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Inches and bowler hats: Seeing America from other perspectives

One of my responsibilities is to bring a global perspective to our publications and marketing materials. Given that I am a white American, this may seem a bit far-fetched, and I’m conscious that a more rigorous process could be put in place than just having me do a quick read. But I thought it’d be worth recording what I do, and what I have caught recently.

First, before I start the review, I visualize people in other places reading the material. I think of a student in Africa and a sales rep in Europe or Australia or China, and I remember my own viewpoint as a long-time expat in England. I mentally place myself outside U.S. borders. Then I scan–looking not for the usual stylistic things, because our authors and copy editors are scrupulously alert to our need to be international, but for the anomalies, the things for which we don’t have rules on the authority list.

When I reviewed the sample pages for Global Perspectives on the United States: A Nation by Nation Survey, I noticed that in the introductory statistical tables for every nation a comparison was made between the size of the nation and a U.S. state; XYZ African Nation is the size of ABC State. Helpful to students in the U.S., I can see, and not at all a bad thing to include. Except it was phrased thus, that Burkina Faso is, “274,200 sq km; slightly larger than Colorado.” I asked to have “the U.S. state of” added to each table, feeling that it was arrogant to assume everyone in the world knows all the U.S. states, and even more arrogant to make such a casual comparison between a sovereign nation and a single nation’s provincial entities.

Did you notice that we use metric measures? That’s our standard now, but I was reviewing our new catalog yesterday and saw that not only are we using inches–which makes sense, because the books are done to standard U.S. sizes–but that the word “inches” hadn’t been used. Marcy had a good reason, that other reference publishers just use “8-1/2 x 11” or “6 x 9.” But we’re going to include “inches,” as a recognition that most of the word does not use this unit of measure. I tried to find a way to explain how people elsewhere see our use of inches and miles and pounds, “An inch is like a bowler hat,” I said, “quaint and impractical and comical.”

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