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Divided by a common language?

February 9, 2011

At an early stage of a writing class I like to check whether or not my audience writes in American or British. “British,” is the usual indignant reply. By the end of the course it becomes clear how many Americanisms we use. So attuned are we to the language of the mid-Atlantic we Brits write in a hybrid. While we think we write with a purity born of a thorough grounding in Britishness, we speak, and certainly write, in a polyglot. And our reaction to the apparent awkwardness of some punctuation is to deny what works because of what we have been taught. Correctness in language use suddenly becomes a matter of national identity. However, certainty does waver when challenged. We have a choice, and the choice we make is a product of our reading and writing experience . But also our cultural experience. Films and TV series, comics, books, and the prevalence of American English in areas such as IT and the social sciences, have supplied our internal Thesaurus with a range of words and expressions that are American. When we practice our writing we fall back on these deep set references. The separation of the two “languages” is greater than we realize.

There are thousands of instances where we spell and punctuate differently, use combinations (such as nouns and prepositions) differently, and even words that are spelled the same have radically different meanings.  Ask an American and a Briton to walk on the ‘pavement’. Then ask them if this is a safe practice. In our defense we might say that “when in Rome…”. So, faced with a choice, which is correct? As ever, the best approach is to be aware of differences and make an “informed” choice. And then be consistent.

(How many Americanisms are there in this blog?)

2 Comments leave one →
  1. janepenson permalink*
    February 15, 2011 15:23

    I think this is an Americanism
    “When we practice our writing” – in British English we would spell the verb “practise”. And I think the spelling of “defense” is Amercian as well. I didn’t spot any others.

    • February 16, 2011 09:50

      There are only a few Americanisms in this piece. I might post another with lots of common examples. I was surprised, when researching this area, how many differences there in punctuation (as well as spelling, word meaning, prepositional usage and so on). So here are a few more. “British,” is American usage, ‘British’ is British usage. This is easy to check. Go into a bookshop, pull novels off a shelf and check the use of inverted commas. If single, then the book is almost certainly published and printed in the UK; if double, then it is probably printed in the US, or one of a few UK publishers that use this convention. Many UK newspapers and journals use double, but not all. Ideally, we should be consistent and use either double or single for both direct quotes and isolation. He said: “What a wonderful day”. I thought he was being “over the top”. (US) Or He said: ‘What a wonderful day.’ I thought he was being ‘over the top’. (UK) Note the placing of the “period” or ‘full stop’ in the direct quote text. Another big difference. In Britain we often write in a hybrid. He said: “What a wonderful day.” I thought he was being ‘over the top’. (UK?) So “informed” is strictly speaking, an Americanism, as is “when in Rome…” ‘Pavement’ is British.

      While – American (and British) usage. Whilst – British usage.
      ‘Practice’ – American. ‘Practise’ – British.
      ‘Defense’ – American. ‘Defence’ – British.
      And punctuation: “when in Rome”. (Period outside the quote is American.) ‘When in Rome.’ (Full stop inside the quote is British.)

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