Writing for a global audience

We write our developer documentation in US English, but some of it is translated into languages other than English or is read by developers for whom English is not their primary language.

Write with localization, translation, and internationalization in mind. The following list defines these terms:

  • Localization: Adapting a product and its associated documentation for a specific country. This process involves more than translation—for example, using local currencies or units of measurement.
  • Translation: Translating one language to another language. This process might involve localization, but the two terms aren't synonymous with one another.
  • Internationalization: Designing a product and its associated documentation to minimize the localization effort—for example, placing all UI strings in a separate file to simplify translation.

For more information, see Language localization.

General dos and don'ts

  • Use present tense.
  • Write dates and times in unambiguous and clear ways.
  • Use screenshots and text in figures sparingly. For more information, see Figures and other images.
  • Use qualifying nouns for technical keywords. For example, when referring to a file called example.yaml, call it the example.yaml file and not example.yaml by itself. For more information, see Keywords.
  • Provide context. Don't assume that the reader already knows what you're talking about.
  • Avoid negative constructions when possible. Consider whether it's necessary to tell the user what they can't do instead of what they can.
  • Avoid directional language (for example, above or below) in procedural documentation. For more information, see UI elements and interaction.

Write short, clear, and precise sentences

The shorter the sentence, the easier it is to translate. English sentences can be shorter in length than other languages, so an English sentence of average length might result in a long sentence when translated. Longer sentences can impair understanding, cause rendering issues on the page or product interface, lengthen translation time, and increase translation and review costs.

  • Use active voice. The subject of the sentence is the person or thing performing the action. With passive voice, it's often hard for readers to figure out who's supposed to do something. For more information, see Active voice.
  • Address the reader directly. Use you, instead of the user or they. For more information, see Second person and first person.
  • Use a simple word. For example, don't use words like commence when you mean start or begin. Don't use consequently when you mean so. Don't use words like utilize or leverage when you mean use. (It's fine to use these words when you're conveying a special sense—for example, Cloud Spanner utilizes up to 100% of the available CPU resources.)
  • Use a single word when it conveys the same idea as a phrase. For example, don't use a phrase like a number of when you can use some or many.
  • Avoid phrasal verbs when possible. A phrasal verb combines multiple words to form a single verb phrase. These verbs are also known as compound verbs. Try to substitute a simpler verb first. There might not be a better verb; for example, a few exceptions to this rule include set up, log in, and sign in.

    Recommended: This document uses the following terms:

    Not recommended: This document makes use of the following terms:

  • Define abbreviations. Abbreviations can be confusing out of context, and they don't translate well. Spell things out whenever possible, at least the first time that you use a given term. For more information, see Abbreviations.
  • Don't use too many modifiers. In particular, don't use more than two nouns as modifiers of another noun.

    Recommended: A cloud-native DevSecOps pipeline in a hybrid environment

    Not recommended: A hybrid cloud-native DevSecOps pipeline

  • Don't misplace modifiers. For example, place a word like only immediately before the noun or verb that it relates to.

    Recommended: Developers need to apply for only one token.

    Not recommended: Developers only need to apply for one token.

  • Don't omit relative pronouns. To provide clarity and to avoid ambiguity, use relative pronouns such as that and which. For more information, see Relative pronouns.

    Recommended: You can programmatically update the rules that you previously defined.

    Not recommended: You can programmatically update the rules you previously defined.

  • Clarify antecedents. Using pronouns can get tricky when translators are working with small, unconnected strings of text. Help them out by making things as clear as possible. For example, if a pronoun is ambiguous, then replace it with the appropriate noun.

    Recommended: If you use the term green beer in an ad, then make sure that the ad is targeted.

    Not recommended: If you use the term green beer in an ad, then make sure that it's targeted.

  • Use helper words. Helper words such as then, that, and of are frequently left out of conversational English. Use these words to avoid ambiguity.

    Recommended Not recommended
    If the attribute key is not found, then the default value is returned. If the attribute key is not found, the default value is returned.
    This document is intended for data engineers and assumes that you have the following knowledge: This document is intended for data engineers and assumes you have the following knowledge:
    Identify all of the datasets. Identify all the datasets.

    See also Optional pronouns.

  • Repeat a word if the redundancy improves comprehension.

    Recommended Not recommended
    If the VM has started and if you're able to connect... If the VM has started and you're able to connect...
    The resource hierarchy design creates both IAM segmentation and network segmentation by default. The resource hierarchy design creates both IAM and network segmentation by default.
    An egress rule whose action is allow, whose destination is 0.0.0.0/0, and whose priority is the lowest possible (65535). An egress rule whose action is allow, destination is 0.0.0.0/0, and priority is the lowest possible (65535).

Be consistent

If you use a particular term for a particular concept in one place, then use that exact same term elsewhere, including the same capitalization. If you use different names for the same thing, translators might think you're referring to different concepts, and thus might use different translations. Inconsistency in terminology and phrasing can greatly increase translation costs, particularly when translation memory and machine translations are used as first steps in translation.

  • Don't use the same word to mean different things. In particular, avoid using the same word as both a noun and a verb in close proximity. For examples of the multiple-meanings issue, see the word list entries for once and since.
  • Use standardized phrases for frequently used sentences, introductory phrases, and other common tasks. For examples, see introducing links, introducing output, and introducing code samples.
  • Use standard English word order. Sentences follow the subject + verb + object order.
  • Try to keep the main subject and verb as close to the beginning of the sentence as possible.
  • Use the conditional clause first. If you want to tell the audience to do something in a particular circumstance, mention the circumstance before you provide the instruction. For more information, see Clause order.
  • Make list items consistent. Make list items parallel in structure. Be consistent in your capitalization and punctuation. For more information, see Lists.
  • Use consistent typographic formats. Use bold and italics consistently. Don't switch from using italics for emphasis to underlining. For more information, see Text-formatting summary.
  • Use consistent capitalization. For more information, see Capitalization.

Be inclusive

You're not writing for your culture. Write with inclusivity in mind. For more information, see Writing inclusive documentation.

  • Don't be too culturally specific. In particular, don't refer to specific holidays, cultural practices, or sports unless you're certain they're known worldwide.
  • Use a diverse set of example names. If you need to use people's names (for example, as email addresses), use a diverse set of names. For more information, see Example domains and names.
  • Avoid colloquialisms, idioms, or slang. Phrases like ballpark figure, back burner, or hang in there can be confusing and difficult to translate.
  • Avoid culturally specific humor.
  • Avoid referring to seasons. For more information, see Expressing divisions of the year.