Readers, editors recognize (or recognise?) divide between American & British English

British newspaper editors occasionally receive emails from irate readers complaining about how American words and phrases have crept into British dailies.

David Marsh, Guardian production editor, author of its style guide, and the man behind its style guide account on Twitter, said words that have offended the sensibilities of some readers include “lawmakers” (Members of Parliament or MP for the British) and “upscale” (which translates to “upmarket” on the other side of the Atlantic).

The Baltimore Sun’s John McIntyre has also found that Americans complain about “Britishisms.” Not long ago, he recalled a comment made on his blog regarding the word “whinge”:

“The good people of this country not only refuse to learn a little useful Spanish, not only allow foreign languages to drop from the school curriculum, but are also resistant to other variants of English,” McIntyre wrote.

I am a fan of the two and empathize with their predicament. I want to tell them that only a year ago, I was editing British-owned electronic dailies that strictly followed both American and British English style.

Some of the Asian editions that I edited, such as one for Singapore, adhered to a style guide that would make their former colonial master proud. The English language edition for Germany, although it was not colonized by the British but lost two world wars to, used a British style guide for one reason or another.

“Americanisms” in Associated Press copy were carefully tagged in red ink and  replaced with their proper British equivalent.

Lorries instead of trucks, petrol for gasoline, flat for apartment, and lift for elevator were just a few of the “proper” British words that replaced their American English synonyms.

Proper British English spelling and hyphenization was also a must. Some nouns ending in “-er” like meter, center, and theater have British equivalents like metre, centre, and theatre. British English also leans a lot toward hyphenization — cooperation becomes “co-operation.” The “z” in words had to be changed to “s” — analyze to analyse, organize to organise, and yes, even Americanization to Americanisation.

There’s also a waiting minefield in words like glamo(ur), labo(u)r, hono(u)r, colo(u)r, endeavo(u)r, and humo(u)r.

That is just half of it.

We also produced an electronic newspaper for the U.S. market and editions for countries like Japan, South Korea, and the Philippines that used American English. When I had to use a Reuters story, I had to think like an American and replace British English with proper American words, slang, and idiomatic expressions.

The constant shift between American English and British English was eased by using automatic spellcheckers that shift from one dialect to the next at the click of a button. Spellcheckers, however, only correct spelling and do not show synonyms. They are also prone to runaway spellchecking notoriously known as the Cupertino Effect.

Lynne Murphy, a senior lecturer in linguistics and English language at the University of Sussex, has one of the best blogs on the divide between American and British English.

Murphy points out on her blog that aside from differences in vocabulary and spelling, American and British English clash on grammar.

In American English, a period or a comma is usually placed inside a quotation while British English users often leave the punctuation mark outside the quotation. American English also uses a period in abbreviations like U.S., U.N., and Mrs., while British English do not use one. British sportswriting also considers an athletic team as plural (Barcelona have won…) while American sportswriting sees a team as collective noun that has a singular form (Barcelona has won…) unless it has a modifier (The L.A. Lakers have…).

An American copy editor would scoff at the phrase “in protest at,” which a British subeditor would find gramatically correct.

Online media has made the differences between British and American English more noticeable. A reader may miss the subtle dialectal differences in the articles published in The New York Times and BBC News, but journalists who now have a global audience must be told that the word spunk may be acceptable in New York but is vulgar in London.

So why do readers get so irritated when they see that American words and phrases have crept into British dailies, or vice versa? It may be in large part because they don’t identify with the unfamiliar words or phrases of the other English variation, or because they see them as intrusions into their culture.

I look at it a bit differently, and try not to adhere to strict prescriptivism. American English and British English represent two different dialects, but when it comes down to it, they’re still one language. Language evolves over time, and when foreign words and phrases find their way into our mother tongues, they can only enrich our understanding of the world around us.

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  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Melvin-Dean-Baker/1345608091 Melvin Dean Baker

    I’m highly annoyed that the phrase “went missing” is now acceptable in our TV newsroom. Taken to hospital is also another one. I always ask the writer what his or her sheeedule is and did the put their auto in the car park or did they get here on the tube?

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Val-Yule/100000756543233 Val Yule

    Australians like me use both American and British English. I like whatever word or spelling is shorter and is more sensible – lift rather than elevator, check rather than cheque, theater rather than theatre.
    We’ll see which wins out.

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_ISTWNDCD73NV4IAWP3EQ7VDVCE S

    Add to the list: whilst, amidst (I call it the King James effect), towards (U.S. AP style is toward), and which in place of that (and without the comma).

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1036697532 Zoubir Ameur

    Great article! it reminds me of the Irish writer George Bernard Shaw who once said: ‘England and America are two countries divided by a common language’