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I know that all variants of English (American English, British English, etc.) can be generally understood by everybody who knows any of the English variants. However, there are some regionalisms that can lead to ambiguity.

What are the things I must be aware of when the target audience (of my writing: book, blog, etc.) is the world?

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There is no such thing as "British English"! England is already in Great Britain. –  Lightness Races in Orbit Jan 16 '11 at 20:16
Of course, British English is a very common term for the varieties used in the UK, and claiming that "English" would be a sufficient replacement is rather loaded with bias. –  Jonik Jan 16 '11 at 20:43
@Marcin: There's no single dialect of English used throughout the US either. So when you speak of British or American English (or any other major dialect), you are talking about more or less an average of the dialects of that region. Even if you look at the dialect of a single town, you still have a collection of people with various idiolects that differ from one another. –  Kosmonaut Jun 18 '11 at 1:50
@Kosmonaut: That's a rather specious analogy. The different regions of Britain have different dialects with different vocabularly and syntax, derived from the different, not especially closely related, languages previously spoken in those regions. For example, the South of England is influenced by it's Norman past, and also very much by the "standard"; the North has dialects that are much closer to Danish (and some that use archaic pronoun forms); Wales is influenced by Welsh; and Scots has long been very distinctive, influenced both by their celtic language, and Scandinavian languages. –  Marcin Jun 18 '11 at 8:10
@Marcin: Yes, I understand that. There are distinctly different accents throughout the US as well; however, there are certain common elements that exist in US English, as there are certain common elements in UK English. The UK dialects generally have more in common with each other than with the dialects of the US, and vice versa. –  Kosmonaut Jun 18 '11 at 22:27

7 Answers 7

up vote 56 down vote accepted

If your target audience is the world, then you target not only people with a knowledge of American English, British English, and so on, but also people like myself, to whom English is not a mother tongue but a foreign language. If reaching these people is important to you, then you might want to write in a relatively simple English, avoiding not only regionalisms, but also:

  • Idioms that are hard to understand; e.g., some sayings are not trivial or use unusual vocabulary. As an example, I'd say that “a bitter pill to swallow” is rather straightforward to decipher, even if you have never encountered it before. “An axe to grind”, on the other hand, is harder, probably because it refers to a situation that you is not part of daily life (for most of us) anymore!
  • Vocabulary that is out of the ordinary; for example, even though the many words describing different ways to hit or strike (something or someone) express different nuances, “hit” or “strike” is easier to read than “batter” or “thwack” or “clobber”.

Overall, providing a lot of context, and writing simple, concise sentences will help make your point clearer (and not only to “foreigners”).

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Agreed. There is a huge amount of commonality between the different dialects of English, so sticking to that shouldn't be too hard, and should do the job well. –  Noldorin Jan 16 '11 at 16:37
But is your target everyone? Maybe it's the whole world of people who have a decent command of English? I for one sure don't restrict myself to some "simple English" (aka "lowest common denominator"). Evah! In other words: I'm so with Robusto. Or to pull something over from writers.SE: write what you know. –  Jürgen A. Erhard Jan 16 '11 at 16:51
@jae The OP's target could indeed be "everyone who can read some variant of English" as steted "a book, blog etc". Ff the document is a manual, or set of instructions or a press release or a non-fiction article or a news report. –  John Satta Jan 16 '11 at 17:10
@John Satta: yes, indeed, but he didn't specify the level of English comprehension he'd aim at. Given that iamsid (Sid?) specifically notes "regionalisms", I don't think this is about "English that's too complex/complicated". Of course, however good you are at a language, there's a level that's hard. Even in your mother tongue. –  Jürgen A. Erhard Jan 16 '11 at 19:28
If you have to choose between an American usage and any other usage (and this is not so common, but still), you should probably prefer the americanism, as American English seems to be the basis of teaching as a foreign language almost everywhere, including Europe. –  Marcin Jun 5 '11 at 13:59

Use American English, I mean general American English. There are too many varieties of accents, and vocabulary, in England, so much so that people learning English around the world wouldn't understand most of them. Cockney, Georgie, Scottish, Irish, etc. Those accents are not popular.

The USA has spread its accent through movies, TV shows, lectures, etc., so all over the world people understand it, but people do not understand most British accents. I should know, I do movie subtitles, we have to pay extra if a movie has no script and it's not American English. We may pay double or triple the amount if the movie is British because it is hard to find someone who can understand the accent(s).

To sum it up, go with what most of the world are used to. Of course, this is the opinion of someone who has to hire translators, so I can say that the only British variety that is cheaper to translate is RP, as it is taught everywhere, the other varieties are too expensive for my taste.

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The question is about writing; this answer is about speaking. –  Hugo Nov 20 '11 at 16:29

I once researched how the English Wikipedia handles this, because I figured it must be a real issue for them, too. (On a much larger scale than for you — no offense. :))

It seems like they are pretty laissez-faire on it. Basically, their Manual of Style says:

[...] the English Wikipedia prefers no major national variety of the language.

They're just trying to stay consistent inside an article, and to focus on one national variety when there are 'Strong national ties to a topic'.

Not sure how much this is really helping you, but I thought it was an interesting (and for me surprising) approach. I expected them to focus on one variety, but I think I started my research when I realized that I had just read two article using different spelling varieties.

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Wikipedia's solution is brilliant 99% of the time and provokes massive arguments 1% of the time. The classic example is en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fixed-wing_aircraft which was created in order not to have an aeroplane or airplane article (though, there now is an airplane article). –  Richard Gadsden Dec 13 '13 at 10:35

My suggestion: go with what you are comfortable with. For example, I'm an avid blogger, and I like writing, and I use British English (with a touch of our own Caribbean slang and other things) as my style/mood requires.

You need to be more concerned about using correct grammar and universally correct spelling (there are some differences between American and British English, but those are not universal spelling/grammatical errors/issues), than about whether you use American/British/Canadian/Martian English :).

In fact, you could more tend to find yourself in trouble should you try to adapt to the variant of English that you are not accustomed to.

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The answer to this is included in Postel's Law: “be conservative in what you do, be liberal in what you accept from others”.

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+1 for Postel's law, but -1 for not explaining in what consists being conservative. Which national language, to begin with ? –  Nikana Reklawyks Oct 13 '12 at 14:22
-1 for not answering the question, as Le Vieux Gildas notes. –  user867 Oct 18 '12 at 6:47

English is broad church (British English bias intended :).

My preference in many circumstances would be to not unnecessarily burden yourself with removing any regional colour from your English writing. Seeking to do so will eventually only make English into a more generic and less expressive language. If the writing is online you can always make a helpful hyperlink or two.

It's important to be easily understood, but that's not the only important thing.

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I value being understood more to being more expressive. –  Tshepang Jan 17 '11 at 10:26

I would suggest writing in the version of English you are most comfortable with. That's what you'll communicate in most clearly, and everyone else will understand it from that domain.

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