“Part of what makes a language ‘alive’ is its constant evolution … I love editing ‘Harry’ with Arthur Levine, my American editor – the differences between ‘British-English’ (of which there must be at least 200 versions) and ‘American-English’ (ditto!) are a source of constant interest and amusement to me.” – J.K. Rowling, author of the Harry Potter fantasy series, in a 1999 Salon interview.
I was born and raised in New York, but moved to England more than three years ago. While – or whilst, as many Brits would say – living in England, I have learned many differences between British-English (BrE) and American-English (AmE) that I was not aware of previously. At Proactive PR, we have clients who require us to write in both BrE and AmE and it is important for us to be aware of the many words, phrases and spellings that are different when comparing the two.
The most notable spelling differences between BrE and AmE are the missing ’u‘ (or added ‘u’ if you’re American like me) from words such as ‘colour’ and ‘favourite’, the interchanging of ‘s’ and ‘z’ in words like ‘organized’/‘organised’, and the ‘r’ before or after ‘e’ in words like ‘center’/‘centre’ and ‘fiber’/‘fibre’.
Recently, I read a very interesting blog which explained why these differences exist and when the changes happened. It basically boils down to the personal preferences of Samuel Johnson in the UK – who preferred the French origin of words – and Noah Webster in the US – who preferred Latin roots and a more modern approach.
“So while the UK chose to preserve linguistic roots, the US opted to modernize spelling,” said blog author Olivia Goldhill. “And if you’re wondering which country got it right, the answer is, well, neither. Language is constantly evolving, and the US and UK simply went their different linguistic ways.”
In addition to spelling differences, there are various grammatical differences. Take the word ‘gotten’, for example, which is very common in AmE but not in BrE. ‘Gotten’ is the past participle of ‘get’ and is used to say that the writer or speaker has acquired something. For example, “I have already gotten a drink from the bar, but I am happy to go back and get Sally one if she has not gotten one yet.”
This may seem incorrect to native BrE speakers, but it is very much correct English to AmE speakers.
Another notable difference between BrE and AmE – and possibly the most controversial topic – is the use of the Oxford comma (or Serial Comma). Anyone who grows up in the US is taught that you always put a comma before the word ‘and’ while making a list of more than two things; “I like chocolate, cake, and hot peppers,” for example.
Without the comma, the reader could interpret this as I like cake and hot peppers together. That is not true. If the Oxford comma was used, this confusion would not have been caused. However – to my British colleagues’ delight – it is preferable in news writing in both AmE and BrE to not use the Oxford comma and to avoid using the word ‘and’ too often.
Working in the industry that we do, it will probably be of no surprise that since joining Proactive PR, there has been many heated office debates about this topic – which, being the lovers of the written word we are, everyone always takes great enjoyment from! Overall – as the great J. K. Rowling suggests – the most important thing when writing or editing is to be open-minded and never assume something is incorrect just because it is different than what you are used to seeing or hearing.
Language is a beautiful and fascinating topic and is constantly evolving. Who knows, perhaps 100 years from now, someone will write a blog post studying how the English language evolved from words to emojis… But I really hope not.