Your English, my English. Where you were born, raised, educated, and live will dictate which of the Englishes you write and speak. What if you’re writing for a reader who uses one of the other Englishes? How do you write for your reader’s English?
When you get to the robot, you turn left. You’ll see the restaurant on your right. Watch out for the taxis! I’ll come just now, then we’ll have a cooldrink.
As a South African living in a community of expats from all over, I quickly learned that people didn’t always understand what I was talking about. South African English looks like English, sounds like English, is English … but sometimes it seems like it’s from another planet. Incidentally, a “robot” is a traffic light; “taxis” normally refer to minibuses used as a form of public transport and their drivers are notoriously reckless; “just now” indicates some vague point in the future; and a “cooldrink” is a soft drink, a soda or pop.
This is the wonderful thing about English: wherever it’s spoken, it develops its own unique form. It’s not only about “harbour” versus “harbor,” but about the words and phrases you won’t find anywhere else.
This is also the difficulty of English. I constantly have to “translate” from my English to the English of the person I’m speaking to so that they understand me. When you’re writing your book, you’ll want to be sure to write for your reader’s English, or at least write so that they understand what you’re saying.
I like to use the term “the Englishes”: US English, UK English, Canadian English, Australian English, and so on. In fiction, writers often use words and phrases unique to the area the story is set in. It adds local flavour. To avoid confusion, they may explain the word or phrase in a footnote or in a glossary at the end of the book. But is this a good idea for nonfiction?
The simple answer is, it depends. If you’re writing for a local market, the Englishes are really a non-issue. You simply need to write in the form of English spoken in that market. For example, if you’re writing a book for the Canadian market, you’ll use Canadian English. Straight forward.
But what if you’re writing for an international market? What if you want to release your book in various countries, each with their own variety of English? Then how you write for your reader’s English is a little more problematic.
How do you write in such a way that everyone will understand you? How do you avoid misunderstandings, such as the fact that a 'thong' in most countries is a style of underwear but in Australia, the US, and parts of Canada it’s a care-free summer sandal often called a flip-flop? Both fit in the technical definition, as does a narrow strip of leather, but the common usage differs depending on where you are.
In narrative nonfiction, you might want to add some colour by letting your characters speak their unique forms of English. Some writers simply explain the meanings of words by using brackets.
In the town of Humpty Doo I met a man who taught me Australia’s most famous song. He sang, “Once a jolly swagman (a transient labourer travelling from farm to farm looking for work) camped by a billabong (oxbow lake) under the shade of a coolibah tree (a type of eucalyptus tree).”
Clearly, this isn’t the best way to do it, since using brackets breaks the flow of the sentence.
Instead, as with fiction, you can use footnotes or a glossary to explain the terms if their meaning isn’t clear from the context. Better yet, you can explain the terms in the non-dialogue parts of your writing.
In the town of Humpty Doo I met a man who taught me Australia’s most famous song. He sang, “Once a jolly swagman camped by a billabong under the shade of a coolibah tree.” I learned that a swagman used to be a transient labourer travelling from farm to farm looking for work, that a billabong was an oxbow lake and that a coolibah tree was a type of eucalyptus tree.
The reader immediately gets an explanation of what the song lyrics mean, without having to take a break in their reading to first refer to a footnote or glossary.
Writing for an international market? It takes care to write for your reader’s English #theenglishes #writeforyourreader #amwriting #iartg
If you’re not using much dialogue in your writing, though, you might want to choose a more neutral form of English. Avoid slang and regional expressions. Instead, opt for more generally-known terms.
Instead of using the Australian “barbie” or the South African “braai”, use the more well-known “barbecue,” for example. Instead of saying I'll “knock you up," which while innocuous in the UK means to impregnate in Canada and the US, opt for the more generic "wake you up."
Luckily, in our increasingly interconnected world, some regional terms are universally understood. Most people know that what the British call aubergines, for instance, are what is known elsewhere as eggplants. Except in India and South Africa, where they’re called brinjals!
If you want to write for your reader’s English it will also help you immensely if you become more familiar with the different Englishes. Be aware that not everyone attaches the same meaning to a certain word. If you’re mindful of this, you can avoid misunderstandings or even causing offence.
If I’m writing about South Africa’s ethnic groups, for instance, I’ll always explain right from the start that the term “Coloured” refers to someone who is either of mixed racial ancestry, a descendant of the Khoisan people or a descendant of slaves brought from the East Indies some three centuries ago. I do this because I know that in the United States, the word is considered offensive when describing a person.
Another aspect of the Englishes that you might be aware of is that there are subtle differences in spelling, punctuation and grammar. This is the issue of “colour” or “color,” whether to put the comma before or after the quotation marks, whether to say “my family are” or “my family is,” and so on. When you’re writing, you only need to pay attention to these differences if you’re writing for a specific local market.
If you’re writing for an international market, and you’re unsure how to best write for your reader’s English, simply write in the style you feel most comfortable with. The differences are so subtle that most people won’t even notice.
Linell van Hoepen has been working with words for most of her professional life. Editing, proofreading, ghostwriting, translating: she’s done it all. Having worked as a publicist and later as a freelancer in the publishing industry in her native South Africa, she’s written everything from press releases to textbooks. These days she lives with two dogs and a cat, between a volcano and a lake in Guatemala. Naturally, she still works with words.
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