Get Set
Shirley Corder

Shirley Corder is a freelance writer, a cancer survivor (1997) and a registered nurse. She is also a retired pastor's wife. (Her husband retired from full-time ministry. She didn't retire as his wife.) Writing was a hobby until 2001, when she started writing for publication. She lives in South Africa, which prompted her to write internationally almost from the beginning. She has had numerous devotions and articles published, especially on the subject of writing and cancer. She has a non-fiction book awaiting publication and has written a novel each year since 2005 for fun during NaNoWriMo. Her current project is a book of devotions for cancer survivors and their supporters. She is director of CWG_SA, an online group for South African Christian writers and has a passion for helping others develop their writing. Visit her website at

World Wide Words

The 2006 Oxford English Dictionary is published in seven variants of English. My word processor offers fourteen. This gives us, as writers in this postmillennial era, a major challenge. With the tremendous advance in communication, especially through the Internet, it is imperative we use writing that is understood world wide.

Shortly after I joined my first online writers’ group, I submitted an e-mail requesting advice. I shook the lovely Christian members of the group rigid. I used an innocent word that is heard every day here in South Africa but, as I quickly learned, means something totally different, and not at all nice, in America.

Once the group recovered, they took great delight in correcting me. If the article had gone to my planned Christian market, my guess is I wouldn’t have written for that editor again.

As a South African writing for the international market, I have learned a number of important principles.

Words may have different meanings.

Tell an American to watch out for the zebra crossing, and he may get out his camera to capture the black-and-white animal ahead. The British writer meant he should look for the pedestrian crossing.

The South African may tell her child to “pull up your hood” in the rain. She doesn’t expect the child to open the protective covering over the car engine (known as the bonnet in South Africa). Likewise, if the American writer tells the same confused child to put his jacket in the trunk, he means the back (or boot) of the car—not a large suitcase.

In South Africa, children play in the garden. In the U.S. that would be discouraged because it is a cultivated area. American children play in the yard.

In Britain or South Africa, your heroine may take a leisurely stroll along the pavement, the paved section alongside the road reserved for pedestrians. In America that could prove fatal because the pavement is the road.

The North American writer may have her hero catch a Dolly Varden, which is a type of brightly spotted trout. The British reader will wonder what an elaborate, flower-decked hat is doing in the river. The Australian reader will be even more confused. How does a doll-shaped cake fit in the story? And in South Africa, a Dolly Varden is a draped dressing table. To play it safe, the writer can describe the scene in such a way to avoid any confusion: “Peter hauled the struggling fish from the water and rejoiced when he saw the brightly spotted trout. ‘It’s a Dolly Varden!’ he exclaimed.”

Spelling and punctuation often differs.

South African English is similar to that used in Britain. But when I write for an American market, my American critique partners make sure I remember that my hero realized instead of realised, painted in color and not in colour, and that he had traveled not travelled overseas.

My friends also correct me when I put my punctuation “outside the quotation marks”, as for a British magazine, instead of “inside,” as required by U.S. editors. Because my characters enjoy a dialogue and not a dialog doesn’t mean I can’t spell. It means I’m writing in British English. Of course, if I’m writing for an American market, I have to use American English. This is where an international critique group can be of great help.

The story may be fiction. The facts should not be.

When a story is set in another country, the facts need to be verified with someone who has an intimate knowledge of that country, not necessarily a writer. I once started to read a novel written by a well-known American evangelist. I stopped reading when his characters visited an extinct volcano in the middle of Zimbabwe. I grew up in the country. There was no such thing.

Cost is relative.

It is almost impossible for us to comprehend the value of one another’s currency unless we have actually lived in that country in recent years. Rather than tell my British reader that I paid R40 (forty South African rand) for a chicken, I could say that I paid R40, the price of six loaves of bread.

Even when the same term is used for the currency, it may not have the same value. A brooch costing several thousand dollars may be of great value to the American reader. To the Zimbabwean it is worthless. In October 2008, a loaf of bread cost 1.6 trillion Zimbabwe dollars. “The brooch cost more than two months’ salary” makes better sense.

Readers enjoy a local touch.

South Africans may pay little attention to the family of African baboons, large primates of Old World monkeys, sitting nonchalantly feeding their young in the middle of the national road. Overseas readers will revel in the scene. They will be enthralled to learn of the grandfather of the tribe sitting overhead in a high tree as he keeps guard over his troupe.

Readers across the world may marvel when they read about British pageantry, while those who live in well-populated cities of the Western world are fascinated by the wild life and tribalism of Africa.

Ethnic customs and terms need clarification.

Bangers and mash to the Zimbabwean reader may sound violent. “I have pork sausages and potatoes. Let’s have bangers and mash for supper,” helps the non-British reader understand the menu.

Street children are a well-known tragedy to a South African, but homeless orphans will be understood by all.

Different countries teach different curricula.

I was astonished when an educated person in another country halted me in mid-sentence. “Why do you keep saying she lives in England? I thought she lived in Great Britain?” As a British citizen, I presumed everyone knew that England was part of Great Britain.

Many people have never been to London. They think a circus is where animals and clowns perform. The English writer could say, “The congested streets teeming with cars and people resembled Piccadilly Circus in London.” Not only can his readers visualize the scene, but also they have learned something about London.

The Internet is a great networking tool.

If we join some writers’ groups on the Internet, we can cultivate friendships with writers from across the world. In addition to improving our writing, we also come to understand different cultures.

As writers, we have the opportunity to share our stories across the globe. With a little extra research, our readers will look forward to reading what we have written without having to ask, “What in the world do you mean?”