Coming this Spring: Writing for a global audience

A lot (but probably still not nearly enough) time is often spent discussing and testing for internationalisation of software. This is of course a very important consideration for anyone building software designed for use in different countries and cultures, because if you get it wrong the software may not run, may not make sense or may not be localisable.

I personally have seen very little about internationalisation of written language. I'm probably coining or bastardising terminology, but I'm referring to the art of writing content for an international audience. I'm sure there actually has been a lot of work in this area, and professional writers can probably point me to some great content. But in this age of the interweb where an increasing amount of content is written by amateurs (myself included) and for a global audience, I've seen a lot of writing which would fail my internationalisation reviews. Here are some of the worse culprits I've noticed, along with some random examples:

  • Not disclosing that a product or service is only available in some areas. While it can be frustrating, I think most people will understand why it isn't always possible to launch snazzy new products or services all around the world at the same time. However there is no excuse for pretending it's available everywhere (or more likely, wrongly assuming all of your audience lives in the same place as you). If readers could reasonably expect the offering to be available everywhere, make sure to be upfront if that's not currently the case.

  • Using seasons as rough dates. This is really common in the world of software, especially when talking about release dates (as nobody wants to commit to a precise date). But the problem with seasons as they are relative to the location of the author, which isn't always obvious or relevant. When it's spring in the northern hemisphere it's autumn down here, and in the tropics it could be anything. While it's less poetic, I much prefer language like "in the second quarter of the year", or even "sometime around March".

  • Using ambiguous date formats. Differences between date formats are a pain in the arse, but are unfortunately a fact of life, and no amount of arguing which formats make more sense is going to help. When writing for a global audience, both d/m/y and m/d/y formats should be avoided as they are often ambiguous (such as 12/10/2007). It's always much better to spell it out in a long form (12 October 2007) or if you must shorten it then use y-m-d (2007-10-12), which is generally unambiguous and has the added benefit of being easy to sort.

  • Referring to times without a well-known timezone. Whenever the audience needs to know about a specific time, usually for something like a live webcast, they probably don't know or care what time it is in your local timezone. The worst case is if no clues are provided to your timezone at all (See you at 11:00!) - but even referring to a specific local timezone (PST etc) isn't great since most people in the world probably can't easily convert to their own time, and may not know if/when daylight savings applies. While quoting in your local time can be convenient for many readers, it's best to also quote in UTC/GMT to simplify worldwide conversions.

  • Using unexplained cultural anecdotes to make a point. This is probably less common, but can be the most bewildering. Culture-specific references (i.e. something that assumes a knowledge of local geography, sport, politics, whatever) can be necessary when discussing some topics, and when properly explained can make almost any topic more interesting. However if the story makes absolutely no sense to a good chunk of your readers, it's not really helping with your point.

What are your thoughts on this - are there any "language internationalisation" faux pas that get your blood boiling, or am I making a fuss over nothing? Have I made any such blunders on this blog? I would predict that someone's sensitivity to this issue is proportional to their distance from the United States (due to the fact that the majority of English content on the web is from there) - but I'd love to hear some American perspectives on this issue too.

One topic that I have deliberately not included in my list is the use of different international flavours of English spelling. This is because no form is more or less correct than any other, and in any event it shouldn't be an impediment to understanding. On this note, those of you who pay close attention to this blog may have noticed a switch from US English to Australian English spelling in May 2007 when I moved. But I would be very surprised if anyone could honestly say that the change has made the blog make any less (or more) sense. Actually I don't think it made a lot of sense to begin with.

Comments (6)
  1. Nick Kellett says:

    Hi Tom, interesting post. I’m definitely guilty of some of these infringements. I once posted something I titled "The Two Solitudes", which upon reflection is a Canadian social reference, and I often mention seasons (invariably meaning the ones in the Northern Hemisphere). I’ve missed a few webcasts due to confusion over time zones. I’m also all over the map when it comes to US, English, Canadian, and Australian spelling conventions. On the other hand I do use the ISO date format so there’s hope for me!

  2. Evan says:

    Watch out for words with multiple meanings.  They can be very confusing.

    Personally, my car doesn’t have a "boot".  Although I use my trunk nearly every day.

  3. Evan – this is a tricky one. Each of the terms you mentioned is essentially the only acceptable term in different countries, so which one is the "right" one to use? While it’s probably best to avoid using either term unless completely necessary, I would expect most people to be familiar with both even if they only use one (this definitely covers you and me!).


  4. Christophe G says:

    "Using unexplained cultural anecdotes to make a point" is definitly the most annoying one for me. Especially because I believe it is the easiest to avoid for the writer.

    Something you may want to mention in your list are idomatic expressions, which are sometimes very difficult to get for a non-native english.

  5. Before I get started, to my point about globally-accessible writing , let me warn you that this post

  6. Mark Ritchie says:

    As I native English speaker living & working in Germany (with limited German) I’ve also discovered numerous sites that don’t honour my UI culture even though they support the culture. It is also interesting to see the advertising that sites display obviously based on my IP local again rather than my UI culture.

    I’ve even encountered problems at a browser level. If I use the search box in IE, it correctly uses my UI culture to direct me to where as Firefox sends me to

    In global village we currently live in its worth remembering people move about a lot, but still like to be presented with information in the way they are used to.

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