The observation that England and America are two countries divided by a common language is often attributed to the Irish playwright George Bernard Shaw. For editors, this arch morsel of Shavian wisdom describes something of practical importance. Although we may be most comfortable in one style or another, many editors will work with different varieties of English across their career. And English being the global language it is, there are loads of these: UK, US, Canadian, Australian, Indian – to name just a few.
Most editors based in the UK, like me, will usually be working with either UK or US style though, so being familiar with the differences between them is important. Of course, you’re probably immediately thinking of the well-known spelling variations such as colour/color or defence/defense. Or maybe the different date formatting conventions? For example, 25/4/22 as opposed to 4/25/22? These are probably the most widely known, but there are quite a few other differences as well, some of which you might not have picked up on consciously before.
So let’s dive in and unearth a few juicy titbits/tidbits, eh?
Even as august a publication as the editors’ style bible New Hart’s Rules cannot resist complaining that changing between UK and US styles for quote marks is cumbersome, going so far as to warn that it can be a ‘tedious exercise’.
If you’re wondering whether this is typical British understatement, it really is. The standard conventions for quotation marks are slightly different between UK and US English, and reworking a piece of text from one style to the other can be very time-consuming.
For example, let’s consider what happens when you have a quote within a quote. In UK style, standard practice is to put quotes within single quote marks, and quoted matter within those quotes in double quote marks, like this:
‘Could you tell me’, she asked, ‘what “cold calling” means?’
In newspapers, you’ll often see it the other way around. It’s also almost always done the other way around in US style:
“Could you tell me,” she asked, “what ‘cold calling’ means?”
The more eagle-eyed among you may have spotted something else: that sneaky comma moving back from after to before the first closing quote marks. That’s not a mistake – it’s deliberate.
Actually, I’m cheating a bit. Traditional UK style would indeed place the comma after the closing quote marks there, but it’s fairly common today for UK practice to follow the US style of comma placement in this particular case.
There are plenty of other subtle differences in punctuation usage between the two styles. Here are just a few:
US style prefers commas after the terms for example and that is (unless they are followed by stronger punctuation like a colon), and this extends to their abbreviations – e.g., and i.e., – even though this results in double punctuation, which is usually a no-no.
In US style, the first word after a colon is often capitalized, but it isn’t in UK style.
In UK style, an en dash (one of these: –) is used to join two names together to make a compound term, as in Marxist–Leninist, whereas US style uses a hyphen: Marxist-Leninist.
Meanwhile, an em dash (a bigger dash, like this: —) is used closed-up (with no spaces either side) as a marker of parenthesis in US style, whereas UK style is to use en dashes with spaces on either side.
So like this:
US style: While I was out running—it was more of a fast walk, actually—I saw a rainbow.
UK style: While I was out running – it was more of a fast walk, actually – I saw a rainbow.
There are quite a few examples of words in US and UK English that have the same etymological root but have ended up taking slightly different forms. Here is a brief list of ten:
Even more fun are the more subtle word differences when it comes to function words. You won’t hear an American use the phrase different to, which is exclusively used in UK English. But you’re much more likely to hear them say different than than a Brit. At least we can all agree on different from, which everyone’s comfortable using.
When it comes to certain phrasal verbs, UK English prefers about and US English around, for example in the expression mess about/around. You can find other differences in the prepositions used in some idioms e.g. at the weekend/on the weekend, at school/in school or on tow/in tow.
Towards is used in both dialects, but toward – fairly common in US usage – is rare in UK English.
US English is also more likely to spell compound words without a space or a hyphen: northeast rather than north east; noninvasive instead of non-invasive; percent and not per cent.
Then, of course, there are all the words that are spelled the same way but have different meanings. These include common words such as mad, meaning ‘crazy’ in UK English but ‘angry’ in US English. I think my own favourite example of this, however, has to be the word momentarily. In UK English, it means ‘for a moment’, whereas in US English it’s ‘in a moment’s time’. I like to fondly imagine a British tourist sitting on an aeroplane and looking forward to their first ever visit to the States. As the plane begins its descent into LAX airport, our British friend hears the captain announce that the plane will be touching down ‘momentarily’, and they are perplexed and a little worried. Why will the plane only be touching down momentarily before – presumably – taking off again? Has something terrible happened in Los Angeles?
A comprehensive list of the differences between these two styles of English could fill a small book, so I’ve only been able to include a few here. Nevertheless, I hope this has given you a little reminder of how the two dialects differ in more ways than just a few spelling variations. And of course, these are only two of the many, many dialects of English which exist in the world today. If you’re interested in reading more about this, why not start with James Harbeck’s article on Global English over at the American Copy Editors Society’s site? And for a more in-depth, academic look at the subject, I recommend looking into the OED’s Varieties of English hub.