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It's A WORLD Wide Web
Communicating on the Internet in English
The Internet is a WORLD Wide Web of communication. It allows us to transfer information and ideas with others anywhere in the WORLD without a phone or well phone answering service.
The WORLD consists of over 200 countries using dozens of languages (with English as the major but not the only one in use), several calendars and a myriad special days or holidays.
The WORLD Wide Web consists of essays and information on personal web pages, eCommerce, Corporate web sites, discussions and opinions on news groups, chatting on IRC, correspondence, networking sites and advertising with eMail.
All of these formats can reach people anywhere in the WORLD. The purpose of this essay is to make communication easier. Many web writers have built-in assumptions about their audience which, at best, hinder communication, at worse, offend and annoy.
This is a source of great confusion and ambiguity.
In the United States, the date 11th August 1999 would be written 08/11/99.
In Canada, Mexico (two neighbours of the USA), all of Latin America, the Caribbean (apart from the USA Virgin Islands), all the countries in Africa, all of Europe (including the United Kingdom) and all of Asia, this date would be written as 11/08/99.
Using this type of format for dates is obviously very confusing and ambiguous. When a date like this is used, it is often necessary to check the nationality of the web site in order to know the date. This hinders communication. The MM/DD/YY date format is very common on sites from the USA and is misleading to the rest of the world. The DD/MM/YY format is often used by sites in Europe. This confuses visitors from the USA. It is probably best to write the month out in full or use a three letter abbreviation like
Adventurous authors could use the international date notation
Numerical dates are one of the largest causes of communication problems on the internet. Remember you are trying to communicate with the WORLD not confuse. If you MUST use one of the above numerical formats for data entry (DD/MM/YY or MM/DD/YY), tell the user the format being used so that they know how to fill in the form correctly.
I recently informed a web ring of this ambiguity and was informed:
But the WORLD Wide Web is ALREADY the International Community. The above statement implies that the internet is a purely USA phenomenon and special allowance must be made for other countries.
Remember also that seasons vary between hemispheres. Saying it's the summer season in June would not be correct for Australia, New Zealand, Argentina, Chile or southern Africa. Remember the WORLD has two hemispheres. On the equator, the four seasons of the temperate regions do not exist.
The start of the New Year depends on which calendar is being used. Western, Chinese, Jewish, Islamic and Hindu calendars all begin at different times. If you wish your readers a Happy New Year, do it for all calendars at the appropriate time. Just think what your potential customers would think of a New Year greeting that is relevant to them!
Phrases like last year or two years ago require the reader to know the date of the web page. Better to be specific and mention the year.
There are 24 time zones in the WORLD. Since the internet is a WORLD Wide Web, stating a time as 05:30 tells the reader nothing. Qualify your times either at the beginning of your page or while you write it:
The eclipse begins at 15:20 GMT
Remember that Greenwich Mean Time (also called Universal Time) is the scientific standard.
Don't assume your readers are in the same country as you. Phrases like
the President supports health care
the government has given autonomy to the Amazon
tell the WORLD reader nothing. Only use them if your page is clearly about a particular country. Otherwise, use something like
the President of the USA ...
The Brazilian government ...
I recently found a web site selling flights. The cities were all in the USA and the site apologised for not having any international cities. What they actually meant was that none of the cities were outside of the USA. From my city, London, ALL of the flights were in "international cities".
Many web sites have addresses without putting the country name at the end. Don't assume your readers will all be from the same country as you.
Phrases like they called 911 or they dialed 999 only tell people from the USA and UK respectively that the emergency services have been called. Better to say they called the emergency services.
Remember, your readers and visitors can be anywhere in the WORLD. Each country uses a different telephone code for the emergency services.
Watch out for cultural errors. Use first name or given name rather than Christian name. A line like
assumes Omar is a Christian. Unlikely with such a name. Some cultures put the family name (or surname) first. With a name like Deng Xiao Ping, the family name is Deng. Be aware that your readers may be in any one of nearly 200 countries.
Users in Europe have received advertising from the USA offering a special 4th July offer. Particular holidays may only be meaningful in specific countries. Not all countries have an independence day or celebrate a monarch's birthday. Some countries will not be aware of a particular religious holiday. Remember there are many religions in the WORLD. Statements like the holiday season is approaching contain in-built assumptions about the readers. Many holidays (like Jewish or Muslim) occur at different times each year.
Examples of different calendars can be found on The Calendar page. Check out the links at the bottom of this page for a site listing religious holidays from around the WORLD.
Of course, you should not try to sell inappropriate products. For example: pork to Muslim or Jewish countries; leather goods to India or Nepal; Nazi memorabilia to France, Poland or Israel.
Phrases based on sports that are not universal should be avoided as they will be meaningless to most readers:
To strike out - Baseball (restricted to USA, Mexico, Cuba, and Japan)
A sticky wicket - Cricket (restricted to UK, South Africa, Australia, New Zealand, Caribbean)
Moving the goalposts - Football (Soccer) (not understood in North America)
Built like a quarterback - (American) Football (only understood in North America)
I read an article comparing an interaction between two particles to the throwing of a football between two football players. In the USA, a football is thrown; in the rest of the WORLD, a football is kicked.
Avoid local brand names in general writing. If not, explain what they mean. Some examples:
Use a Q-Tip - a cotton tipped stick (USA only)
Give me a biro - a ball point pen (UK only)
I Hoovered the carpet - to Hoover = to vacuum (UK only)
I needed some Vegemite - a food spread (Australia only)
And remember that not all TV programs are seen by everybody. The phrase
As seen on national TV
is meaningless if we do not know the nationality of the web page. I have also seen local TV celebrities named to make a point without an explanation of who they are.
Many users have attempted to fill in forms which will not allow progress if certain items are left blank. Often an item called STATE must be filled in.
Not all countries have states.
By all means include a state box but allow people in other countries to skip this. Otherwise, they are precluded from participating.
With states, counties, provinces or post codes, write the name in full. Unless a reader lives in a particular country they may not know the abbreviation for the state or county or the district represented by a post code.
Don't say CA, say California; don't say UP say Uttar Pradesh; don't say London W11, say Notting Hill.
If you write an address, don't forget to put in your country name. Your audience is international on the WORLD Wide Web.
Some forms have spaces for the user to enter a TELEPHONE NUMBER. These are often not big enough for the international code to be entered or are country specific.
Do not assume that your users live in the same country.
Conversation recently spotted on IRC Chat:
Why is everyone speaking foreign?
Spanish was being spoken. The WORLD has several major languages that are used on the internet. English is by far the most used but it is by no means the only one. Large parts of the internet are in Spanish, French, Portuguese, German, Arabic, Russian and Japanese. A foreign language on the WORLD wide web would be something like Klingon or Martian!
Travel pages often talk about travel to foreign countries without saying what the home country is. Foreign is a relative term. Try to think what it means to a WORLD community.
The phrase The Holy Land should be avoided. It implies a single holy region of the world to the exclusion of others:
Communicating quantity requires the use of standards of measurement.
Unless a site is selling over the internet in the currency of a particular country, descriptions of financial matters should use American Dollars. This currency is understood everywhere in the WORLD. It is the nearest thing we have to a WORLD currency. Most people will know the conversion rate of their currency to the US dollar. Do not use Euros, Pounds, Yen or other currencies in general writing unless an equivalent is also given. Remember if you give an exchange rate to give the date of this rate. A reader may not know WHEN the web page refers to.
A line like the room cost me 120 Rupees tells a reader little unless a dollar equivalent and date are given.
I have encountered a site from the USA selling a book for 40 (no units). Define the currency somewhere on the site - do not assume your customers are in the same country.
Other quantities should ideally be metric.
Of the 210 or so countries in the WORLD, over 200 use the metric system. If you are not using metric units, include the rest of the WORLD by giving a metric equivalent. With temperature, all countries (except the USA) use Celsius (Centigrade). Be aware of these facts in your writing.
This is not a demand for metrication. It is a plea that communication requires understanding of the potential audience and their ways. By all means use local units but put a metric equivalent to make the message readable to the WORLD.
The web is global and requires a little more care and thought than other writing which has a more local audience.
A line like I stayed 6 miles from Paris excludes most of the WORLD from understanding (only the USA, the UK and a few other countries like Belize use miles). Better to say I stayed 6 miles (10 km) from Paris.
4 lakh people came to the festival - a lakh is Indian for 100,000 and is only understood on the Indian sub-continent and East Africa. Better to say 400,000 people came to the festival.
Use 2 gallons - gallons are only used in the USA and UK and each country has a different version of this unit. Specify! Don't make your writing ambiguous or obscure.
Conversation recently spotted on IRC Chat:
|USA / UK Person:||I'm 6'2''|
|Europe / Asia / Latin America Person:||What does 6'2'' mean?|
A report of a total eclipse of the sun in Hungary observed by a USA citizen:
The temperature fell by 20 degrees from 70.
No Hungarian is going to know that a non-standard unit is being used here. Best to use Celsius but, if not, define the unit °F and give an equivalent.
Look at this web page to find out more about The Metric System.
So what are you waiting for? There's a whole WORLD out there waiting to hear from you...
International Date Formats
Proposals to standardise date and time notation for international usage.
Tips for writing on the internet.
The WORLD from a Non-USA Point of View
A view point from Papua New Guinea.