Borderless Editing: Adventures in British and American English
Updated: May 20, 2020
I’m a British-born writer and editor living in the United States. As a freelancer, I have pots on many stoves and clients in different Anglophone countries.
Lately I have had a mix of projects from the US and the UK, which means I’m constantly pivoting between their differences in spelling and style.
You’re probably familiar with the spelling differences. British English has a fondness for ou spellings (colour, flavour, honour), which are derived from French or German origin words. Meanwhile American English trims the extra vowels (color, flavor, honor).
This stylistic economy is all thanks to Noah Webster who believed the spelling of words should reflect their pronunciation. This is also the reason behind American English’s z spellings (digitize, sensitize). To my eyes they look much flashier than their British English counterparts (digitise, sensitise).
Whenever a style guide nudges me towards Merriam-Webster Dictionary, whose first incarnation appeared in 1828, I think of Webster. This lexicographer established American English's distinct spelling and style.
Webster was eager to differentiate American English from British English, its fusty father language. To Webster, the tendency of British English to follow ancient Latin root words stank of pedantry. The teaching of language should be simple, he thought, and spellings should be phonetic.
Understanding the spelling differences is fairly straightforward. But when I try to wrap my head around why British and American English drop certain words, it’s sometimes baffling. But these differences lend their own musicality to the written and spoken word.
An American will write you. A British person will write to you.
I have never been so drunk, a Brit might ruefully admit, the morning after one too many gin and tonics. But in American English I often hear instead: I have never gotten so drunk. The extra syllable seems to add so much: there’s more emphasis on the process, and perhaps on the personal responsibility. To Brits, perhaps getting drunk is something that accidentally happens!
When I’m working on a copywriting or editing project, I find it fairly easy to snap into US or UK English style. I have a style guide open in one tab, the relevant dictionary in another, and I get in the zone. I start to think in the appropriate voice.
But if I’m working on American and British English projects in tandem, I try to take a break in between. I don’t want a rogue z sneaking in where it isn’t wanted.
When it comes to everyday life, there’s something joyous about allowing my own personal use of language to evolve. Being an expat is like being faced with a grand buffet of human expression. I’ve enjoyed picking and choosing the phrases that would have rung strangely in the UK but work beautifully now that I live in the US.
With vocabulary, I’m rather fond of zucchini (American) as opposed to courgette, but I won’t be swapping the exotic-sounding aubergine (British) for boring eggplant any time soon.
Rather than the terribly British so (I was so hungry, so intrigued, so upset) I’ve picked up super. Not only is there an extra syllable to hang onto for dramatic effect, but the word seems to bestow superpowers on whatever we’re talking about. Being super interested in a project has a fizz about it, and British English simply doesn’t compare.
Quick plug: speaking of American English, I'm super proud that I've finished writing about NYC for the next edition of Lonely Planet's guide to New York City. It doesn't hit the shelves until January 2021, but it'll be available at all good bookstores and Lonely Planet's online shop.