International English: does it really exist?

When it comes to writing ‘international English’ content, writers and marketers face something of a dilemma.

It may be the most spoken language in the world, according to Statista, but as far as global business is concerned, the burning question now is, which of the many varieties of English should we be using? And does it really matter? After all, English is English, right?

Well, no. As a Brit working in marketing for American organisations since the early 1990s with responsibility for creating and editing content across several different countries, I have come across many challenges – not least, the arguments over American vs British spelling and vocabulary.

And it’s not just the language but the imagery that can fail spectacularly. For example, one US company was heavily promoting its security software based on fear, resulting in some pretty scary ads that would never have worked in the European market. Cue more long and tortuous debates with my US colleagues.

So, why does it matter for content writers and marketers? Can’t we just use one of the varieties of English, such as international English?

That’s our dilemma: what exactly is international English? Using British English vs American English as an example, we know that we have different words, but we can understand each other thanks to the export of films and television programmes (note the British spelling there!). So I know that pants are trousers and not underwear, that a sidewalk is a pavement, the hood is the bonnet of a car, the trunk is the boot, and I even know how to pronounce ‘router’ differently.

Then there’s the issue of which spelling of the past tense to use – Americans use learned or dreamed, but Brits have a choice of learned/learnt or dreamed/dreamt. And so it goes on.

As marketers, we find ourselves agonising over whether we should use the US spelling of a proper name or the British one. For example, Customer Advocacy Program looks entirely unfinished to the British eye, but if it is a corporate name, what are we to do? We then end up with a horrible mix of US and British English spellings everywhere.

I know; let’s automate

Another major gripe is how online spell checkers or predictive text work. Unless you change the settings, when it comes to British English vs American English, the computer insists that American English is correct because that seems to be the default setting. Unfortunately, because people rely so heavily on spelling and grammar checkers, they no longer question whether the computer is correct.
automated content writing
Even experienced authors of English content writing can fall into this trap. That’s why it’s essential to include proofreading in your content creation to avoid alienating your target audience. And, of course, it needs to be a human being doing the proofreading to check the meaning of the copy. Just because AI programs (yes, American spelling there because it’s software) can write copy, it doesn’t mean that they can write copy well, with feeling and reflection.

At the end of the day, marketers need to decide which version of English is appropriate to create the relevant content and messages. Naturally, that decision needs to be based on the audience; there is no single correct response to this modern-day dilemma, but a generous amount of common sense will go a long way. Of course, it’s not just about British English vs American English. Which regional varieties of English should we adopt for English-speaking or English-tolerant markets such as Canada, Australia, New Zealand, India, Malaysia, the Philippines or Singapore? The dilemma simply goes on.

International English

Some clients ask for ‘universal’ or ‘international’ English in the same way that some clients want ‘international Spanish’ when requesting content for Spain and Latin America. And understandably, this is usually based on cost considerations. But unfortunately, as we’ve just seen, universal or international English doesn’t really exist – and the same goes for Spanish, of course. So, a decision has to be made by the client – what is the brand perception and the objective of the piece of content?

Cultural influences

The differences in language are just part of the issue. Culture plays an essential role as that impacts style. In the UK, for example, audiences don’t tend to warm to ‘hard sell’ words and phrases and these are often dismissed as being ‘too American’. Other cultures may find that audiences need a ‘bit of a push’ to take action.

So, make sure your creators of English content writing don’t just speak the language but also understand the culture and underlying nuances of the language that fit with your audience profile. Use your business network and ask locals for advice, particularly those in the same industry as you. Some industries are more aligned to specific geographical markets than others. For example, the tech industry tends to use more American English than, say, the food, toy or pet industries

I want to go global

But what happens when you have an international English-speaking or English-tolerant audience? In this situation, we always recommend that our clients think about the following:

1. Where is your largest market currently located?

2. Are you looking to expand into another geographical market?

3. Where is your office location?

Your answers to these questions will help you decide which version of English to use. Another option is to set up a local landing page where you can add local information and use the version of English appropriate to that market.

English content writing considerations

Having gone through all pros and cons, here’s a quick roundup of our top tips for deciding which English language to use:

1. Write for your audience’s location. If they’re based in the UK, that’s an obvious one. But if they’re in Canada, do your research. Most Canadian English is based on British English, but there are also plenty of American words in use, particularly when it comes to automotive vocabulary. 

2. The same goes for English-tolerant countries. Do your research and find out which version is accepted or preferred in the country and industry you’re in.

3. Write for your audience’s culture. Remember that culture goes hand in hand with language, so you’ll need to adapt the language to fit the culture, and that’s why you want to ensure you always employ writers who have a deep understanding of your target country or region.

4. Be specific when briefing your writers, whether they’re internal to your company or you’re using an external agency. After all, you don’t want them making the wrong assumptions.

5. And if you’re optimising your content, check which version of English is needed for your keywords and phrases. This goes back to understanding what your audience is likely to be searching for – you’ll want to ensure that you’re optimising correctly.

Final thoughts

So, there you have it – international English doesn’t actually exist. English is not just one language but comprises several different variants. And to avoid alienating your audience, you should always ensure you use the version most appropriate to their geographical region and industry, as well as taking cultural factors into consideration. Remember, “If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his language, that goes to his heart.” Nelson Mandela