If you have written your website in English it follows that the majority of visitors to your website will be readers of English. However each of your web visitors will arrive at your website with differing levels of English literacy and comprehension and, depending on your target demographic may not even have English as their first language. Of course, you cannot cater for every possible level of literacy and comprehension but you should be mindful of this in the choice of words when writing your web page content.
Other than providing a translated option for your website, how do you cater for English readers where English could be their second, third or even fourth language? To ensure your writing is understood by the international community and is easy-to-read (if they happen to be using a translation program) try to stick to these guidelines:
- begin with the main idea first
- write short sentences
- use positively written language
- try to avoid using slang, hidden metaphors and idiomatic language
- avoid writing phrasal verbs
- be careful using words that may have more than one meaning
Begin with the main idea first
Like a news article, a web page should follow the inverted pyramid structure – i.e. the most important information should be written first. This should be short and easy to understand in order to engage the reader. It should summarise the content of your article. You need to make the first paragraph compelling in order to entice the reader to read further (hopefully to read the rest of your article). A good guide is to write in simple language, which is direct, and more conversational in tone. Don’t waste space – there is no need to welcome your readers to every page – and keep the small talk to a minimum. Remember less is more.
Write short sentences
Try to keep your sentences and paragraphs short and keep to one message per sentence. Plan to write two to three sentences per paragraph. You should aim to write between 15 to 20 words per sentence – probably half the word count of similar offline content.
For those of who speak English as a first language, it is easy for us to hold entire sentences in our memories. But for those people where English is not their first language and they are still learning, this is not as easy.
Use positive language
Negatively written language is often difficult to translate and can cause grammatical errors when using automated translation software. Negatively written language also creates a depressing tone. Try to keep your language and tone consistent across all pages. Adopt a style and tone that is friendly, conversational and, above all, engaging. Negatively written questions are often challenges for readers where English is not their first language – so keep the question simple and positive. Here is an example of a negatively phrased question: ‘Don’t you wish you could save money on your grocery bill?’ If you need to write a question – just write one at a time.
Double negative sentences are also confusing for international readers. However, in some languages, a double negative can actually intensify the negative statement. Here is an example of a double negative statement: ‘It’s not unusual to see…’ A person whose first language is not English may interpret that phrase as ‘It is not very usual to see…’ rather than being ‘It is fairly typical to see…’ or ‘It may be quite normal to…’
Avoid slang, idioms and hidden metaphors
Slang and idioms are often only understood within the local environment in which they originated. Even spoken English is often based on our geographic location and may not be understood by other English speakers in the world. We write and use expressions every day, often without thinking that they might be unfamiliar to non-English speakers and deliver a message which is unclear. I’m not suggesting you only write in a formal style but just notice that if you are tempted to these forms of English that you also provide a contextual explanation to help provide meaning where it may be unclear and ambiguous.
Try to avoid writing expressions or phrases that do not indicate what they literally mean. Use direct, straightforward and active language which conveys your message in the best possible way. For example – if something is, ‘in the ballpark of’ instead write ‘… is in the vicinity of’.
Avoid writing phrasal verbs
Did you know there are at least 3000 phrasal words in the English language, which makes it very challenging for people who are trying to learn English and some of its nuances. Phrasal verbs are words that contain two or more short words to form a phrase. These short phrases are often used in English because they are simple, common, everyday phrases we use often without thinking. For example:
- pick up
- pick up on
- pick out
- pick away at
So instead, write one-word verbs instead – here are some examples:
- instead of using ‘pick up’ – use the word ‘collect’
- instead of using the phrase ‘pick up on’ write ‘notice’ or ‘observe’
- instead of writing the words ‘pick out’ write ‘choose’ or ‘select’
- instead of using the phrase ‘pick away at’ use the word ‘criticize’
Your words may appear more formal and have more one or two syllable words, but the meaning is often easier to understand and less reliant on an everyday understanding and can provide greater clarity and understanding for non-native English speakers.
Be careful using words that may have more than one meaning
English is a language that has many words with more than one meaning – making it a confusing language to learn. The key to writing with clarity is to write sentences that provide context and implied meaning.
Writing for the web does put web writers under pressure but your web content needs to meet your readers expectations as your web page is perhaps only one of thousands (or even millions) on exactly the same topic. Content is one of the most important elements of any website – so write clearly and succinctly or else you risk your readers moving onto another web page.