In an increasingly interconnected world, the position of English as the world’s lingua franca is now entrenched and undisputed. While sharing a common tongue has unquestionably made international communication easier, it does present non-native speakers with the often-vexing question of which variety of English they should use, especially when writing for an international audience.
English and its Varieties
While languages such as French and Russian are spoken by huge numbers of people and are used as regional lingua francas, they both have linguistic centers to set the standard for language use. In contrast, English has multiple centers of influence (the United Kingdom, the United States, Australia, etc.), all of which regularly interact and impact upon each other.
The issue becomes even more complex when taking into account the fact that English also has no official organization that oversees or regulates its grammar, writing, or word choice. That said, certain bodies, such as Oxford and Cambridge University, promote certain rules, and different organizations will often write in accordance with distinct style guides.
The Dialect Dilemma
Today, English is spoken at a native level on every continent and region in the world. Additionally, it holds official status in more than twenty-five countries where it is not natively spoken by the majority of its population but rather used for communication between disparate populations, most noticeably India.
This has provided non-native speakers with options other than the well-known choice between British or American dialects. In international contexts especially, people are increasingly turning towards something called International or Global English. This is a form of English that aims to be easily understood by both non-native and native speakers regardless of nationality. The main idea is to use a form of English that avoids using regional or cultural signposts. This opens up your English to a wider audience while still being accessible to native speakers.
In fact, the widespread use of English in Europe has also led to its own variety, often referred to as ‘Euro-English.’ This form has its own stylistics and special word choices, such as ‘planification’ for the act of planning. In terms of spelling, Euro-English tends to use American spelling. Grammatically, Euro-English also sometimes borrows constructions from other languages. For example, people might say ‘we are in four’ to mean ‘there are four of us.’ While this trend is becoming increasingly common, it remains to be seen how far it will be adopted across and outside of Europe.
- Avoid using specific phrases or idioms specific to one variety of English
Example: the phrase ‘to have a monkey up your sleeve’ might not work with an international audience since it’s a South African idiom and thus not easily understood by a wider audience.
- Be aware of words which have offensive meanings in one variety
Example: Using ‘fanny pack’ in American English is acceptable, but would be rather awkward in British English.
- Avoid culturally specific humor
Example: referring to non-universal traditions, foods, or locally known concepts which may not be meaningful outside their context.
- Don’t use puns
Puns are hard enough to pull off with a native audience, to a non-native audience they tend to be awkward or isolating, particularly if you have to explain them repeatedly!
- Avoid references to region-specific elements, i.e. legal systems, local geography, brands, local foods, etc.
Example: Saying something has a texture like suet pudding wouldn’t work with an international audience since the dish isn’t well known outside of the United Kingdom.
- Avoid overly complicated grammar structures or overusing dependent clauses
- Be sure to overtly mark which currency is being used
Example: 12500 USD, NOT: $12500
- Dates are best written as unambiguously as possible. Often, spelling out the month is clearest
Example: 12 July 2013. NOT: 12/07/2013 or 07/12/2013
- Always use metric units rather than imperial ones. However, if you’re certain that you’ll be communicating to a predominately American audience, providing both is advised
- Avoid ambiguous statements or phrasing
Example: ‘Turn the air conditioning down’ makes it unclear if the temperature or the air-conditioner’s strength should be lowered.
Consistency is Key
The most important thing to remember when deciding which variety of English to use is to always write with consistent conventions. For example, many universities in the Netherlands, Sweden, and German offer programs entirely in English.
In many cases, a range of spelling conventions are accepted, but with the expectation that students will be consistent in their choice. As such, if you decided to use the letter ‘u’ in ‘colour’ in accordance with the British style, that means that you also need to use it in ‘armour’, ‘flavour’ and other such words.
The Great Spelling Debate
Non-native speakers may sometimes agonize over choosing between American or British spelling conventions, but there are other options available. While British spelling is used by most of the Commonwealth countries (e.g. South Africa, Australia, New Zealand, Jamaica, etc.), American spelling is often more familiar to an international audience. As previously stated, so long as you write with consistent spelling, American and British orthography can be mixed without clashing.
This is actually quite common outside of the United Kingdom and the United States. For example, in Canada, ‘labour’ is written with a ‘u’ as per British custom, but ‘analyze’ and ‘organize’ have a ‘z’ as seen in the United States.
Equally, one variety might be inconsistent in itself. For example, in the United States, both ‘veranda’ and ‘verandah’ are widely accepted, as are ‘yoghurt’ and ‘yogurt.’ Thankfully the differences in varieties are relatively minimal compared to those of other languages, especially in written form. Consequently, these minor differences won’t make your writing inaccessible.
What should I use if I am based in Europe but want to sell internationally?
Due to the United Kingdom’s proximity, there is a slight lean in Europe towards the use of British English. That said, it’s more important to remain consistent than to worry about the use of ‘center’ vs. ‘centre.’ When confronting a situation with no neutral term (e.g. elevator/lift), it’s best to choose one and remember to use it consistently.
When true uncertainty arises with a European audience, it’s best to use American spelling. Overall, American English is the more prevalent in the world, especially on the Internet. Consequently, international audiences tend to be more familiar with American orthography.
What will be the status of English after Brexit?
Although there has been a lot of speculation on the position of English in the European Union after Brexit, the international body has made several statements affirming that English will remain one of its most important languages. Currently, the EU has three official working languages; English, French and German. Likewise, EU organizations also use these as working languages, not only to communicate between each other, but also to the public at large.
The position and use of English within the European Union have been well established. Therefore, despite the UK’s probable future absence, English will remain an integral tool for communication. Likewise, English will continue to be the second language taught in schools and used in commerce.
The world today uses English as the common tongue and, as such, nearly all native English speakers have heard non-natives using their mother-tongue at some point. For a native English speaker today, hearing English with an accent or different word choice is completely normal.
To conclude, non-native speakers shouldn’t worry about which English variety they choose. Most native speakers appreciate the effort to use the language rather than focus on any small mistakes or incongruities that might arise.