Which English are you writing in?


My writing work goes to several countries. Just in the past couple of days I’ve written for American, English, and Australian customers. Keeping the customer happy requires writing in the kind of English they want. You can’t always assume it from the country they’re in; I have a regular customer in the UK that wants American English.

Spelling

Spelling is the easiest part to adjust. Britain tends to use “-ise” where Americans use “-ize,” “-our” where we use “-or,” and “-re” where we use “-er.” Australia and New Zealand generally follow Britain. Canada does sometimes, but not always.

Libre Office lets you set the document’s language, and it has sixteen options for English: Australia, Belize, Canada, Ghana, India, Ireland, Jamaica, Malawi, Namibia, New Zealand, Philippines, South Africa, Trinidad, UK, USA, and Zimbabwe. Regrettably, its spell checker is much too forgiving. It generally accepts US spellings regardless of the national dialect you’ve selected. If you rely on it to “translate” your writing, it won’t be a great help. Grammarly has English and UK settings, but it’s clumsy to switch between them.

A more promising alternative is LanguageTool, which checks spelling in six variants of English, as well as over twenty other languages. A Firefox plugin is available, though I haven’t tried it yet. Thanks to colleague Pamela Shows for spotting this tool.

Word usage

Is it an elevator or a lift? A lorry or a truck? If the language police catch you, do you go to jail or gaol? Using the wrong words for an English audience can mark you as an American writer, distracting the audience from your message.

This one is tricky because words keep crossing national boundaries. American usage infiltrates other English-speaking countries (and even ones that speak other languages). If you use “gaol” in an effort to look British, you’ll just look old-fashioned.

Slang is an especially deadly area. If it’s not part of your normal environment, using it runs a risk of not sounding quite right. In my case, the writing I do is generally technical, so it uses jargon but not slang. If you’re aiming at popular appeal, picking the slang that sets the right tone is crucial.

Dates

It’s January 18, 2018 as I’m writing this. Few countries outside the USA use this format, though. If I were writing for the UK, it would be 18 January 2018. There’s a certain logic to that order, since it proceeds from the smallest unit to the largest. American usage goes from middle to smallest to largest.

Canada is confusing. Canadian websites, including government sites, usually follow the US order (“January 18, 2018”) for long-form dates. You’ll occasionally see the European order. For short-form dates, though, you might see 2018-01-18 or 01-18-2018 or 18-01-2018. It’s a good thing Canadians have a relaxed attitude, as this has to cause a lot of frustration. Stick with the long form when writing.

Numbers

British English used to space its “illions” by factors of a million rather than a thousand. This has become obsolete, though. Today, standard usage in all English-speaking countries defines a billion as 109, a trillion as 1012, and so on. Scientists don’t like being confused about what their numbers mean, so stick with American usage.

Punctuation

There aren’t a lot of international differences in English punctuation, but it helps to know about the few that exist. I’ve found a nice article on British versus American style, which summarizes some important differences.

I’m not convinced by that site’s claim that single quotes take precedence over double quotes in the UK. A look through the website of The Economist, which I consider an excellent example of UK usage, uses double quotes for all quotations. However, it puts period and commas outside quotations, unlike US usage.

Maybe I should just read more of The Economist to familiarise (sic) myself with UK usage. It would give me one more perspective on current events in the process.

Really getting all the distinctive points of a country’s version of English is hard, but even a little effort pays off. Matching the basics of spelling will satisfy many customers. Getting dates right will get bonus points. The market for writing is very international, and dealing with international English is a valuable professional skill.

Update: Here’s another useful online resource for UK English, the University of Oxford Style Guide.

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