RE: American Technical Writing Style?

Subject: RE: American Technical Writing Style?
From: KMcLauchlan -at- chrysalis-its -dot- com
To: "TECHWR-L" <techwr-l -at- lists -dot- raycomm -dot- com>
Date: Fri, 5 Oct 2001 13:57:55 -0400

Cedric Simard [mailto:cedricns -at- hotmail -dot- com] asked:
> - Are there other aspects not mentioned in the above list that are of
> crucial importance for an American readership?
> - When planning for internationalization, is it important to
> keep two sets
> of documents: one targeted for the American market, and
> another one target
> for an international audience?
> - How does an average American reader react when he reads a technical
> document written in British English? Can this aspect be of
> prime importance
> for business issues?

I'm not American, but I live next to some... :-)

So, if you care, here are some thoughts.

Canadians don't care which way you spell words,
cuz we are accustomed to seeing both. That may
be changing, as British influence continues to
decline, here. But we're familiar with addressing
Americans in print.

You have two different issues to consider.
In the short term, any halfways intelligent
American reader will have not the slightest bit of
trouble understanding your Brit-English document,
and will be minimally distracted by the quaint
differences. In a technical document, there won't
be all that many (see below for exceptions).

However, for any ongoing market penetration, you are
also dealing with the political animals. That means,
you can expect demands to:

a) speak/write American and
b) eat the extra cost.

C. Crowley had the right idea in pointing out that
many Americans tend to assume that anything with a
British "accent" is likely to indicate high quality.
That's actually an odd reaction considering

a) soccer hooligans and
b) decades of disconcerting experience with British
automotive electrical systems... :-)

So, what you have is a largely positive association
for anything that "sounds" like it was written by an
educated Brit. In many marketing situations, I'd
opine that it might be advantageous to LEAVE it looking
and sounding British. That'll remain especially true
if Britain follows through on Tony Blair's recent

In more technical publications, I think it's less important.
As long as units of measure are clear to the reader, then
the language and stylistic differences will have slight
impact. Exceptions would be where the entire product
revolves around words that differ between the counties.
So, if you are selling and documenting elevators (those
boxes that move people and freight from floor to floor
in multi-story buildings, you don't want your marketing
OR your technical docs to refer to the product as a lift.
Similarly, if you are selling "Smythe's Continuous Footpath
Laying Equipment"... you might want to re-work with the
word "sidewalk" in there somewhere.

Also, keep in mind the old adage that it's always easier
to ask forgiveness than to get permission. So, while you
may easily get away with shipping Brit-English docs to
Americans, thus saving big "translation" bucks, if you
ASK a customer what to do, they'll most likely demand
that you translate for their market.

OK, so my tonque may have been ever-so-slightly tucked
in my cheek, but I think the main point is that you
need to know your audience. The very fact that you
asked the questions indicates that you realize this,
but the fact that you wanted to keep question and answer
on a general level, rather indicates that you haven't
quite accepted the realization.

The answer, in a single American State and town might
differ depending on what products you are selling.
I'd worry if I were trying to document a coin-sorter,
for example. Chicken plucker? No problem.
Maize-husker? Problem. DVD player? Hmm. If your
product and your document give equal emphasis to
NTSC, PAL, etc. and to the various DVD encoding regions...
and don't mention any particular movies, music, etc.,
then maybe no problem. Oh, but wait... do you make
electrical reference to "earth" or "ground"... well, you
can probably get away with that one. Neve mind.
And like that.


/kevin (in Ottawa, ONtario, Canada)

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