Relearning How to Write for an International Audience

A Review of 'The Global English Style Guide' by John Kohl

The Global English Style Guide: Writing Clear, Translatable Documentation for a Global Market, by John R. Kohl (SAS Institute, 2008).

If you're a technical writer or editor, or someone who writes (in print or online) about business, science, or medicine, or if you ever have occasion to communicate in writing with non-native speakers of English, you might want to make room on your shelf for one more style manual.

The "Global English" in the title of John Kohl's The Global English Style Guide (SAS Institute, 2008) refers to "written English that an author has optimized for a global audience by following guidelines that go beyond what is found in conventional style guides." In other words, this is not the same old, same old (an idiom we'd probably do best to avoid when addressing international readers).

The book's premise isn't that we need to oversimplify our messages or talk down to non-native speakers in a parody of Basic English, like Basil Fawlty snapping at Manuel. In fact, Kohl makes a point of distinguishing Global English from "controlled English," with its minimal vocabulary and simplified syntax.

According to the author, the Cardinal Rule of Global English is "Don't make any change that will sound unnatural to native speakers of English." And that rule has a corollary: "There is almost always a natural-sounding alternative if you are creative enough (and if you have enough time) to find it!"

Here's a brief example from the chapter on "Simplifying Your Writing Style":

Except in poetry and questions, it is unusual for the main verb or an auxiliary verb to precede the subject of a clause in English. Although inverting a sentence in this manner can produce a desirable change in emphasis, this construction is confusing to many non-native speakers. It contributes to the problem of unnecessary variation, which Global English strives to minimize, and it can easily be avoided.

To those of us who grew up with the injunction to vary your sentence structures, Kohl's advice may take some getting used to. But throughout the book he consistently adheres to a higher rhetorical principle: consider the background and needs of your (global) audience. And that's one we all can agree on.

Kohl generally follows his own advice to "write positively" and "be logical, literal, and precise in your language." His explanations are clear, and his examples are pertinent and plentiful. My one quibble is that so many of those examples are drawn from the field of computing. This isn't surprising--Kohl has worked in the software industry since 1992--but the jargon is occasionally off-putting.

The Global English Style Guide isn't meant to replace your copy of The Chicago Manual of Style or The Associated Press Stylebook. But if not all your readers speak the way you do, this guide may prove to be a useful writing companion.

To learn more about John Kohl's book and to view a sample chapter, visit The Global English Style Guide at the SAS Institute.