Which English for your content?

English is the official working language of many multinational organizations. But all companies have national roots. When these roots are in non-English speaking countries, the choice of what English to write in can quickly become a headache.

What do you mean by “what English to write in”?

It’s very common for international companies to originate their content in English. It’s often stipulated in the briefing document or technical specs. Rarely, however, does it specify anything more than whether to use British or American spelling.

I think most writers would agree that there’s much more to English than spelling. The differences between UK and US English run much deeper than “isation/ization” and “re/er.” And this UK/US split totally ignores our Canadian, Australian or Indian cousins.

Like it or not, when it comes to taking the reins of an organizations content, the task of defining the standard for English often falls on the shoulders of the content strategist. It’s a situation that I encounter frequently. Here are some of the pitfalls I’ve encountered.

Ruffling feathers
In international companies English speakers are the go-to people for writing in English, even though it’s not their day job and they aren’t often trained writers. With this role comes power within the organization—power that they don’t always give up willingly, especially to some new “content person”.

Style and stereotypes
There are real stylistic differences between the various families of English. For writers they are a perpetual source of wonder and inspiration. In my experience, however, discussions about language can turn nasty and nationalistic. People confuse writing styles with national stereotypes. Americans produce in-your-face copy; the British are hoity-toity.

Between the lines
Inconsistencies in English within an organization can be symptomatic of turf wars or skeletons. A British subsidiary of a French multinational that has merged with a US rival may feel under threat from the growing importance of Yanks in senior management. Fighting for British spelling is just one way of making their voice heard.

Foreign twists

Another set of snares exists in companies where English is the working language but the company’s roots are in a non-Anglophone culture.

Non-English speakers have preconceived notions about what is “good” English that depend of how and where they learned their English. For example, young people in France have a soft spot for US English due to movies and TV shows, while British English can be perceived of as too erudite or ironic.

One other challenge is that most multinational companies use some sort of English, but not one that a native English speaker would recognize as “proper” English. There are multiple reasons for this, but here are the four main ones I’ve identified:

  1. Calquing. Many nationalities transpose words, phrases and expression from their native tongue into English by literal, word for word translation. One of my bêtes noires is when French ad agencies talk about the “visual territory” of a brand (a direct calque from the French territoire visuel). It refers a brand’s visual style, and it can be hellishly difficult to get an agency to drop it, because “territory” is perceived as loftier and more strategic than “style”.
  2. Franglais and equivalents. Many languages have adopted English-rooted words that people think have the exact same meaning in English. When you tell someone you cannot “relook” their website but you can redesign it, you run the risk of making them look stupid.
  3. False cognates. Sticking with French speakers for a moment, another pitfall are English words that also exist in French, called false cognates. There are tons of them, and French readers sometimes apply the French definition to the word in English. Some classic examples are “actuellement” (right now) vs. “actually” (in fact) and “versatile” vs. “versatile” (The French word means fickle rather than adaptable).
  4. Neologisms. Be careful when non-Anglophones feel confident enough to start coining words and phrases in English. One that I recently spotted that made me cringe was “powerhousing” as in “our innovation is powerhousing our growth.” These buzzwords are very specific to the organization and totally incomprehensible to outsiders (like customers).

What to do?

  • Remain objective. It’s vital to establish a writing style for an organization that is based on a business case and brand values rather than arbitrary opinions masquerading as fact.
  • Blame the customer. Find ways of measuring customer dissatisfaction with current content. Then put the reader at the center of all decisions about language. It’s a very effective way to take the wind out of internal rivalries and power plays. Justify your decisions by explaining that they make life easier for the reader, which can improve sales and quality of service (rather than pandering to internal stakeholders).
  • Document and enforce. Write a style guide and apply it to everything your write. No exceptions.
  • Spread the word. You’ll never be able to write all the content in a company. So train in-house content authors and make them the evangelists of the new house style.

One comment on “Which English for your content?

  1. Tim Rickards
    March 29, 2012 at 10:39 pm #

    This post is “cowly owl,” Richard.

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