Do your readers understand you?

When you’re writing for the web it’s important to write so that all your readers will understand you. That may sound obvious, but it’s amazing how often people forget that the internet is international and that many of the people who access it have English as their second, third or even fifteenth language.

Web users by language
              Web users by language

I’m guilty of this myself: I always assume that all my readers are native English-speakers, but the chances are that they’re not. If I look at the statistics for my blog, I regularly have readers in India and various European countries, as well as in the United States (where they’re as likely to speak Spanish or Chinese as English).

The writer’s dilemma

I do try and write clear, plain English all the time, but I use a lot of idioms too. They make the language so much richer that it seems a shame not to, and perhaps it’s helpful for foreign readers to learn them – but the risk of readers not understanding them is quite high. So it’s a toss-up (thinks twice before saying that) between writing naturally and sounding stilted in a possibly-misguided attempt to be understood.

You’ve probably noticed the same thing when you try to speak English, or your own language if you’re not a native English-speaker, to someone for whom it’s a second or third language. You tend to slow down, and maybe use the grammatical construction of the language the other person speaks, if you know it.

You try to use simple words, too, though the Greek- and Latin-based ones we tend to think of as posh would often make much more sense to a French, Spanish, Portuguese, Italian or, indeed, Greek person. It all gets rather silly, and probably much harder for the other person to understand than if you stuck with proper English. It’s probably rather irritating for them, too. (Note to self: stop doing it!)

The internet as language teacher

English has become the lingua franca of modern times, even taking over from French in Diplomatic circles, and it’s all due to the internet. So much of what’s on there is written in English, you just can’t escape from the language. But what sort of English?

Websites by language
                      Websites by language

I find it fascinating how many varieties of English there are: US, UK, Australian, Indian – Microsoft Word offers 18 options. I had no idea that Irish English was sufficiently different from UK English to warrant a separate spell-checker.

That must make it very hard if you’re not a native speaker of any version of English. How do you know whether what you’re writing will be understood in the country for which you’re writing it? How do you know whether what you’ve read is correct in a different version of English than the one you’ve learnt, or whether the writer has made a mistake?

We Brits are often very careless in using our language; are other nations as bad?

English is a living language

One way of looking at this multitude of versions of English is that that’s how a language grows and changes. Many people wish it wouldn’t. They’re sometimes called the “grammar police”, which I think is unfair; they just don’t like hearing a language they love mauled.

There are so many words in UK English that have come from other countries, often as a result of conquest or war, and often changed so that the original country wouldn’t recognise them. Others come out of new technology, or what might be called internal forces: there’s no word for what someone wants to express, so they make one up and it catches on. English evolves constantly.

All of which, to get back to what I was saying at the beginning, makes it very hard to write clear English that everyone will understand. All you can do is try. Make it as clear as you can, and hope it will work its magic on the reader as intended. Good luck!

P.S. If you think I’m one of the grammar police, you could be right. Long live the subjunctive and the Oxford comma!  Comments welcome below…

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