Writing for an International Audience

by Scott Rhoades

Whether you write for the Web or print, chances are your words will be read by people around the globe. This post provides suggestions to help meet the needs of a worldwide audience and maintain your organization’s international image.



Two terms are important to know:

  • Localization: Convert a document written for one culture into one for another culture. This usually starts with translation, but it doesn’t stop there.

  • Internationalization: Write so people will understand more easily if American English is not their first language.



Language and Syntax

Using clear language is more critical than usual when your audience might not have native American English skills.


  • Use only one term when referring to one thing.
    Synonyms can confuse readers whose vocabularies are limited. They can also confuse translators.

  • Use short, simple sentences.
    Complex sentence can tax language abilities.

  • Avoid words with multiple meanings.
    For example, don’t use since, as,or while when you mean because. Those words have definitions related to time that could obscure the meaning of a sentence. May can also cause problems. It can mean there’s a possibility or that you’re giving permission.

  • Be aware that some words mean something else in other languages.
    You can’t know all of the words that might have embarrassing meanings in other languages, but avoid those you know.



Cultural Bias

Be careful about unintentional discriminatory language and cultural references. Use multicultural names for people in examples, without being stereotypical. Say international customers, not foreign customers.



Avoid idioms and metaphors. They aren’t easily understood in other countries. Suggesting that somebody step up to the plate might not be understood where baseball is not played.


References to holidays are culture-specific, and often include religious overtones that show bias. Only refer to holidays when necessary. Remember that some audience members might know as much about Christmas as you do about Diwali. Avoid holiday idioms: She was excited as a child on Christmas morning.


How dates are written can create confusion. You wouldn’t want somebody to show up at 7 in the morning on December 7 expecting an event that took place on a warm July evening. 7/12/2016 means July 12, 2016 in the U.S., but in much of the world it means 7 December, 2016. Mention the month by name rather than a number.

Many cultures refer to time using a 24-hour clock rather than our typical twelve-hour clock. Writing 19:00 might confuse your U.S. audience, but if you write 7:00 pm, you’ll probably be understood by everyone. Use the 24-hour clock if your audience is used to it, such as the military or scientific communities.


If you localize, create images without words wherever possible. Words often expand in length when translated, which can mess up your carefully composed diagram. Add text in callouts or layers where word expansion won’t matter. To save cost, give your localization team a file they can edit so they don’t have to create a new graphic.


Writers might bristle against word choice restrictions enforced by editors and style guides, but clarity sometimes means trading creativity for careful use of language.

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