Living Language: U.S. and the Rest of Us

It’s the quickest way to start an argument on the internet that doesn’t involve politics or religion: ask whether the British or American version of English is “right”.

From spelling to punctuation, there are significant differences between the two, creating real points of difficulty for both native speakers and those learning English.

So how did such a complicated state of affairs come about?

What About U?

The most obvious difference is the spelling. Americans spell color, favor, neighbor and so on without U’s; recognize, organize, realize and so on with Z’s rather than S’s.

The reason is simple: those were the dominant spellings in English at the formation of the United States, and so they are the ones that have formed the basis for American spelling. After the American Revolutionary War, distinguishing things American from things British became culturally important, so later UK changes were often ignored or tried and rejected.

Instead, the Americans embarked on spelling reforms of their own, being keen and early adopters of phonetics, where words are spelled as they sound, giving us gray and jail instead of grey and gaol . This makes a lot of sense in a country that took in areas named for their Native owners or previous French and Spanish colonists – Ouisconsin is a lot harder to work out than Wisconsin.

Perversely for a country that retains the French pronunciation of words like herb and fillet, the French metre and kilogramme became meter and kilogram (both roundly ignored in favour of yards and pounds.) Silent endings and “extra” letters were mostly discarded, so catalogue became catalog; judgement: judgment; travelled: traveled and paediatric: pediatric. If you want to track the history of the changes, there is a brilliant roundup in Simon Horobin’s Does Spelling Matter?

Other differences are less sensible, like aluminum . When Humphry Davy discovered the element, he called it alumium , then changed his mind and decided on aluminum , before settling finally on aluminium , all between 1807 and 1812. The 1828 version of Webster’s Dictionary listed aluminum, a spelling they kept in later editions despite the fact that American scientists used aluminium. When the metal became popular at the end of the 19th century, it was the dictionary spelling, not the scientific one, that stuck.

Lovely Lexicon

One of the most attractive things about American English is its openness to different voices. From the witticisms of The New Yorker to the patter of the Marx Brothers, there are ways of talking that could only come from America.

Some terrific words are Americanisms: doohickey for a thing you can’t remember the name of; catercorner for diagonally opposite; bodega (pinched from the Spanish) for corner store.

The US’s cultural melting pot has seen many words come into English from other languages. The Yiddish chutzpah , meaning audacity, was made famous by Jewish-American comics; Scottish pernickety lives on in describing fastidious Americans; wunderkind would have stayed German if American journalists didn’t need to search afield for words to describe Orson Welles, in exactly the same way enfant terrible would have stayed French; and Spanish has been a generous benefactor with words as common as bronco, fiesta, rodeo and nachos .

Others are local constructions, and you can sometimes feel their meaning, even if you’ve never heard them before. When you learn that hornswoggle means to cheat or deceive, it makes perfect sense, as does a boondogle as an expensive, wasteful or fraudulent project. And someone lallygagging is clearly dawdling.

All of it leads to a richer English, even if they aren’t words most of us use regularly. The only times we get into trouble are when we use similar words differently. In much of the US, it’s a cliché ending where the rest of us would say clichéd. Some Americans say, “I could care less” but mean what the rest of us do when we couldn’t. And then there are the common words like jelly, pants, lift, football and biscuit that manage to have wholly different meanings. Let’s just say that jam was not what I was expecting in a jelly doughnut.

Perils of Punctuating

The difference most fraught with angst turns out to be punctuation. In most of the world we use “logical punctuation”. This is where punctuation marks stay with the part of the sentence they work strongly with.

In America, punctuation is based on aesthetics – rules put together by typographers back in the old days of printing presses and designed to make sentences look their best on a page. Rules were based on what looks “good”, which, through centuries of use, has come to mean what looks “right”.

So, in UK-English we would write: Do it now – not “soon”, “next” or “in a minute”. But in US-based, it’s: Do it now – not “soon,” “next,” or “in a minute.” Because full stops – sorry, periods – and commas look “messy” left outside the quotation marks and “right” inside.

Confusingly, the rule doesn’t hold for question marks and exclamation marks, which are inside or outside the quotation marks depending on the rest of the sentence (inside if only the quoted material needs one, outside if the whole sentence does).

Then there’s all the little complex additions, like capitals after colons, using en dashes rather than hyphens for all ranges (pages 147–162) and open compounds (pre–World War II) – but to fully understand them is the work of a lifetime.

Which One’s Right?

Both Englishes are “right”, and both are merging a little at the edges – the single American “practice” for all uses is catching on broadly, and logical punctuation has already taken over much of the internet.

My suggestion is simply to pick the most useful style for you, but also to be relaxed about the whole issue. It is exceptionally rare that mixing in a little American or British spelling or punctuating is going to cause any problems with the reader understanding your writing. Though it’s best to stick strictly to one for important documents such as advertisements, reports and essays.

Here at the Digest, we use mostly British, but have a few hangovers from our American founders, such as double quotation marks for speech. So far, no-one has written in to complain that it’s confusing.

Across the Atlantic or across the Pacific, our differences may be many, but at least they are minor.

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