When Your English Throws a “Spanner” or a “Wrench” in the Works*

The global supremacy of the English language is widely accepted in the field of technical documentation. But how does the variety of English used affect the overall quality of technical documentation? Ignorance of and misconceptions about English-language issues can throw a proverbial spanner or wrench in English-language documentation.

What kind of English?

global language

The best-known varieties of English are American English (AmE) and British English (BrE). In fact, many non-native speakers of English would argue that only these two varieties of English carry any weight in terms of their education and professional life. To quote David Crystal:

David Crystal: English as a Global Language

The biggest potential setback to English as a global language […] would have taken place a generation ago – if Bill Gates had grown up speaking Chinese.

The reason for the widespread use of BrE goes back somewhat further to nineteenth-century British imperialism. Nevertheless, BrE still maintains its status as a world language, arguably losing ground to AmE since the impact of the United States on business, industry, the media, and world politics in the twentieth century.

Internationalization vs. localization


The polarization of the English language often overlooks the linguistic and cultural peculiarities of other standard varieties of English such as Canadian, Australian and New Zealand, South African, Indian, and West Indian. This presents good subject matter for a discussion on localization-related themes, but most companies tend to internationalize not localize.


While a company the size of Microsoft has the financial resources and available staff to cater for a vast number of English-speaking regions, generally the aim is to produce documentation in either BrE or AmE.

British English vs. American English


Unfortunately, there are a great many common misconceptions about AmE and BrE:

  • There are no major differences.
  • It doesn’t matter if the two language varieties are mixed.
  • Only AmE is used in international companies.
  • European companies only use BrE.
  • AmE is a slang version of BrE.
  • All native English speakers write good English.
best writing practices

Furthermore, influences from other varieties of English and from non-native writers of English often creep in. When professional writers and translators do not take the multifaceted nature of the English language seriously and combine this awareness with best writing practices, the results are at times amusing for native English speakers, but disastrous for the quality of documentation. It is wise to consider the words of Oscar Wilde:

The Americans are identical to the British in all respects except, of course, language.

What are the differences?

Oxford English dictionary

The most popular misconception about the differences between BrE and AmE is that strategies such as replacing the “s” in -sation words with a “z”, for example, localisation -> localization are sufficient. Many people learn this rule at school, but reference works such as the Oxford English dictionary in the meantime accept -zation, -ize, and -ized spelling variants. Other common-knowledge differences include:

  • Various spelling differences (cancelled (BrE) vs. canceled (AmE))
  • Use of the present perfect tense (less frequent in AmE)
  • Use of prepositions (go to hospital (BrE) vs. go to the hospital (AmE))
  • Punctuation (use of the serial comma)
  • Capitalization (use of title caps in AmE)
spelling checkers

These items are just some basic differences, yet are frequently not observed or misused. For example, some writers rely on spelling checkers to localize the English of their documentation, for example, by setting the language of a BrE document to English (US) and replacing “centre” with “center”, “colour” with “color”, and so on. This is useful up to a point until they click “Replace All” and then notice that the software being described uses “centre” and “colour” on its interface: The spelling checker doesn’t know that the documentation is no longer consistent with the interface. At the same time, a spelling checker cannot recognize that a word is inappropriate. This is a technical writing issue and not a language issue. Spelling checkers are useful, but are not designed to make decisions for writers. Furthermore, even native speakers are not aware of the many more subtle differences. Identification of the affected parts of language requires thorough research.

terminology vs. technical jargon

Incorrect language and terminology does not result from confusion between AmE and BrE, but from a lack of clearly defined documentation standards. For example, the term “spanner” used in BrE is also used in AmE, but is far more specialized than in BrE. In AmE, a spanner refers to a specialized wrench with a series of pins or tabs around the circumference and is technical jargon. So is it a spanner or a wrench? The answer is: It’s either one or the other, but not both. It is necessary to tackle any potentially confusing terminology before writing or translation begins under consideration of the intended market (British, American, international) and the documentation users (general, specialist). This part of the documentation process applies to other languages. For example: Is it a “Brötchen”, a “Semmel” or a “Laiberl”? In this case, the most neutral, widely accepted and understood German term is Brötchen.

Best practices

Internet and online multilingual dictionaries

There are many reference works about best writing practices, which cover aspects of style such as use active voice, choose unambiguous vocabulary, and write short sentences. There are also best practices that are especially useful for non-native speakers of English, such as avoiding the nasty pitfalls in relying on the Internet or non-specialized online multilingual dictionaries. For example, if you look up the German term “Schlüssel”, you might find an entry that offers “clef”, “clue”, “code”, “key”, and “tool”, but does not even mention “spanner” or “wrench”, let alone which one is more relevant for your readership.

standards and guidelines

Other best practices include:

  • Create and distribute standards and guidelines to everyone involved in the project.
  • Create a glossary and consider terms that could be confusing.
  • Use labeled graphics and pictures.
  • Use screenshots (for example, in software documentation).
  • Write as if you are writing for an international readership (neutrally).
  • Avoid regionalisms and colloquialisms.
  • Ask a native English writer or translator (not your English-speaking babysitter) to read your work – This makes you look smarter, not dumber.
  • Do your homework: Refer to related literature and reference works.
  • Be critical of your English – Would you want to translate it?


globalization, international English, and English as a foreign language (EFL)

In modern international technical documentation, AmE and BrE are acceptable varieties of English. It is not the writer’s or translator’s task to decide which variety is to be used; the documentation users are the decisive factor. The writer’s or translator’s task lies in acknowledging the differences and consistently observing them through proper research, terminology definition, and best writing practices. Native American and British technical writers and translators view the BrE-AmE chasm a lot less narrowly than is popularly believed. Globalization also calls for a less one-sided approach to writing in English and is noticeable in the growing trend of writing “international English”. Who can deny that we can only benefit from a form of English that is not only understood by all English-speaking regions of the world but also speakers of English as a foreign language.

General references

  • Crystal, David. 2003, Second Edition. English as a Global Language, Cambridge University Press.
  • Hornby, A.S.. 2001, Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary of Current English, 6th edition, Oxford University Press.
  • Merriam Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, 11th edition, 2003, Merriam-Webster.
  • Oxford English dictionary (various editions)
  • Proctor, Paul. 1995. Cambridge International Dictionary of English, Cambridge University Press.
  • The Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, 2003, University of Chicago Press Staff
  • The Merriam-Webster Dictionary, New Revised edition, 2004, Merriam-Webster.

Written for and presented at the tekom Annual Conference 2006 in Wiesbaden, Germany by:
DeAnn D. Cougler, Professional Linguistic Solutions, Munich and Helen Fawcett, Comet Computer GmbH, Munich

*The original title of this paper was “When your English can throw a “spanner” or a “wrench” in the works – a case for international intelligibility in technical documentation”.

About Helen Fawcett:

In a nutshell, I optimize user interface text such as control labels and create on-screen instructions and help documentation for developers & customers. | Helen works as a user assistance lead at SAP SE.
More about me
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