The Flavours of English
In the 1964 movie My Fair Lady, excruciatingly British phonetics professor Henry Higgins worries about the fate of the English language. “In America,” he observes, “they haven’t used it for years.”
If you write or edit English prose for hire, you may be called upon to ensure a piece follows the spelling, grammar, and punctuation conventions of a variety of English that is not your native tongue. Worse yet, you may be called upon to ensure a piece doesn’t follow the conventions of any particular variety (or “flavor”) of English—that is, to use conventions that are common across many or all English varieties.
What’s the Big Deal?
But English is English, right? An American can pick up a book by a British, Australian, or South African author and comprehend it, peculiar spellings notwithstanding. So if you aren’t British, why would you bother writing something that uses British spelling?
The reason is that you or your client may be publishing somewhere that demands adherence to a particular English standard. Academic journals, for example, typically specify either British or American English conventions. So it pays to know a bit about the conventions used in one or more other English flavors.
Here are some things to watch out for when writing or editing in an English variety with which you are unfamiliar. I use British English examples because British English is the one I am most familiar with other than my native American English, but the principles can be applied to any variety.
- Spelling: Here, word processing applications such as Microsoft Word do most of the heavy lifting for you. Word’s spelling and grammar checker knows the conventions of no fewer than 18 varieties of English, from Australia to Zimbabwe. When you set the proofing language appropriately, e.g., to “English (U.K.),” Word will helpfully give you the red squiggly line under “flavor” and “center” (which should be corrected to “flavour” and “centre,” respectively). However, things get tricky when it comes to words than end in “-ize.” Word prefers “analyse” to “analyze” in British English, but will accept either “characterize” or “characterise” as being correct. Check with the publication to find their preference.
- Grammar: This one is easier to miss, because the differences between American grammar and that of other varieties can be subtle. A prominent example is the choice of “which” or “that” to start a clause. In formal American English, we insist stridently that “which,” and only “which,” should be used for clauses that can be dropped without introducing ambiguity; “that,” and only “that,” should be used for clauses that are necessary to convey the full meaning. The British are more laid back about it, allowing authors to choose whichever word sounds better in the context, and relying on the presence or absence of commas to distinguish one type of clause from the other.
- Punctuation: Punctuation is mostly the same in both British and American English, although there are some differences. For example, in American English, a period or comma always resides “inside a closing quotation mark,” whereas the Brits (sensibly, in my humble opinion) “place them outside”. Abbreviations for personal titles, such as “Mr.,” “Mrs.,” and “Dr.,” are followed by periods in American English but not in British English. ‘And the British use “single and double quotation marks” exactly opposite’ the American convention.
- Word choice: This requires a deep study of a variety of English, and if you don’t have that deep understanding, you run the risk of making a fool of yourself, offending someone, or both. This is particularly true if you are trying to write authentic dialogue. Few British people, for example, will ask “Is there a line for the bathroom?” Instead, most will say “Is there a queue at the loo?” In another example, the use of “bloody,” as in “I was stuck for hours in the bloody traffic,” is something American schoolchildren could freely use without raising any eyebrows; in the U.K., it’s extremely impolite and may get your mouth washed out with soap. The best advice is to avoid idiomatic expressions as much as possible, keeping it “flavor-neutral.”
There are many online resources available to help guide you through the English-variety minefield. If you have an assignment in one of these unfamiliar varieties, educate yourself before you begin, and save yourself a whole lot of re-work.
Morris Vaughan is a technical writing consultant in Los Angeles, California.