The Microsoft Style Guide Part 4: Global Communications
If you’ve read our previous blog posts, you might know that Microsoft is dedicated to upholding certain social standards with its list of rules and suggestions outlined in the Microsoft Style Guide. The previous sections dealt with social issues such as sexism and racism, but in this section—Global Communications—we’re moving away from these universally entrenched issues and focusing more on specific taboos and values that vary by region and culture.
The Global Communications section is particularly important for localization experts, whose job is to make sure content written in one language is not translated into another language in a way that can be harmful or offensive to someone else’s culture. Plus, it helps to know more about other cultures; there are moments in one’s translation career in which one must write or localize content that deals with unfamiliar cultures.
If so, this is the place for you. The Microsoft Style Guide offers localization tips and rules in an array of topics ranging from art and currency to HTML considerations.
Art, in the context of the style guide, includes the use of colors and images in content shared and spread globally.
Color, for many people, is one of the primary ways of indicating ideas across the world. However, colors can mean different things to different cultures, which has been the source of constant strife for people trying to convey visual messages across the world. An article by Erikesen Translations explains how colors are carriers of ideology:
- “in former Eastern European Bloc countries, red can still evoke associations with communism.”
- “Blue is… often considered a safe color for a global audience, because it lacks significant negative connotations.”
- “green brings up negative connotations in Indonesia, where it is regarded as a forbidden color, representing exorcism and infidenlity… In South America, however, green is the color of death.”
- “in the Middle East, [orange] is associated with mourning and loss.”
- “In Egypt in much of Latin America, [yellow] is linked to death and mourning.”
- “in some Latin American countries, such as Colombia and Nicaragua, the color [brown] can be met with disapproval.”
Images can also come off as offensive—from depictions of specific social situations to artistic realizations of English-language idioms—and as such, the style guide recommends that writers “choose simple or generic images that are appropriate worldwide.”
Examples of appropriate images worldwide are “soccer players and equipment, generic landscapes and settings, pens and pencils, international highway signs, and historic artifacts.” On the other hand, the style guide recommends staying away from seasonal images, holidays, and major landmarks and famous buildings (“which may have legal protections or be associated with politics or religion”). Also not recommended are depictions of social situations involving men and women (“risky in a few locales”), hand signs, and art based on English idioms.
These precautions only pertain to the artistic aspect of image as a carrier of meaning. There are, of course, technological aspects to consider. The style guide advises limiting online graphics and animations, as long page-loading times can be expensive in some countries. It also recommends making it easy to edit the text in graphics; translators might know how difficult it can be to translate text in graphics (impossible at times).
Furthermore, storing art in separate files and linking to it from within a document can help localizers, who can modify art much more easily if it isn’t embedded within the document. Finally, it’s imperative that localizers “check restrictions on imported content,” especially maps, which can be heavily regulated depending on the country.
A general rule of thumb when writing currency names is to “lowercase the names of currencies, but capitalize the reference to the country or region.” Here are some examples provided by the style guide: US dollar, Canadian dollar, Hong Kong SAR dollar, Brazilian real, and South African rand. The style guide does allow, however, capitalization of the currency name, but only in a structured list, such as “a table that compares available pricing options.”
More important is writing about currency; in written texts, specific monetary amounts are dealt with more frequently than the actual names of the currency themselves. For this, the style guide recommends “us[ing] the currency code, followed by the amount, with no space.” Here is the example it provides: “The company generated BRL2.89 billion (USD1.42 billion) in net revenue in 2015.”
It is OK, however, to use only the symbol when it is clear what currency is being dealt with, such as the example sentence: “Adatum Corporation generated €1.42 billion in net revenue in 2015.”
Examples and scenarios
In technical writing, use-case scenarios—“detailed descriptions of specific customer interactions with a product, service, or technology”—are unavoidable. They make it easier for users and customers to understand the product by using fictional people in scenarios. Creating fictional space and people, however, can be risky; one culture’s notion of acceptable situations may not fly in other cultures. The style guide provides three specific guidelines for localizers looking to globalize examples and use-case scenarios.
- Perception of use-case scenarios differs by culture. The style guide notes how “in some cultures men and women don’t touch in public, even to shake hands,” and how “greeting cards are uncommon in many parts of the world.”
- Don’t mention real places. If you need to, “vary the locales from one example to the next” so as not to show bias towards a specific region.
- Keep in mind that certain technologies and standards aren’t used worldwide. The style guide notes that “standards vary, from phone, mobile, wireless, and video to measurement, paper size, character sets, and text direction.” While US standards are, in practice, used commonly in certain parts of the world, standards vary more than they are similar.
Names and contact information
If you’re from a country that doesn’t follow the US standard for name inscription (given name first, family name second), you might have had some difficulty filling out forms that abide by such a standard. It’s always important to note that different cultures have different ways of writing names, and as such, forms in which names are mandatory should be as lenient as possible to accommodate for such differences.
For example, in Arabic culture—and other areas across Africa and Asia—one’s given name is connected with a “chain of names, starting with the name of the person’s father and then the father’s father and so on.” Other cultures—Russian, Scandinavian, and so on—use patronymics or matronymics, which are added to the names of one’s parents. For example, the Russian composer Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s name comes from his father’s given name, which was Ilya. The singer Björk Guðmundsdóttir’s name comes from her father, whose name is Guðmundur. Some eastern cultures reverse the position of the given and family names.
To accommodate for these discrepancies, the Microsoft Style Guide suggests using these guidelines to allow for more variance in name input.
- Use First name and Last name in forms, or simply Full name.
- If you include a Middle name field, make it optional.
- Use Title, not Honorific, to describe words such as Mr. and Mrs. Not all cultures have equivalents to some titles used in the United States, such as Ms.
Names aren’t the only things addressed by the guide. Addresses are a constant source of headaches, especially when filling out forms from other countries.
- Provide fields long enough for customers to include whatever information is appropriate for their locale.
- Use State or province instead of State. Fields that might not be relevant everywhere, such as State or province, should be optional.
- Use Country or region instead of just Country to accommodate disputed territories. It’s OK to use Country/Region if space is limited.
- Include a field for Country or region code if you need information for mailing between European countries or regions. It’s OK to use Country/Region code if space is limited.
- Use Postal code instead of ZIP Code. Allow for at least 10 characters and a combination of letters and numbers.
Phone numbers are, of course, also important to accommodate.
- Provide enough space for long phone numbers.
Time and place
The official format for dates, as designated by the Microsoft Style Guide, is month dd, yyyy, in which the month is written out in letters, not in numerals. As other countries use different time formats—dd/mm/yyyy, yyyy/mm/dd, etc.—writing the month out helps avoid confusion.
Also note that referring to seasons should be avoided, instead talking about months or calendar quarters. This is to prevent confusion and/or bias for people living in the southern hemisphere.
Additional writing tips
So far, we’ve covered specific formats and visual choices, but in the end, localization practices benefit most from logical, consistent, and clear writing choices. Good writing helps localizers translate content better; in cases where it is inevitable for English content to be used without translation, good, clear writing can help facilitate understanding. With this in mind, the Microsoft Style Guide has a number of writing tips to improve the quality of your writing.
- Write short, simple sentences. If your sentences have too many commas and other punctuation, it most likely means your sentence is too complicated. Short, simple sentences are much easier to translate and understand.
- Use lists and tables instead of complex sentences and paragraphs.
- Use that and who to clarify the sentence structure. These relative pronouns explicitly show which part of the sentence is referring to which; without them, non-native English speakers might have a harder time understanding.
- Include articles, such as the. While there are certain writing styles that do not use articles, commonly used in technical writing, they are usually discouraged, as it confuses the reader for the sake of more compact writing.
- Do not use idioms, colloquial expressions, and culture-specific references. These expressions and references are often dependent on the history and culture of a specific country—i.e. the U.S.—and can confuse readers who are not from this specific part of the world.
- Stay away from modifier stacks, which are long chains of modifying words, confusing even to native English speakers and difficult for localizers to translate properly.
- Place adjectives and adverbs close to the words they modify.
Writing with simplicity and concision is good practice, not just for legibility and localization, but also for machine translation, which is now used more often than ever, thanks to advances in technology. For a machine, the simpler a sentence, the more accurate the translation. If you know your content will be machine-translated, try abiding by these guidelines.
- Use conventional English grammar and punctuation.
- Use simple sentence structures.
- Use one word for a concept, and use it consistently. Machines have a hard time dealing with duplicity and multiplicity of meaning for a single word.
- Limit your use of sentence fragments.
- Use words ending in -ing carefully. Words that end in -ing often have multiple functions—as a verb, an adjective, or a noun—and can confuse the machine.
- Use words ending in -ed carefully, for the reasons outlined above.
These are just some of the numerous localization and translation practices that make for a more inclusive, friendly online atmosphere for users all over the world. We hope that you enjoyed today’s content, and make sure to check out the next and last part of our series on the Microsoft Style Guide, in which we’ll be dealing with specific grammar and punctuation rules.