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Why are British and American English different?

Why to Succeed in the USA You Must First Learn to Speak “American”

When doing business in today’s globalized world, all of the expert advice suggests learning to speak a little of your host’s language. If you’re British (or have learned British English) then you might think you have a head start in the USA. In fact, the differences between British and American English are substantial.

The approaching Fourth of July holiday (or should that be July Fourth?) is a reminder that American and British English share a common ancestry. Yet, despite the modern day United States having it’s roots in British colonialism, the two main branches of the English language have diverged quite markedly over the past 250 years.

Having a firm knowledge of the differences and deploying American English correctly is, as I am discovering as a British expat living and working in San Francisco, crucial to business success in the United States.

What, then, are the key differences, how should you handle them and why are British and American English so different?

More Than 1,300 Words Have a Different Meaning Entirely

According to Wikipedia, there are 1,302 words that have different meanings in British and American English. Of course, with some (albeit rather silly) estimates that there are over a million words in the English language clearly the vast majority are shared. Even if we go by the total number of words in the Oxford English Dictionary (171,476), then it is obvious that most words share the same meaning regardless of which side of the Atlantic we are on.

In many cases, the differences have arisen because of different incorporations of foreign words into the language. For example, Britain has adopted the Greek coriander to describe the common culinary herb, whereas Americans have taken to using the Spanish cilantro; the same has occurred with the British using the French word courgette to describe the cylindrical green vegetable, while Americans use the Italian zucchini.

Outside of the grocery store vegetable aisle, many of the differences are often exaggerated. In 2011, apparently fed up with the “Americanization of British English”, the BBC asked its readers to send in their most hated “Americanisms”. The quotation marks are not misplaced, since numerous linguists took to the web to point out that the majority of the British public’s most despised American imports, in fact, originated in… you’ve guessed it, Britain.

So, if almost all of the words in British and American English share the same meanings, why do I feel as though I need to “learn American”?

Tens of Thousands of Words Are Spelled *Slightly* Differently

While very few words actually have a different meaning on either side of the Atlantic, there are many that have a very slightly different spelling. Colour or color, organise or organize, metre or meter. There is a seemingly endless list of spelling divergences between the US and the UK, all of which need to be learned by the British English speaker attempting to thrive in an American English environment.

Just one man is to blame for all of those “Zs” and missing “Us”: Noah Webster, he of Merriam-Webster dictionary fame. According to The History of English Spelling, Webster’s 1828 dictionary is largely responsible for standardizing the contemporarily accepted spellings of American English words.

Prior to Webster’s intervention, many words, such as humor (or humour), theater (or theatre) and sulfur (or sulphur) had two acceptable spellings in both countries because they were introduced to English via both Latin and French, which had slightly different spelling conventions.

Webster picked his preferred spelling, justifying his choices in various ways, but partly on nationalist grounds: he wanted American spelling to be distinct from, and (in his opinion) superior to, British spelling. So influential was Webster’s dictionary at establishing authority in the United States that his spelling choices quickly became generally recognized as American forms and have stuck ever since.

The differences between British and American English do not end at some different meanings and slightly divergent spelling, though.

There Are Dozens of Small, but Tricky, Differences in Grammar and Punctuation

So substantial are the differences between British and American grammar and punctuation that the Economist’s style guide now devotes an entire section to explaining them. From adverb placement, the use (or not) of prepositions, and the correct location of punctuation within (or without) quotation marks the variances are apparently endless.

In fact, so numerous are the differences, that Lynne Murphy, a Reader in linguistics (that’s a type of Assistant Professor), has been blogging on the subject since 2006. At last count, she had amassed some 465 articles, suggesting that the variances are probably more than trivial.

There is one difference in style on either side of the Atlantic that is the cause of more discussion than most, however: the formatting of the date.

American usage requires that the month be written first, followed by the day, and then the year. Hence Independence Day this year will be written as 07/04/2015. To Brits, trained to write the date with the day first, followed by the month and then the year, that means the 7th of April 2015.

Fortunately, for trigger happy Brits (like me), most online forms have been set to block users from entering a number above 12 in the first box, so preventing me from claiming to have been born in the 19th month of the seemingly endless year of 1987.

So concerned was the British newspaper The Guardian by the “weirdness” of this convention that they went to the trouble of researching it in some depth. The United States, it turns out, is the only country in the world to write the date month first, with the vast majority preferring the British style. However, irate Brits have only themselves to blame as it seems that the fashion for writing the month first in fact originated in, of course, Britain.

Phew! Once you have learned the new definitions of 1,300 words, memorized thousands of new  spellings and mastered the subtly different rules of American grammar, surely you know enough to succeed in America? Not quite. Finally, you must master the art of American pronunciation.

Pronunciation Equals Mutual Incomprehension (or Does It?)

Is it a mo-BILE (British) or a mo-BUL (American) telephone? Should we drink more WAH-ter (British) or wa-DDER (American)? Do we park our cars in the ga-RIDGE (British) or the GAH-rage (American)?

Some British English speakers go so far as to argue that their British accents render them incomprehensible in the United States. Generally speaking, however, the variations in pronunciation are far greater within Britain than they are between Britain and the United States.

If you speak British English (as I do) with a “standard” accent, that is the accent usually spoken in the south of England and most of London, then this is complete nonsense; you will almost always be understood. If you happen to speak with a Welsh, Glaswegian or Geordie accent, on the other hand, then that’s another matter.

In my experience, while the different vowel stresses in American English versus British English (consider the different pronunciations of tomato, for example) are very noticeable, they rarely affect comprehension.

Is it therefore necessary to try to adopt an American accent when in the USA (or vice versa)? No. Aside from being unnecessary, adopting another accent almost always makes you sound ridiculous rather than professional (n.b. Colin Firth attempting a Texan accent in Main Street, and Dick Van Dyke making indeterminate noises in Mary Poppins). Speak naturally and, if necessary, a little slower than usual, but avoid mimicry.

Are Britain and the United States “two countries separated by a common language”, as George Bernard Shaw famously quipped? Not quite, though thanks to foreign imports, the independent-mindedness of a dictionary writer (Mr. Webster) and a divergent approach to punctuation rules, the languages have many differences that must be mastered if you’re to succeed in America.


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