of language that helps people identify parts of speech and analyse sentence structure.

For example, see the Jabberwocky poem by Lewis Carrol. It’s full of syntactic cues that help you make sense out of nonsense.

John recommends adding more syntactic cues than are strictly required, such as adding the word “that” to make the structure of a sentence more clear: “Ensure that the client computer is still connected.”

These cues make the sentence more readable for non-native speakers, and even more native speakers. They also improve the result of translation, by removing ambiguities.

Two cardinal rules of Global English:

  • Don’t make a change that will sound unnatural to a native English speaker
  • Don’t insert a syntactic cue without considering whether some other revision would be even better. (Remember that these cues will increase the word count.)

Benefits of developing Global English skills

These guidelines help you, as technical writer, make sense out of nonsense. You can add value to the content by clarifying it.

They also provide explanations and justification for changes that editors are naturally inclined to make anyway. You can tell the writer, “It’s a translation issue.”

Perhaps one day this will become a marketable skill: You’re more up to speed with translation issues than other people.

How to implement Global English?

John has tried running workshops and training sessions. They don’t help much.

John recommends the use of controlled-authoring software, which issues a warning when it finds an error. This allows the editors to spend more time on other important aspects, such as reducing the volume of existing content. The software checks grammar, spelling, style and terminology. It gives instant feedback, and is quite customisable.

John recommends we call the software “language quality-assurance software” rather than “controlled-authoring software”, as the first characterisation is more acceptable to writers. Sometimes writers love it, sometimes they don’t. Writers enjoy that they get consistent feedback, which is not necessarily the case from a human editor.

Examples of  tools:

  • Acrolinx IQ – this is the one John recommends
  • HyperSTE
  • SDL Global Authoring Management System
  • And more

Recommended reading

John’s presentation includes a number of references. He highly recommends Multilingual magazine.

Another tools

John recommends TextSTAT, a text analysis tool.

Conclusion

Thanks to John Kohl for a very informative and enjoyable presentation.

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About Sarah Maddox

Technical writer, author and blogger in Sydney

Posted on 24 May 2012, in STC, technical writing and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 9 Comments.

  1. Great (quick!) post summarizing John Kohl’s presentation.

  2. I have John’s book. It is a great reference. It contains excellent guidance if your work will go to translation. I try to promote my experience in writing global English as a skill.

    • Hallo scifi7

      Thanks, that’s good to know. I’m keen on learning more about this field, and am planning to read John’s book as soon as I can get my hands on it.

      Cheers, Sarah

  3. Sarah, how does John’s book differ from the guidelines in say the Microsoft Manual of Style? That’s what we use in my organization. It seems pretty thorough – but we have a pretty uniform audience (U.S. Marines), so I’ve only used the globalization content to train other writers. Helps them to see principles of clear writing applied in different contexts.

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