Americanisms in the world of the Technical Author

On the BBC web site, Matthew Engel complains about the increasing use of American English in the UK:

The alarming part is that this is starting to show in the language we speak in Britain. American usages no longer swim to our shores as single spies, as “reliable” and “talented” did. They come in battalions…But what I hate is the sloppy loss of our own distinctive phraseology through sheer idleness, lack of self-awareness and our attitude of cultural cringe.

For Technical Authors, it’s not uncommon to write in American English for one client and in British English for another. It doesn’t matter if one audience wants to see “color” and another “colour” – you should write to your audience.

What does matter is if it leads to misunderstandings and confusion. For example, The word “should” is often interpreted differently in the US and the UK. To “table a motion” had completely different meanings to Churchill and Roosevelt. Idioms relating to American sports, such as baseball, basketball, American football and ice hockey, can make less sense to those who have never seen these games played.

We must accept the US will take and adapt English in the same way the Germans now “SMSen” when they send a text message (on their “Handy”), and that some of this may wash back up on our shores.

In this matter, perhaps we need to “step up to the plate” and eat what’s there.

13 Comments

Barbara Phillips

“Step up to the plate” + “eat what’s there”
Is this a joke about misunderstanding American English?
Surely you know that “step up to the plate” derives from baseball and has nothing to do with a plate used for serving food.

mike

What I see in our (American-written) documentation is an issue with a lot of examples that are US-centric — for example, code or database examples that use ZIP code, Social Security numbers, US-formatted telephone numbers, etc. (At least we’re reasonably sensitive to the issues that are generally covered by UI culture, like the formats for dates and decimal numbers.)

mick davidson

I work for a company whose staff and clients straddle the world, but primarily we’re a British business, so the vast majority of our docs are written in British English. However, we also know that many docs are written either by our American staff, or by people who speak American English as a 2nd language.
We’ve saved ourselves a lot of hassle but allowing people to spell words how they like, as long as the meaning is clear. This cuts out a lot of tedious editing and fussing over ‘colour’ and ‘colour’ ‘grey’ and ‘gray’.
It’s more complex with words used slightly differently, so we have to be careful with meanings. But beyond that, it’s a dead subject.
As for American words infiltrating the British language, well, so what? That’s been going on for decades. And not just between the various strains of English – you should see/hear what happens here in NL. It’s impossible at times to know where Dutch ends and English/German/French begin.

Mike Unwalla

> What does matter is if it leads to misunderstandings and confusion.

I agree. To prevent confusion, use culturally neutral English.

Melanie

I like the mixed metaphor.

Stepping up to a plate and eating what’s on it is a lovely example of the kind of silliness that can erupt from an uninformed attempt to write cross-culturally.

Helen Griffith

Hi Ellis,

“The word “should” is often interpreted differently in the US and the UK” – please could you elaborate? I have always known to avoid the use of “should” although I started out as a writer for an American company (while being based in UK and a proud – when it suits me – Brit). I always thought it was simply because it was wishy-washy.

Thanks,

H

ellis

In the UK, “must” is interpreted as mandatory and “should” as recommended. “Shall” can be interpreted as allowed, able or will (“Cinderella, you shall go to the ball”).

I understand in the US, “should” is interpreted as mandatory. If I recall correctly, either the Declaration of Independence or the Constitution of the USA uses “should” or “shall” in the British way, and this leads to US law students debating at length how it is best understood today.

In structured English I think it’s stated that “should” must not be used.

Steve

In documenting software I generally take out the ‘shoulds’ from both my North American and UK colleagues. It always begs the question ‘does it do that?’ or are you just crossing your fingers and hoping for the best?

Usually better to just be definite and present tense… ‘the blah window opens’ rather than ‘the blah window should then open’.

Maybe I should give my NA colleagues more of the benefit of the doubt?

Cecily

I agree on the importance of using culturally neutral English where the audience may not be geographically specific, though it is sometimes easier said than done. Any tech author should know about differences such as center/centre and zip code/postcode, but as demonstrated here, issues such as shall/must are less well know, even though they can be really crucial.

There is a long LinkedIn discussion on the subject here, which largely confirm’s Ellis’ AmE/BrE distinction (though in legal contexts, shall=must still has some credence):
http://www.linkedin.com/groupAnswers?viewQuestionAndAnswers=&discussionID=47847376&gid=112571&commentID=35335313&trk=view_disc

Incidentally, I was amused by the Engel article until I saw the degree of venom it generated across the internet – from Brits and Americans.

Cecily

Ah, I’ve just realised that my link is to a closed group, though if you are on LinkedIn, it’s worth joining. Search for the group called “Technical Writer Forum”.

Julian

We normally try to avoid “should” – particularly as in Steve’s example where a window should open. Also, there’s the “You should do X” issue. A few of these creep in, though we prefer simply “Do X”. We had an issue where a customer ignored a “You should” – after all it didn’t say he had to – and whatever he was doing failed. This necessitated going through the infocenter purging all the “shoulds” that weren’t strictly necessary.

Glenn Lea

I am from Canada, and as you may know Canadians write in a mixture of UK and American English. We are quite used to smoothly shifting from one style to the next, perhaps more than either Americans or UK Tech Writers. As always, speaking to your audience is the most important job of a Tech Writer, not to an audience of our own wishes. As American English is now the most widely used around the world in engineering and technical documents, I just default to American English, unless a company requests otherwise.

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