by Jennifer O Neill
We work with words. Yet we handle numbers too in our work. And what I’ve noticed from working with manuals written by both professional and non-professional writers across many countries, sometimes with English as second language, is that often the cultural roots of the writer can be seen in how they handle numbers in the document.
When checking for potential localisation issues in a manual, I first look at how the numbers have been written before reviewing the text and graphics. This gives me a quick feeling on whether there could be possible internationalisation issues to look out for in the document that may need further attention.
Text has spelling and grammar but many forget, or don’t know, that numbers also have their own “spelling and grammar”. And this “spelling and grammar” can differ between languages and geographic locations – number can have a locale. I find that people often write numbers for their own locale, which can introduce a foreign influence to the English-source manuals.
Here are some of the number issues that I look out for:
- Decimal comma/period: English uses a decimal period but most other European languages use a decimal comma. Seeing an English-language manual with decimal commas in the numbers tells me immediately that the document was written by a European with English as a second language. I’ve found that many colleagues who write in English as a second language can spend much effort on getting the text correct but haven’t noticed that numbers may not be written the same way in English as in their mother tongue. The decimal comma is a dead give-away that the document hasn’t been written by an English mother tongue writer. The text may need to be carefully checked too.
- No metric/imperial equivalent: Most of the world uses the metric system. Sometimes I receive a manual that’s been written in the US which may not include the metric equivalent for measurements. I need to ensure that all measurements in our manuals aimed at our EMEA market have a metric value provided. If the metric numbers are missing, then I need to also check if other metric measurements are missing. For example, in video manuals if NTSC values are listed then the equivalent PAL ones must be there too.
However, if the manual I’m checking for possible localisation issues is to be released in the global market I need to ensure that manuals written in Europe and Asia have the imperial values of measurements included and not just metric.
- Unfamiliar with metric: Metric measurements with several redundant decimal places (such as 2.143768 cm) indicate that the writer was unfamiliar with the metric system and just copied the conversion number from the calculator. Numbers may need to be cleaned up.
- Telephone numbers: International contact details sometimes instruct customers to phone another country for assistance. But the phone number listed doesn’t include the country code.
- Order of metric/imperial: This item is simply a cultural difference. In manuals that show both metric and imperial measurements, the order in which they are listed tells me whether the manual was written in Europe or Asia, or in the US. European and Asian manuals tend to write the metric measurement first, followed by the imperial value (eg, 50°C (122°F)). It’s the other way round for manuals written in the US (eg, 122°F (50°C)).
There are other locale-related issues associated with numbers such as dates, currencies and time. These are infrequently encountered in the documents I check. I’ve only once come across the term “Military time” in a manual. Few outside of the US are familiar with this term for 24-hour time.
We added guidelines in our style guide a few years back on how to write SI measurements, which have ensured that measurements are written much more consistently.
I keep watching out for how numbers are written in our manuals as not only do they provide important information to readers but they also are a useful flag for potential wider problems in a document.