Which English works on the web?

Listen to this article

00:00
00:00

I was once told by the web manager of a giant Swedish company that the company language was “bad English”. I couldn’t laugh too hard because my Swedish is really quite poor, and I am anyway astonished by the fluency with which so many non-anglophones communicate in English. But there is a question, particularly relevant on the written web: which English?

Without wanting to drag up too many clichés about two nations divided by a common language, there is an issue for large organisations that want to transmit a global image. Do they use American English, British English, both, a mix, or can they find a “voice” – to use the jargon – that has no accent?

Well, the better the English, the less difference there is in overall tone. Read anything by an accomplished writer from anywhere in the anglophone world, and the differences will be slight. Large companies are increasingly employing journalists as web editors, which should help the smoothing process. There are however elements, principally spelling, that may be marginal but that inevitably provide a certain twang. It is an issue for both anglophones and non-anglophones, and the way you choose to go says something about your view of the world, and therefore your brand.

American and British organisations have an advantage. They will be expected to use their home language. Just as I write “organisation”, not “organization” because the FT is based in the UK, so it would be odd if a US company started putting a “u’” in “color”. But even they have problems. BAE Systems is UK-based but is also as its home page says, “the 6th largest US defence company”. Or should that be “defense”? Go to its US country site and it is – though if you click to “About Us”, you are back in the land of British spelling.

It’s a tricky one, because defence/defense is a word BAE can scarcely avoid. It could however avoid labelling one of its sections “Supplier centre”. This should be the first rule of globalisation/globalization: wherever you can, find alternatives to words with nationally distinct spellings. Nestlé has a Media Center; other companies have News Centres (or centers) and Press Centers (or centres). They are unnecessary because there are so many alternatives (not least Media, News or Press).

With a little help from people around the world, it should be possible to draw up a list of spellings to avoid: traveller/traveler, flavour/flavor, catalogue/catalog, and so on. Ditto for words – the Americans don’t talk about petrol, the British don’t “envision”, they envisage. The British don’t use the hash sign for numbers, and sporting metaphors are often mutually baffling. And so on (I have more examples if you would like them). If you come from another part of the English-speaking world you will have your own list. The Canadians use the British spelling for centre, but are otherwise mainly American; the Australians have a Labor Party, but are otherwise principally British. It’s a complicated world.

But it is not possible to suppress all giveaway signs. Every large organisation needs to decide which form of English to follow, and that will normally mean a choice between US and British (which some Americans like to call international English). If it does not have a natural choice, which way to go?

I have been using a simple test to see if there is a consensus among large non-anglophone companies (drawn from the FT Bowen Craggs Index). This involves putting the words “centre” and “center” into the search engine and seeing what comes up. Some companies, such as UBS, Novartis and Nokia, try to confuse me by having an engine that recognises alternative spellings – good practice, but it makes me work a bit harder to see which way they go.

The answer is that there is no consensus, and in a few case there do not appear to be any guidelines. BNP Paribas has roughly equal numbers for the two spellings while Nokia has different spellings even with corporate press releases. This is a sign of poor control – surely every large company should have a style book?

But where there is a policy, US spelling wins out. This is not surprising in Asia (for example Honda) or south America (Petrobras), but is mildly odd in continental Europe. Total, ING, UBS, Nestlé, Novartis and ENI have a strong preponderance of centers, with only Roche coming out firmly on the side of British spelling. I know from other checks that this is fair representation of the overall picture: the non English speaking parts of corporate Europe have decided that US English should be used as standard.

Why is this? The answer, it seems, is that American English is seen as the language of world commerce and therefore more global. I looked at a number of non-commercial European sites, and found they tilted the other way. The Bank for International Settlements, the European Central Bank and the German government are all “centre” sites – loyal presumably to their Anglophone neighbours.

It will be interesting to see if this changes. Brand America is not as strong as it used to be, and this is a small way Europeans can mark out their independence. Furthermore US spelling is often the odd man out because it was standardised by Webster, while the rest of the world was left with British traditions.

Or perhaps, now the web is a mainstream medium, more effort should be put into pleasing English speakers everywhere. Cargill, the US-based agricultural group, is ahead of the pack on this. It provides a corporate brochure in 15 languages, including both US and UK English. The localisation is well done. Not only is spelling adjusted (organisations in one, organizations in the other), but the language has been tweaked to sit more comfortably in each culture. Thus in American we have “the meat made more flavorful”, while in British we have “the meat having more flavour”. These adjustments may sound trivial but, if they make readers feel that the company really is at home in their country, they are surely worthwhile.

David Bowen is a website effectiveness consultant for Bowen Craggs & Co . dbowen@bowencraggs.com

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2017. All rights reserved. You may share using our article tools. Please don't copy articles from FT.com and redistribute by email or post to the web.