Of the 1.5 billion English speakers around the globe, nearly 75% speak English as a second language. In a world where non-native speakers outnumber native anglophones three to one, knowing how to connect with multilingual and multicultural audiences isn’t just an advantage—it’s a necessity when writing for global audiences.
Unfortunately, most native English speakers simply aren’t used to adapting to different fluency levels. After all, when you never have to leave your native language behind, it’s easy to get comfortable.
But communication—whether written or spoken—is a mutual exchange. Non-native speakers have gone through the trouble of learning a new language; it’s only fair that native speakers meet them halfway. That takes a heavy dose of empathy and a true commitment to building a more equitable and inclusive world.
In plain words: globalize your English
When it comes to plain understanding, non-native English speakers often have an easier time with each other than they do with native speakers. That’s because native speakers load their speech and writing with slang, big words, long sentences, idioms, and cultural references—a major challenge for the less acquainted.
Global English, a style of English optimized for clarity and accuracy, can help you avoid these pitfalls and make your writing friendlier to non-native readers. Although there are no set guidelines, most sources list these best practices for writing for global audiences:
- Write short, simple sentences. Writing short sentences is akin to speaking slowly. They’re easier to follow and understand.
- Use everyday words. Your readers are likely to be familiar with commonly used terms.
- Avoid slang, colloquialisms, and idioms. Non-native readers often do not have the cultural knowledge to understand idiomatic language.
- Replace phrasal verbs with simple verbs. Phrasal verbs—or verbs that contain an additional element, such as an adverb—make sentences longer. Moreover, because many have different meanings, they may create ambiguity.
- Be consistent with words and style. Inconsistencies confuse readers, draining their attention.
- Define complex terms. Guide readers with in-text definitions, glossaries, and hyperlinks.
- Use the active voice. The passive voice is wordy and may be difficult to understand.
- Avoid negative constructions. It’s easier to tell readers what they can do.
But short sentences and simple words alone won’t guarantee understanding. Beyond clarity and readability, writing for global audiences requires that we pay special attention to our audience and consider how our words will be perceived through different cultural, language-based, and geographical lenses.
Certain copywriting techniques—using phrasal verbs to make writing more conversational, for example, or turning to idioms and wordplay—are meant to captivate audiences, but might end up confusing them. At best, humor can go unnoticed; at worst, it can be misinterpreted. At the end of the day, getting to know your audience is essential.
It’s all Greek to me
Idioms and colloquialisms give our writing color, depth, and personality. These stylistic devices—which are powerful expressions of the history and culture that bind people together—can help us convey emotions and experiences too complex for plain language.
There are limits, of course. While these tactics can help us connect with those who share our culture, you might end up alienating those who don’t. References involving baseball (“ballpark figure”) or nearly defunct technology (“like a broken record”) can get lost on audiences who lack the necessary cultural context or life experiences to understand them.
Consider the business world. Even native English speakers struggle to keep up with all the circling back, piggybacking, brain-picking, and pinging. Confusing jargon often leads to communication problems and exacerbates mental fatigue.
Now, imagine feeling just as confused about everything else. For non-native speakers, that’s a common experience.
Cut out phrasal verbs
When writing for global audiences, phrasal verbs may be one of the most challenging elements to curb. We often use them to make our writing sound more casual, accessible, and conversational.
The problem with phrasal verbs is that they’re one of the most difficult parts of the English language for non-native speakers to master. Their meanings—which are often idiomatic—are usually entirely different from their individual parts. Understanding phrasal verbs requires that learners memorize exactly what each combination means. And there are thousands of them—which means your readers will likely stumble upon at least several unfamiliar verbs.
Each phrasal verb can have multiple unrelated meanings. A study of the 100 most commonly used phrasal verbs found that, on average, each one had 5.6 meanings.
Does this mean you have to eliminate each one from your writing? Of course not! Phrasal verbs are vital to the English language. But by sticking to commonly used expressions—using included instead of baked in, for example, or improve instead of beef up—you can keep your copy accessible and inclusive while writing for global audiences.
The MTA overcame an obstacle to promote its new payment system
The hands-down largest transportation network in North America, the Metropolitan Transit Authority (MTA) in New York serves over 15 million riders. When the MTA decided to modernize the fare payment system and launch OMNY (One Metro New York)—contactless “tap and go” riding, it encountered an obstacle: how to communicate several options across a ridiculously broad range of languages, reading levels, digital savvy, and more. NY-based web agency Reflexions, on deck to build the new OMNY website, tapped MarketSmiths to write the web copy, introducing New Yorkers to their future of transit: crisply and effectively. As of November, 2019, OMNY rollout has been a massive success, with 6,100 taps on day 1, widespread early adoption, and installation across 472 stations.
Relative pronouns are optional
Our quest for brevity often produces three casualties: that, which, and who. Using relative pronouns is optional when they are the object of the clause—and is usually determined on a case-by-case basis.
While native readers may not need relative pronouns, non-natives can benefit from their help. Google’s Developer Documentation Style Guide, which helps developers include accessible documentation for global teams, encourages using relative pronouns and helper words to avoid ambiguity.
Using relative pronouns will make your sentences longer, but it won’t make them grammatically incorrect.
Here’s an example:
- Relative pronoun: The food that she made was delicious.
- No relative pronoun: The food she made was delicious.
There are some cases where this tactic can backfire. Instead of adding clarity, it can make sentences too wordy. In cases where the relative pronoun is the subject, it’s best to omit it:
- Relative pronoun: The car that is parked in front of your house is mine.
- No relative pronoun: The car parked in front of your house is mine.
When in doubt, always prioritize clarity over concision.
Connect through language
Copy doesn’t need to be plain or bland to work across cultures. It just needs to be empathetic. And how we choose to use our language will decide whether our writing is a bridge or a barrier.
Need writing that transcends borders? Contact the MarketSmiths team.