Divided by a common language
May 18, 2010 10:23 AM   Subscribe

A question for native speakers of UK English: With formal writing, can you readily distinguish between US and UK English? If you were reading something that supposedly targeted a UK audience and an Americanism cropped up, would you find that distracting?

To clarify, I'm not talking about obviously American sayings like "big hat, no cattle" (although it would be interesting to know how jarring that sort of thing is also) I'm talking subtler grammatical differences, like the word "gotten," which, as I understand it, has disappeared in the UK. If there are features of writing that conspicuously mark a writer as American, what are they?
posted by adamrice to Writing & Language (53 answers total) 13 users marked this as a favorite
As a Canadian with mongrel UK/US English, I always notice when words are spelled the American way, e.g. "humor" instead of "humour." I'm sure that goes double for native UK English speakers.
posted by Beardman at 10:32 AM on May 18, 2010 [2 favorites]

Lack of the letter u would be the biggie. And other spelling differences. Not that anyone is likely get really distracted by it, but it would be really hard to avoid any words that have variant spellings.
posted by GuyZero at 10:33 AM on May 18, 2010

Also, this won't tell you which differences would be most salient to a UK reader, but is probably still informative:

posted by Beardman at 10:33 AM on May 18, 2010

To me it's vocabulary (either spelling differences or entirely different words) rather than different grammatical rules that really mark out a piece of writing in UK English from one in US English. That said, there are some grammatical differences that stand out a mile to me, for example US English not attaching prepositions to certain words: "my friend wrote me" compared to "my friend wrote to me".

I think I would certainly notice if these kind of things occurred in a piece of writing ostensibly written for a UK audience. But I don't know if I would find it distracting. At most it would probably make me think "this writer or their editor should have amended this sentence to suit the context", that is if I thought about it all.
posted by greycap at 10:39 AM on May 18, 2010

American reader here. I always notice this difference, and frankly, it drives me nuts as (more than any other difference), it feels more intuitively incorrect to an American reader. I'm not sure if the opposite is true, but I can't imagine why it wouldn't be.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 10:40 AM on May 18, 2010 [1 favorite]

One thing I (UK English speaker) notice is that American's tend to use 'I do not...' or 'I could not' etc. which seems to me a old fashioned way of writing compared to 'don't', 'couldn't' etc.

I notice it on metafilter quite a lot.
posted by selton at 10:41 AM on May 18, 2010

Yes, have to agree with the spelling. Another big thing which would highlight the writer as from the US would be the use of words such as "trunk", "windshield", "sidewalk" or "faucet". Words which either don't exist in UK English or are used in a different way. Would stand out a lot.
posted by jontyjago at 10:42 AM on May 18, 2010

Yes, it is distracting. What is especially distracting is when nouns have been made into verbs where this has happened in British English.

For some people, the use of American spelling in something targeted to a British audience just smacks of the writer (or publisher) not bothering to make an effort, and therefore rather arrogant.
posted by MuffinMan at 10:44 AM on May 18, 2010

Correction: What is especially distracting is when nouns have been made into verbs where this has *NOT* happened in British English.
posted by MuffinMan at 10:45 AM on May 18, 2010

I read an American copy of Harry Potter (I'm a Brit) and was amused to find that Harry was a "Soccer" fan.

The other big difference I notice (there are bigger differences, but this is always the one that sticks in my mind) is that Americans refer to companies as the singular "it", whereas British English uses the plural "they".

"Google is developing a tablet. (It has/They have) been working on it for months."

Also Americans tend to drop the "do" on the phrase "could do" when there's nothing following it. "Shall we go to the cinema? We could do." becomes just "We could."
posted by Mwongozi at 10:47 AM on May 18, 2010 [1 favorite]

Compare the style of the Economist to that of the New York Times. Many of the differences are subtle but some are glaring (kerb vs curb, lorry vs truck, etc.)
posted by dfriedman at 10:50 AM on May 18, 2010

If you are distracted by spelling mistakes then the differences between American and British english will distract you. The often seem like errors, but aren't.
posted by blue_beetle at 10:52 AM on May 18, 2010

As a native speaker of Australian English who now lives in the UK, yes it does stand out (spelling, grammar and general usage) and yes it does bother me. That applies whichever national hat I happen to be wearing at the time. "Bug me" is for my generation one of those expressions that stand out, BTW. Another US-centric usage that irritates me is expressions like "Paris, France". Yes I know there is a Paris in Texas (and at least 16 other Parises in other states of the USA), but the rest of the world, reading "Paris" automatically thinks of the one in France. This for me is an indication that the writer thinks of his or her real audience as that of the USA, whatever his or her nominal audience may be.
posted by Logophiliac at 10:54 AM on May 18, 2010 [3 favorites]

Yes, very easily. From little things like missing us to swapping s and c or the ways numbers and dates are written through vocab differences like tap vs faucet or even acclimatise vs acclimate. This is fairly obvious in newspapers and even academic papers.
posted by turkeyphant at 10:57 AM on May 18, 2010

This one drives a Brit friend of mine up the wall:

UK: Have you done it yet/already?
US: Did you do it yet/already?
posted by Dragonness at 11:03 AM on May 18, 2010

Echoing everything everyone else has said (I'm a Brit). Though in terms of it being 'jarring', if I'm reading, say, an article from a US newspaper, or a novel from a US writer I'm expecting the differences and I don't mind them.

One that stands out for me is the past tense of 'dive' - in British English it's 'dived', in US English it's 'dove'. As far as I'm concerned a dove is a bird, and "He dove into the pool" makes me think of some sort of bizarre animal transformation.
posted by Coobeastie at 11:03 AM on May 18, 2010

Canajun reader here: with a foot in both British and American usages, I can usually spot the distinction fairly readily in a text of any length (say, 1000 words or more) unless the writer has gone to pains to avoid the shibboleths mentioned above (and others like "whilst"/"while"). As to whether or not readers would find it distracting, only they could say... the only way to be sure to avoid telltales is to structure the prose to make it, er, Atlantic-neutral.
posted by ricochet biscuit at 11:04 AM on May 18, 2010

Even in formal writing, Americans very rarely use the subjunctive.
posted by atrazine at 11:06 AM on May 18, 2010

There are some differences in the way the definite article is used; the classic example is the use of the word "hospital".

US: "I'm in the hospital."
UK: "I'm in hospital."
posted by mr_roboto at 11:07 AM on May 18, 2010

Spelling, vocabulary and punctuation are the three things I notice. Punctuation especially; North Americans use way more commas than the Brits do.
posted by LN at 11:12 AM on May 18, 2010

I always notice the British tendency to pluralize adjectives, i.e. "drinks bottle" or "drugs overdose". An example of this occurs in a newspaper headline in Kubrick's "Eyes Wide Shut", which ostensibly takes place in NYC. Stanley was known for his attention to detail, of course...
posted by Crane Shot at 11:13 AM on May 18, 2010

What annoys me most is reading a UK newspaper or seeing an advert of a UK company and seeing Americanisms. It seems that in some sense, using Americanisms is cooler. Maybe Americanisms are deliberately used to appeal to the younger audience. I don't know why I am so annoyed by these things. It's irrational most probably.
posted by jpcooper at 11:15 AM on May 18, 2010

I'm a native UK English speaker. I can tell pretty consistently, depending on the source.

The most consistent and pervasive indicator is the use of US English spellings. There are plenty of differences, but the most common ones that I notice are the substitution of z for s (e.g. normaliZe vs normaliSe) and o for ou (e.g. colOr vs. colOUr). There are plenty of other, less common differences too. However, a lot of US English spellings are drifting into UK English, presumably thanks to spellcheckers defaulting to US English and people believing the spellchecker. You wouldn't see it in a newspaper, but it's not too rare in fairly informal writing, especially from youngsters.

Then, as you say, there are some dialect-specific words. "Gotten", for example, had effectively died out in UK English and sounds very strange to my ears. It's arguably making a comeback in youngsters influenced by all the American media we get, but I've never seen it written down in anything more formal than slang-filled facebook messages. I'd be shocked if I saw it in a newspaper, for example. "Y'all" sounds outright laughable, which is a shame because a plural form of "you" would actually be quite handy. More commonly there are the words we share but don't agree on, such as the perennially confusing Jam/Jello/Jelly debate ([UK"Jelly"=US"Jello"]; [UK"Jam"=US"Jelly"], the old-but-still-funny pants/trousers confusion and the many, potentially tragic, meanings of "fag".*

I get the impression that there are some grammatical differences too, particularly the use of punctuation marks around quotations. US English generally has the full stop inside quotation marks, "like this." In contrast, UK English usually has the full stop outside, "like this". There's also a difference in the rules about using commas to break clauses, but I can't remember what it is.

Technical papers in my field tend to standardise on US English, but even with the US spellings and grammar conventions I still often get a feeling for whether it was written by a Brit or an American. I'm not sure what I'm picking up on - some pattern in sentence structures, perhaps?

I'm used to reading technical stuff in US English, so it doesn't bother me in that context. But most of the non-technical reading I do is in UK English. Recreational reading in US English feels a bit weird until I settle into it (although there are words that I always find jarring for no obvious reason: e.g. "gray"/"grey" really bothers me), and I find documents that mix US and UK English very annoying to read.

*In UK English, "fag" is common slang for a cigarette. Most people would understand its American meaning (derogatory slang for gale male) but it's not the first one that would come to mind in most contexts. It can also be an old (obsolete?) word to refer to a junior schoolboy who acts as a servant to a more senior schoolboy in certain private schools. (US and UK English disagree about the definitions of "private" and "public" schools, too) A faggot can also be a meatball-like piece of food about the size of your fist or a bundle of sticks, but those uses are fairly uncommon. It's a bizzarely
posted by metaBugs at 11:16 AM on May 18, 2010

Yes, and one of the biggest annoyances to me is the whimsical usage of nouns as verbs by Americans when there are already perfectly suitable words to be used in their places.
posted by jpcooper at 11:18 AM on May 18, 2010

I can tell when something is written in British, American or Canadian English, though it's only distracting if it's incongruous -- either because it's supposed to be Canadian but it's coming out British or because everything else is American except this one Canadianism. (I notice it very heavily in television when someone or something is supposed to be Canadian but gets things wrong.)

I especially notice how the quotation mark and commas are used -- the US style is to put punctuation within the quotation marks, while the British is to put it in only if it is part of the quoted text. Canadian usage varies, though mostly I've seen the British usage.
posted by jeather at 11:26 AM on May 18, 2010

The differences are definitely stylistic as well as grammatical and idiomatic. Online exchanges in forums like this one can blur the distinctions, while the well-honed forms of professional media often accentuate them. The more formal the communication, the more obvious it becomes, and that's long been the case: as a child, I found a shelf of 'secretaries' desk books' from the early 1900s aimed at American and British markets, and it wasn't just the formal letters and responses that were markedly different, but the 'voice' of the books themselves.

I can read a piece that's reprinted in a British newspaper and know it came from an American source. I have a well-tuned ear for the pieces in the UK edition of Wired that come from the British writers as opposed to the ones imported from the American edition. A piece for the American GQ reads very differently from one for the British GQ. Rolling Stone's house voice is not the same as Q's.

Perhaps that's the product of two different strains of experience, as a literature student and a British expat in the US, but I'm always aware that there's a subconscious translation process at work (or a heightened kind of code-shifting) when I'm communicating specifically to Americans.

All of that manages to avoid specifics, and stylistics are often hard to pin down, but American formal writing tends to dress plainly, while its British cousin isn't averse to a little adornment to accompany its function. As a result, American readers sometimes consider British writing florid and circumlocutory, while British readers sometimes consider American writing direct to the point of brusqueness.
posted by holgate at 11:33 AM on May 18, 2010 [1 favorite]

From a 'merkin reader:

"do" at the end of sentences, as mentioned previously.
"bit" used where a USian would say "part"
students go to university vs. go to college

metaBugs: "y'all" bothers a lot of Americans, too, since it is a typically southern manner of speaking. In the Midwest we use "you guys" to refer to a group of people, regardless of gender (usually). If the group happens to be all female, "you guys" may still be used, but might be substituted with "gals", "girls" or similar.

Ain't linguistics fun? :)
posted by wwartorff at 11:38 AM on May 18, 2010

Response by poster: Thanks, all. For whatever it's worth, this question was prompted by a translation gig I got passed over for because it had to be produced in UK English. It got me wondering how convincingly I might be able to fake that.

Spelling would be easy—just change the dictionary that the spellchecker uses. Vocabulary might sort itself out, since the subject matter would dictate it, but might pose a few stumbling blocks.

Differences like "could/could do" and "the university are on holiday" are exactly what have stood out to me when reading from UK sources, but I suspect that I've read enough stuff written in the UK that I wouldn't be conscious that some constructions are characteristically USian or UKian—I'd heard of the "have you done it/did you do it" distinction but couldn't keep straight which one is supposed to be American.

Obviously with slangier vocabulary like "pissed" or "taking the/a piss" there's opportunity for hilarious confusion (and I just about fell out of my chair the first time I heard someone say "don't come the raw prawn with me"), but it wouldn't come up much in formal writing.
posted by adamrice at 11:38 AM on May 18, 2010

I can tell the difference between British and American. (Added to the above, I notice "at the weekend," rather than "on the weekend." and "advert" vs "ad.") But it certainly doesn't annoy me, or even distract me. It's just there. I keep reading. No big deal.
posted by ThatCanadianGirl at 11:39 AM on May 18, 2010

One thing I (UK English speaker) notice is that American's tend to use 'I do not...' or 'I could not' etc. which seems to me a old fashioned way of writing compared to 'don't', 'couldn't' etc.

This is something that is taught to a lot of US children as being formal vs. informal writing. In formal writing, we are taught to never use contractions such as didn't, won't, I'm, etc. In informal writing it is permissible.
posted by Night_owl at 11:48 AM on May 18, 2010

Another Canuck here. Yes, I notice a whole range of language issues ranging from word choice, to spelling, to verb forms, and then idiomatic differences. All of these flag the writing as American. I notice them on Metafilter too, so if you can't readily identify differences between US and Brit (or Aussie or Canuck) language here, then this would be an indicator of how aware you are of the differences.
posted by kch at 11:58 AM on May 18, 2010

'Don't come the raw prawn with me' is an Australian idiom, just to confuse you even further.

As a native English speaking translator living in a non-English-speaking country, I can tell you that requests for translations or edits into one dialect of English or another are very common. As others have mentioned, it's the everyday sentence constructions that give you away, not so much spelling which is easy to change.
posted by different at 12:02 PM on May 18, 2010

American here. There are certain cases where "that" or "which" are appropriate. In UK English, people seem to use "which" in many instances where I, as an American, would know to use "that".

Another thing I've noticed about UK English, chiefly from reading comments on Metafilter, is the practice of using nouns as adjectives. "Crap post."

"Advert", "whinge" and "whilst" too.
posted by emelenjr at 12:05 PM on May 18, 2010

Thanks, all. For whatever it's worth, this question was prompted by a translation gig I got passed over for because it had to be produced in UK English. It got me wondering how convincingly I might be able to fake that.

I (an American) did a degree at an Australian university and I tried my best to make sure that all my papers were written in Australian English. I only got dinged for an Americanism one time (I used traveling instead of travelling). I don't know if this is an indication that it is possible to convincingly fake a different flavor of English, or an indication that only one of my professors was a pedant.
posted by toodles at 12:33 PM on May 18, 2010


curb - kerb
trunk - boot
truck - lorry
gasoline - petrol
standing in line - standing on line
a decision made - a decision taken
in the hospital - in hospital
posted by megatherium at 12:34 PM on May 18, 2010

I agree that spelling gives away the source (but is easy to fake), but I think vocabulary would be fairly difficult to fake unless one was very familiar with UK English. There is a seemingly endless list of differences in words used. Even when both US and UK audiences know both words and could understand both easily, there's often a difference in use (i.e. rubbish vs. garbage/trash). I'm sure some words like that would show up in formal writing.
posted by insectosaurus at 12:47 PM on May 18, 2010

standing in line - standing on line queueing/in the queue
posted by different at 12:50 PM on May 18, 2010

The -ise/-ize is not as clear cut as UK/US. The Oxford Dictionary uses -ize as their main entry for many words, including normalize, organize. Many newspapers use the -ise (The Guardian, for one), but it is not true the "organize", for example, is incorrect in UK English. It depends on the style guide for whatever you're writing/translating.
posted by bwonder2 at 1:54 PM on May 18, 2010

Marginally jarring, and all the examples above would ring the 'non-native' bell like a mispronounced vowel, but they would only hamper sensibility to that degree too.
posted by robself at 3:00 PM on May 18, 2010

Like toodles, i've had to switch from one kind of English to another (American to UK English). Adapting to the style involved a significant learning curve for the first few months, but now it flows pretty naturally. I've noticed that here in the UK, professional writing is considerably more formal than in the US (even in e-mail communications), and uses a lot more passive voice than I am normally comfortable with. Phrases like "Please find attached a copy of the proposal we discussed" still sounds very formal to me, but when in Rome!
posted by ukdanae at 3:01 PM on May 18, 2010

Australian (British English speaker) here:

I notice when US words are used:

flashlight instead of torch
gas instead of petrol
pavement instead of footpath
cookie instead of biscuit

and so on.

It would mainly be a problem for me if what you are writing is a work of fiction, set in the UK, or with a UK protagonist/narrator.

In an academic or business paper I would notice, but not be too distracted.
posted by Oceanesque at 3:19 PM on May 18, 2010

Just a random thing, one that always gets me, as an American, is the difference in group nouns.

Arsenal has, would be American English. Arsenal have, I believe, would be British English. Treating the group as a single entity vs treating the group as a collection of entities. Always messes with my head, and most likely, I've messed up my attempt to explain it here.
posted by Ghidorah at 4:31 PM on May 18, 2010

Ghidorah, it's more complicated than that. Business pages in the UK will tend to treat a company as singular, even for the holding company of a sports team ("Chelsea has reported record losses") whereas the sport pages would report the team as plural ("Chelsea have lost their Champions League match").
posted by Electric Dragon at 4:49 PM on May 18, 2010

Thanks, Electric Dragon. I think it's the sports distinction that has always thrown me. To an American, British sports news just sounds wrong, as I'm sure American sports news sounds to British people.
posted by Ghidorah at 5:52 PM on May 18, 2010

It would mainly be a problem for me if what you are writing is a work of fiction, set in the UK, or with a UK protagonist/narrator.

A rather glaring example of this occurred in Neal Stephenson's Baroque Cycle. In part of the narrative set in England in the 1600's he uses quite a number of archaic terms and spellings, as would have been used in that time and place - but then mentions people seated on 'bleachers'.
posted by HiroProtagonist at 8:19 PM on May 18, 2010

Response by poster: A rather glaring example of this occurred in Neal Stephenson's Baroque Cycle.

posted by HiroProtagonist at 10:19 PM

Most. Eponysterical. Post. Ever.
posted by adamrice at 8:37 PM on May 18, 2010 [1 favorite]

Spelling is pretty obvious (although you can always use MS Word to correct to the language of your choice). UK English has a lot of irregular spellings that Americans really can't get their heads around. But as a Brit living in America, having to write a lot of formal papers and reports, the most obvious differences are small differences in grammar. Some examples:
UKE: different from vs. USE: different than
UKE: I'm going to visit Dave vs. USE: I'm going to visit with Dave
UKE: I would have thought vs. USE: I'd've thought (or more commonly: I'd of thought).

Plus Brits seem to use a lot more punctuation than Americans. I get about half of my commas and all of my semicolons removed by editors ...

What really drives me nuts is that so many grammatically incorrect usages have crept into US English that people think they are correct. I spend hours checking my (US) grammar, only to have it corrected by someone who thinks that their colloquial version is more correct. I do suspect that you'd have the same problem in reverse (USE -> UKE).
posted by Susurration at 9:01 PM on May 18, 2010

Brits "going round" vs. USain "going over".

When I was at the Iowa Writers Workshop helping to wade through the slush pile at the Iowa Review a Brit submitted a piece set in the USA in which she used "rubbish tip" rather than "garbage dump".
posted by brujita at 10:56 PM on May 18, 2010

Maths! The abbreviation of mathematics is maths! That's one that always sticks out like dog's balls to me.

Chips vs chips vs crisps.
posted by rodgerd at 3:38 AM on May 19, 2010

Sussuration wrote:
UKE: I'm going to visit Dave vs. USE: I'm going to visit with Dave
UKE: I would have thought vs. USE: I'd've thought (or more commonly: I'd of thought).

I'd like to comment on these...
I use both "visit Dave" and "visit with Dave" depending on my intent. If I'm trying to convey that I'm making a trip in order to see Dave, I will say "visit Dave". Also if he is in the hospital. If Dave is nearby and I want to convey that I am going to have a casual chat with him, I will say "visit with Dave". Generally, I take "visit with" as synonymous with "chat with". This term would not be used if a deep conversation was being implied.

On the second example, I can say that it bugs the shit out of me when people write "would of", because it is just plain wrong.
posted by wwartorff at 6:18 AM on May 19, 2010 [2 favorites]

Quite simply:

With formal writing, can you readily distinguish between US and UK English?


If you were reading something that supposedly targeted a UK audience and an Americanism cropped up, would you find that distracting?


I'm a translator too, and am occasionally asked to produce US English. I tell the client that I can set the spelling/grammar check to US English but cannot promise that Britishisms won't creep in, mostly because I will never be 100% sure of which features of my writing are Britishisms. Then I see what the client says and proceed from there.
posted by altolinguistic at 9:29 AM on May 19, 2010

Sport (UK) vs sports (US).
posted by Chrysostom at 8:34 AM on May 24, 2010

Am I the only person for whom the answer is often 'no'?

I'm a native Brit English speaker and after many years of exposure to an Americanised internet and having spent a few months living in the US a few years ago, I doubt I would nowadays be able to tell you (without additional information and obvious spelling differences aside) whether a formal document was written by an American or a Brit. I'm pretty oblivious to the obvious spelling differences (-ise vs. -ize) as well these days. I read American English on the net so much that I don't register it as being 'different' any more.
posted by davidjohnfox at 4:14 PM on May 24, 2010

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