Monday, December 21, 2009

British English versus U.S. English

I work for a press-release distribution company -- a wire service essentially -- that has clients all over the world. I've yet to see any client companies based in Africa though, but I'm certain its only a matter of time. But I digress, as you all know I like doing, so let's wrench this post back on track.

Some of my company's clients are based in England or in other countries where the standard English grammar learned in school is the British version and not the U.S. version. Now, I find it interesting to read these releases simply because it's a useful way to look at how other people write. The differences extend beyond spelling ones (i.e. "organisation" in Britain is "organization" in the U.S.), though, and it's something I wanted to talk about a bit.

In British English, punctuation always goes outside the quote mark, which means that a complete sentence inside a quote looks like this ". instead of like this ." It's logical both ways, and appears to be more a matter of convention than anything else.

Another difference is in the way dialogue is attribute: "said Harry" in Britain as opposed to "Harry said" in the U.S. at the end of a piece of dialogue. Of course, some brief research shows this was a very recent change in styles -- Charlotte Temple and Ruth Hall, two U.S. novels written in the early and mid 1800s respectively, both use dialogue tags in the British style.

A recent discussion at Gary Corby's about the word "alright" brings up another one. The two-word version is "all right," and is the only "correct" usage according to both Merriam-Webster and the Oxford English Dictionary. However, according to some sources that I haven't found again, the word "alright" has gained a tacit approval in fiction, business, and journalistic publications.

What's this mean for you the writer? Well, you might find more than a few grammatical items changed in your text when you submit between British-standard countries and U.S.-standard countries. Bill Kirton, a Scotland-based mystery author, mentioned in the comment thread of Gary's post that his American editor changed every instance of "alright" to "all right," for one example.

Do I think changes across standards are necessary? Not really. Then again, I also read The Times of London for a British perspective on news reporting (I like British advocacy journalism more than U.S. "objectivity"). What do you think, loyal readers? Should editors change spellings, grammar, etc when releasing books in British-standard countries and U.S.-standard countries?


Adam Heine said...

I think wherever the British (or US) version would cause confusion or annoyance, it should be changed. So generally yes.

Though I thought "Harry said" vs "said Harry" was just a matter of style, not geography. I use them interchangeably, whichever sounds less annoying at the time. But then I've been wrong about British vs US terms before.

As for punctuation inside quotes, I'm aware of the rule, and I always use it in fiction or anything I want to be taken seriously, but in e-mail or on blogs I tend towards the hacker writing style, for the reasons denoted in that link (2nd paragraph + examples).

Kimberly Morrow said...

I think that they are similar enough that either one can be understood. I also think it's nice to get exposed to the ways of those outside the U.S. Especially where creative writing it concerned, those differences make the piece more interesting and more true to how the author thought of it and wrote it.

I say leave it alone (generally).

Dave Davidson freelance 3D designer/ modeler/ 3D visualizer said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Michael Guill said...

One thing I find most interesting is the difference in verbs following collective nouns. In US English, we are taught to treat a collective noun as a singular entity, whereas the Brits most commonly use plural verbs after collective nouns.

US English:
Google has announced a new web app.
UK English:
Google have announced a new web app.

As unusual as it is to hear if you haven't been exposed to it that much, I find myself using UK English more and more in writing. Go figure.

L. T. Host said...

I agree with Adam-- if it's going to cause confusion, change it. Otherwise, I like seeing the differences between grammar and spelling, too-- I love linguistics, so it's fascinating to me.

Stephanie Thornton said...

I'm kind of a snob and prefer British formatting/spelling. I stubbornly write grey instead of gray, theatre instead of theater, and so on.

Except in my novel. I know they'll all get changed there so I may as well do it myself.

On a side note, I prefer British journalism too. My only magazine subscription is to the Economist. I read that and I actually know what's going on in the world. If I check out CNN I know what lawsuit some ridiculous celebrity is involved in. Whoopdedoo.

Joshua McCune said...

The one that I see most frequently varied is the additional s after toward, forward, backward, etc. in American English -- it seems that most people I know speak w/ the s (e.g., towards), so I'm a bit confused as to why we Yanks are supposed to disregard the s.

Davin Malasarn said...

I really love these kinds of discussions. Punctuation is something that fascinates me. The punctuation inside or outside the quotes is something I've lost a potential writing friend over. She insisted that the rules couldn't be broken. All I said was that I wished both ways were acceptable. Never heard from her again.

The Oxford comma is another thing I deal with a lot. I don't think that's an American vs. British distinction, but it's an interesting one.

Matthew Delman said...

Adam, L.T., and Kim --

Yes, confusion should be the primary motivator for making the change from British English to U.S. and vice versa. It's always better to not have to make your reader go "hang on, how was that word spelled again?"

Michael --

Ooo ... I forgot about that bit. It's something I always wonder about. Why the British do that, I mean.

Stephanie --

I refer to live theater as "theatre" and movies as "theater." In my head at least they're differentiated by what they refer to.

Bane --

I always thought the U.S. standard was writing "toward" instead of "towards," etc. Am I remembering that wrong?

Davin --

No, the Oxford (or serial) comma isn't a matter of geography. It's a matter of which style guide you follow -- Chicago and Strunk&White say use it, but AP says not to.

And yeah, English doesn't really have any hard and fast grammar rules. Merely conventions that have multiple right answers. That's why I think the language is so unfair to non-native speakers who try to learn it.

Anita Saxena said...

Definitely not! It shouldn't change. Those little differences are what make British vs English unique. I'm listening to Goblet of Fire in the car for the upteenth time and I was thinking about this very topic this morning. How uncanny that you posted about it on the same day!

Adam Heine said...

Holy cow, I love these discussions. Me heart linguistics :-)

Re: confusions. Here's an example from a short story class I taught once. Using the word "torch" instead of "flashlight" (even though we're talking about punctuation). When my student used the former, I thought her story was a medieval fantasy but then remembered she was British.

Gary Corby said...

The "alright" vs "all right" controversy surprised me. According to my Shorter OED btw they are equivalent.

There are some words you just have to change. Americans will probably be startled to hear I often wear rubber thongs about the house. I believe my US friends would call them flipflops.

I've yet to meet an agent, publisher or editor who cares which flavor or flavour of English I write. My US agent signed me on the basis of an ms written in Commonwealth English. I converted it to my no doubt hilarious version of US English during edits, and no one cared either way. These days I write using US spelling merely to save time later.

It's the story that matters. Spelling and punctuation will be made conformant with house rules during production.