What In The World Do You Mean?


Some years ago, I joined my first on-line writers’ group. Eager to become involved, I submitted an e-mail requesting advice about the format of a sentence. I shook the lovely Christian members of the group rigid by my language! I used an innocent, every-day word here in South Africa, which I quickly learned means something totally different and not at all nice, in America. Once the group recovered, they took great delight in correcting me. If the article had gone to my planned Christian market my guess is I wouldn’t have written for them again!

As writers in this postmillennial era, we face a major challenge. With the tremendous advance in communication, especially through the Internet, it is imperative that our writing is understood globally. My word processor lists fourteen variants of English, although there are obviously more.

In Britain you might dress your heroine in a Dolly Varden, an elaborate, flower-decked hat. The North American reader would be bewildered, as he knows this is a type of brightly spotted trout. In Australia, the Dolly Varden is a doll-shaped cake. In South Africa, it is a draped dressing-table.

This may seem comical, but confuse your reader too often and they will give up on your article or book and look for something they can understand. 

So what’s a writer to do? 

As a South African writing for the International market I have learned a number of important principles. 

Explain yourself. The English writer could say, “Look at that amazing hat,” she whispered. “I’m sure it’s a Dolly Varden.” The international reader understands.

Develop cyber friendships. An Internet writers’ group is an excellent place to interact with writers from other countries. This will help improve your writing and increase your understanding of different cultures. 

Belong to a small international group. Some years ago, five of us formed an on-line critique group to support one another’s writing endeavours. We especially appreciate the international flavour. One member lived in England, two in different states of America and two in different provinces in South Africa. Currently we have an Australian living in Japan as a member of the group.

Check articles written for an overseas market with someone from that country. To send your heroine for a stroll along the pavement in Britain or in South Africa is a healthy thing to do as it is the paved section reserved for pedestrians. In America it could prove fatal, as the pavement is the paved section of the road. 

Wattle to an English reader is a type of fence; to the American it is the loose skin at the throat of a turkey. The South African frequently sees mud-and-wattle huts along the roadside; but for the Australian, wattle is the golden-yellow flower that is his country’s national emblem. 

Understand that spelling and punctuation varies. The South African English is similar to that spoken in Britain. But when I write for an American market, my critique partners remind me that my hero realizes instead of realises, sees colors not colours and that he traveled, not travelled. They also correct me when I put my punctuation “outside the quotation marks”, as for a British magazine, instead of “inside,” as required by USA editors.

Put prices into context. It is almost impossible for us to comprehend the value of each other’s currency unless we have actually lived in that country. If I tell my British reader that I paid R42 for a chicken, it means nothing. But if I say that I paid R42, the price of 5 loaves of bread, she can decide if it is expensive or not. 

Consider inflation. Prices date your article, and give your reader a wrong impression. If I play with my old Monopoly board, I can buy a house for the price of ten loaves of bread today! 

Rather than say, “The bracelet cost thousands of pounds,” refer to “The expensive bracelet costing thousands of pounds.” The reader on the other side of the globe knows it is an expensive bracelet without understanding your currency. And a person in ten years time will still understand its value, when the term “thousands of pounds” will probably mean it is almost worthless!

Tell your readers where you live, then allow them to soak in local atmosphere and learn local terms. They will enjoy your English descriptions of British pageantry. They will marvel at the family of African baboons, large primates from the monkey kingdom, sitting nonchalantly in the middle of a road feeding their young, while overhead the grandfather of the tribe stands guard. 

Clarify local customs or terms. “Bangers and mash,” may make a British reader’s mouth water but for others could conjure up a scene of violence. “We’ll have bangers and mash for supper; I have some nice pork sausages,” gives the American an idea what’s on the menu. “The street children” are a well-known tragedy to a South African, but “homeless orphans” is understood by all. 

Educate people from other countries. Many people overseas have never been to London. The word "circus" makes them think of big tents, sawdust, trapeze artists and tamed wild animals. They may never have heard about Piccadilly Circus. So instead of saying, “It was like Piccadilly Circus,” which is confusing to say the least, the English writer could say, “The congested streets teaming with cars and people resembled Piccadilly Circus in London.” Now the readers can not only visualise the scene, they have learned something about London. 

Recognise different education curricula. Travelling in another country I was astonished when an educated person halted me in mid-sentence. “Why do you keep saying ‘England’? I thought she lived in Great Britain?” As a British citizen by birth, I presumed everyone knew that England was part of Great Britain. 


As writers, we can play safe and only write for our own country, but what a huge opportunity we are allowing to slip through our fingers. There’s a whole world out there interested in what you have to say. Follow these steps and you can be fairly sure your reader will enjoy reading your article or book, because they know exactly what in the world you are saying. 

SHIRLEY CORDER lives in South Africa with her husband Rob, a hyperactive budgie called Sparky, and an ever expanding family of tropical fish. Hundreds of her inspirational and life-enrichment articles have been published internationally. She is contributing author to nine books to date and her book, Strength Renewed: Meditations for your Journey through Breast Cancer is due to be released in America by Revell Publishers later this year.  You can contact Shirley through her writing website, her Rise and Soar site for encouraging those on the cancer journey, or follow her on Twitter


10 comments:

  1. What an interesting and useful post Shirley. I do business and health ghostwriting and haven't really thought about the international aspect. But I do note keywords globally and locally.

    But, writing fiction or even nonfiction descriptions I can see how it's important to think globally.

    Thanks for sharing.

    Karen Cioffi Writing and Marketing

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    1. Thanks for your response, Karen. I don't know about business, but certainly the health area is a minefield when it comes to international English. I am an RN and have just completed a book that involves a number of medical examples. Even "Small" issues like American "go to the hospital", while South Africans "go to hospital" - no "the".

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  2. Interesting post. Your examples really helped clarify some things to watch out for when writing.

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    1. Glad you found it helpful, Mary Jo. It's surprising how easy it is to give a wrong impression when you're writing cross-culturally.

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  3. As an American born writer who has lived in Australia for over 20 years, I can really relate to this article Shirley. I always have a few different nationalities involved in proofreading my books and even now, I'm always surprised at the words they pick me up on.

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    1. You're so right, Magdalena. Even when I think I have it right, I can be sure one of my international friends will say, "Huh?" to something!

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  4. This is fascinating. I knew there were meaning differences, but didn't realize how much it could impact a writer!

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  5. Interesting post! In college, I lived in a dorm with students from all over the world. I know something about words having different meanings in different countries. When I traveled to Ireland years ago, I remembered that, and tried to watch what I said. One word of advice for my fellow Americans: When in another country, call that thing you might be wearing a "bum bag." Don't ever call it what we know it as here in the US! LOL

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  6. Got that one Debbie but just can't guess what Shirley's banned word was :-)
    The one I had to query with one of my American authors was hutch. Here in the UK we keep rabbits and guinea pigs in hutches. LOL

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  7. Debbie, I wouldn't recommend you calling it a "bum bag" here in S.Africa either. We call it a "moon bag". Please don't ask me why!!

    Annie, I had to Google "hutch" as we also keep rabbits and guinea pigs in them!

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