Browsing at the public library, I stumbled across The Elements of International English Style by Edmond H. Weiss, and it only took skimming the first few pages to persuade me to check it out.
So, what is International English Style, why is it different from plain old American or British English Style, and why should we care? Let’s take the last question first:
Why should we care? There are approximately 1.5 billion people who speak English, and that number is growing steadily. But that doesn’t mean that English is replacing any major language. 400 million people speak it as a first language (as their "mother tongue;" as a bit of short-hand, Weiss calls these people E1), but that number isn’t expanding much, if at all. More than a billion people speak English as a second language—to use Weiss’s label, E2—in business or their profession, or as a foreign language (E3), and that number is most definitely growing, as English continues becoming the "global language." Weiss says:
"It is projected that by the middle of the twenty-first century, most of the countries that have an official second language will have selected English as that language. Thus, in those countries that publish official documents in two languages, the second will probably be English; in those countries that require children to learn a foreign language, that language will be English; and in those countries that demand second-language competence as a condition of employment in the government or civil service, English will usually be that language."
Thus, you should care about International English Style only if you want to communicate with any portion of that audience of E2 and E3.
What is it and how is it different? Given the difficulty of communicating clearly when your reader is E1, it stands to reason that the task is that much more difficult when you add E2 and E3 to the mix. And the basic principles of style that work well with E1 readers don’t always work for E2 and E3 readers. For example, one of the cardinal "rules" of writing was stated this way by George Orwell: "Never use a long word where a short one will do." However, Weiss warns that for international audiences, "Familiar, clear words, including make, set, fix, or hold, can have too many context-dependent meanings and might better be replaced with longer words that have fewer meanings: construct, define, repair, or conclude, for example."
Weiss says that an International English Style is a set of principles based on two broad precepts: "First, reduce the burden on the E2 reader in every way possible, but without condescending or ‘writing down.’ Second, write for translation, that is, for a reader who might consult a bilingual dictionary." One of the effects of writing this way is that you end up removing much of what makes reading enjoyable: humor, word play, figures of speech, allusions, and poetic language. It’s a purely practical style, meant for international business, scientific, or technical communication. It also keeps in mind the cultural aspect of writing, either by making the writing as culture-free as possible (this is the globalization approach), or by adding elements that fit the target culture or cultures (which is part of localization).
Over the next few days, I’ll be writing some posts inspired by Weiss’s book.