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Separated by a Common Language

 



      As stated in our Submission Guidelines, I’ve no particular axe to grind on this issue, and 
I’m willing to consider publishing material drafted according to either American or British usage — as long as the style choice remains more or less consistent throughout. Neither is “correct” in my view. (Though I do have certain complaints with both — sometimes falling on one side of the divide, sometimes the other. That’s why I said “more or less.”) The gap between them isn’t so great that, whichever is employed, the discrepancies would render the text incomprehensible to any fluent reader of English. (And, yes, by the way, the mutual language is still called English, regardless of what you might have heard.)
      This article isn’t, by any means, an exhaustive study of the topic. It’s simply meant to offer some basic appreciation of the more common divergences in the way we use our common tongue, either side of the Atlantic.
      Let me say at the outset that, without trying to hide my origins or disguise my accent (merely flatten it considerably, for export), I’ve used both sets of vocabulary for years, depending on location and context. And I see no rational reason not to call gasoline 
petrol (or vice versa) if this aids comprehension. I’ve never quibbled over pronouncing schedule according to local preference when it meant catching a train. Since I’ve always felt that cookie was a rather silly word, I certainly don’t mind calling one a biscuit in the UK. The problem arises when you’re sitting at breakfast and trying to explain to a British friend what an American biscuit is. ’Cuz it sure as hell isn’t a cookie. There’s no substitute term. (And, no, it is not a scone — the two items don’t bear more than a passing resemblance to one another.) For years, I essentially spoke Mid-Atlantic, content with whatever dialect I’d been dropped in the midst of. But I’ve discovered that you eventually have to make a choice. The watershed, for me, came while making some repairs with an Irishman. The material in question was either aluminum or aluminium. (You know, one of the basic elements in the periodic table, which everyone uses — even in England these days, God help us —  to surround beer). Take your pick — but it has to be one or the other. Hell, they’re not only pronounced utterly differently, but spelled differently, as well. So I came down on the side of my upbringing. Since then, I’ve tended to use American spelling and punctuation. Not without some genuine regret, I might add, since I actually think British punctuation more logical.
      (Meanwhile, now that I have half the Brits in the audience scrambling for Google to figure out what’s in Bisquick, I’d suggest any Americans, who’ve been indulging a smug chuckle over that, look up wanker.)
      There are, of course, long lists of idiosyncratic terms peculiar to each dialect, but this isn’t a lexicon. What follows merely points out a few of the differences you’ll have to contend with when straddling the pond.
      From here on in, I’ll refer to American English and British English as AmE and BrE, respectively. 

      In AmE, collective nouns usually take singular verbs: “The government is/was…” The British try to draw a distinction, depending on whether they’re referring to the entire entity or the collective, yet distinct, members of it. Government, however, is almost invariably thought of as plural: “The government are/were…” 

      Past participles are screwed up enough in our language (consider gone & done, eaten & taken, etc. — I’ve always found this one of the most difficult areas for foreign speakers to get their heads around) without us disagreeing about them. Yet we do. Many verbs in English have more than one form of past participle, and sometimes past tense: leap, learn, dream…and dozens of others. All right, if you made that linguistic leap with me…have you leaped or leapt? Perhaps I should rephrase that. Have you learned or learnt this precept? You probably hadn’t dreamt there was this much choice in the matter. It’s not so simple as sticking an -ed at the end of everything, is it? With the British, both variations are generally acceptable, but they’ve a fondness for the older, now-irregular forms. (So do I, as a matter of fact.) But in America, they’re seldom used.
      There are exceptions to this generalization, of course. In Britain, the past participle proved is far more common than proven. While Americans will pretty much go either way. (Both groups use proven as an adjective, however. Go figure.) Meanwhile, the British have completely scrapped the older past participle of get. No self-respecting Brit with a decent education would use the word gotten. But Gringos use it routinely, as opposed to got, to differentiate the action of acquiring something from the simple possession of it. A useful distinction, in my opinion.
      …What were we talking about? Oh, yes, the customary use of past participles — I’d nearly forgotten (more common in BrE than AmE). You see, there’s very little rhyme or reason to it. 

      Then, there’s the use of shall and will, should and would. BrE preserves fine distinctions between these that AmE does not. But, according to H. W. Fowler, author of The King’s English, the subject “is so complicated that those who are not to the manner born can hardly acquire it” and “the short and simple directions often given are worse than useless.” So, in deference to his opinion, we shan’t go into that here. 

      There are other grammar differences, it’s true, but not so many that they generally concern me. With one serious exception…
      American prescriptivists since Strunk & White (or White, at any rate, since he took it upon himself to rewrite his mentor on this topic) have waged a scorched earth policy against the use of which to introduce a restrictive relative clause. Frankly, that’s utter nonsense. The British harbor no such prejudice, happily using either that or which for this purpose (as have many fine writers of the English language, regardless of their country of origin); and, in this case, I’m decidedly in Oxford/Cambridge camp. (For more on this topic, see: The Gospel According to Strunk & White.) 

      We also won’t go into every colloquialism and figure of speech. They’re myriad and rich, both sides of the Atlantic — and throughout the English-speaking world, for that matter. It’s best to simply appreciate the differences in flavor, as you would with curry or barbecue sauce. 

      Spelling, of course, is another area where you simply have to make a choice. How words are spelled (or spelt, if you like) just isn’t a buffet.
      Suffice it to say that prior to the eighteenth century, English had no standardized spelling. Apparently Shakespeare and Marlowe weren’t all that fussy over spelling their own names. As far as modern spelling goes, Samuel Johnson and Noah Webster have my undying gratitude for all the work they did giving us dictionaries, but they can also take the blame for most of this. And people far more fastidious than the aforementioned poets have been tinkering with it ever since.
      The major differences between BrE and AmE spelling fall into a few categories. (Again, this is by no means an exhaustive discussion.)
      Words that end with an -er sound are generally spelled that way in America. Some of them are spelt -re in Britain. Theater/theatre is a good example.
      We all spell advice and advise as they’re written here. After all, the former is a noun and the latter’s a verb, right? Besides, they sound different. But there are certain related pairs of homonyms, in which the noun sounds like the verb, such as practice or licence (nouns in BrE) and practise or license (verbs in BrE). While BrE retains the distinct spellings in these cases, AmE has decided to spell noun and verb the same — though not through some consistent rule, opting for the s in license and the c in practice.
      In words like realise, recognise, organise (BrE), AmE has substituted a z for that s, since it does sound that way. The same applies to analyse, paralyse (BrE) versus analyze, paralyze (AmE). (Incidentally, the letter in question, the last in our alphabet, is called zed in Britain and zee in America.)
      Another significant difference is that when words end in an unstressed syllable sounding (more or less) like -or, Americans generally spell them that way: honor, color, flavor. The British favor (or favour, if you like) an additional u. Thus: honour, colour, flavour. (By the way, although the word honor did make it into the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson actually wrote down honour in the first draft, at least according to H. L. Mencken.)
      As far as dropping a silent e when adding a suffix, the issue’s something of a mess. In some cases, the jury is still out. I’d suggest consulting a dictionary if you don’t trust your own judgement/judgment

      Punctuation, unfortunately, is another of those watersheds. But don’t get your knickers in a twist…or undies bunched up, whichever. It’s not as bad as all that.
      Let’s begin with quotation marks. There are two kinds, double (“ ”) and single (‘ ’). In America, quoted material is invariably noted by double quotation marks, while an internal quote (a quote within a quote) gets the single sort. Meanwhile, Oxford University recommends exactly the opposite approach, and most British writers comply. The Times, however, goes along with the Yanks on this, so usage in Britain varies somewhat. No big deal, really. As long as one maintains consistency throughout, either system is easy enough to follow.
      It gets slightly trickier when we have to decide where to place the ending punctuation with regard to those marks. In America, it’s simple (if somewhat inelegant). (Except in situations where comprehension might be seriously hindered and chaos ensue) commas and periods are placed within the closing quotation marks. Period. Except that in BrE a period is called a full stop. So…full stop — if you’d rather. Question marks and exclamation points go either inside (if they are actually part of the quote) or outside (if they’re actually part of the larger sentence), depending on logic. And, from what I gather, that was apparently the older system. But the British have improved upon it. They place commas and full stops/periods in the same way just mentioned, either inside or outside, strictly depending on logic. Personally, I find this more satisfying, intellectually…but I’ve also noticed that many Americans — faced with a period sitting shamelessly outside of a closed quote — come to a full stop (No, not that kind), their reading interrupted utterly by a vague urge to somehow cram it back inside. Dogma, I suppose.
      Incidentally, when Americans make a parenthetical remark, it’s
 sometimes placed within parentheses. They look like this: ( ). (Seems sensible enough to me, by the way — you seewe have a pair now.) But the British don’t call them that; they call them brackets. Of course, Americans can’t possibly go along with this, because they call these things brackets: [ ]. The British have solved that problem, however. They call those square brackets. Meanwhile, these things are called curly brackets: { }. Silly, I know, but no one in America can remember what to call ’em. (Okay, you got me; they’re called braces in the States…just like the device the British use to hold up their trousers. Happy now?) 

      As you’ve probably gathered by this point, there’s nothing intrinsically superior about either British or American usage. Nor is one inherently more logical than the other. AmE frequently retains older forms that BrE has long since forgotten — except when AmE is barging along, ignoring protocol, and BrE is trying maintain a bit of tradition.
      In the end, however, you’ll have to settle on one dialect or the other and stick with it…more or less. Providing it’s done intelligently, though, I see no compelling reason why you shouldn’t adopt the more rational and expressive elements of each.
      I confess that I do.
      Language is a work in progress. The important thing is how well we use it to communicate.

 
 


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