21 May 2016

American English vs. British English

by John M. Floyd

As I mentioned in my column about Ian Fleming a few weeks ago, I've been re-reading all the James Bond novels, in order. That project has reminded me not only of my youth (I devoured all fourteen Bond books when I was in high school) but of the differences in writing style between American authors and British authors. To the British--at least in the 50s and early 60s, when the Bond novels and short-story collections were published--trucks are lorries, flashlights are torches, elevators are lifts, etc. But I had forgotten that there are so many differences.

The following is a quick list I jotted down last week (American usage first, British usage next):

apartment -- flat
gas -- petrol
French fries -- chips
chips -- crisps
hood (of a car) -- bonnet
group -- lot
bathroom -- loo
pants -- trousers
panties -- pants
guy -- chap
trunk -- boot
soccer -- football
trash -- rubbish
cookie -- biscuit
directly -- as soon as
hang up (or disconnect) -- ring off
on vacation -- on holiday

Spellings are also different, in British writing:

- words ending in "ize" are often "ise" instead: realise, recognise, organise

- some words swap "er" and "re": centre, fibre, calibre, metre, lustre

- "e" is sometimes converted to "ae": encyclopaedia, orthopaedic, anaemic

- "-eck" is often "-eque": cheque

- "-ense" is "-ence": offence, defence, licence, pretence

- "or" is sometimes "our": colour, humour, neighbour, honour, favourite, harbour

- "l" is often doubled: jewellery, counsellor

- gray is grey

- cozy is cosy

- mold is mould

- tire is tyre

- plow is plough

- draft beer is draught beer (to draft a letter is still to draft)

- curb is kerb

And sometimes their verbs are different when used with collective nouns:

We say, "The team is winning." They say, "The team are winning."

Punctuation is a special challenge. To British writers, a period is a full stop, (parentheses) are brackets, [brackets] are square brackets, and "quotation marks" are inverted commas. Here are some differences that come to mind:

- ending punctuation in a quote usually goes outside, rather than inside, the closing quotation mark:
My favorite fictional character names seem to be "Jack", "Charlie", and "Kate".

- primary quotes are sometimes single quotes rather than double, with the double quotes inside:
'I re-read "The Lottery" last night', Jane said.

- periods after certain abbreviations are omitted:
Mr Smith, Mrs Peel, Dr Watson

- a period, rather than a colon, is used between hours and minutes:
I met her at 10.15 yesterday.

- the British also seem to avoid the use of the Oxford comma, or "serial" comma (the one before the conjunction in a series):
Attending the movie's premiere were two hookers, the producer's wife and the director's wife.

NOTE: The previous sentence is a good example of why I prefer to use the serial comma. It can prevent unintentional mistakes, and even lawsuits.

One more thing. The British are more likely to use words like spilt, leapt, dreamt, and spoilt, instead of the way we would indicate the past tense of those verbs, and they seem far more forgiving of the use of "ly" adverbs and synonyms for "said." They also seem to prefer "towards" over "toward."

These are only some of the differences I've discovered/re-discovered as I continue my marathon-read of Fleming's works. (I'm in the middle of his seventh novel, Goldfinger, at the moment.) But I must say, I've found these differences to be more interesting than distracting. And I think I now have a better appreciation of the old saying that America and Britain are two nations divided by a common language.

Can you think of other Britishisms that I've left out? I'm sure there are many. And a question for my fellow SleuthSayers Melodie Campbell and Stephen Ross: Does usage/style in Canada and Australia generally agree with British?

As for this reader/writer, it's back to his regular programme. 'And directly I've finalised my endeavour with the Bond novels, I plan to analyse all the Bond movies again', he observed sombrely. As he changed into his colourful pyjamas.


  1. They leave out the word "the" in front of certain institutions. "When I was at university I often ended up in hospital."

  2. Good point, Rob! Another grammatical difference I forgot is that the reply to a statement like "Have you ever forgotten her birthday?" could be something like "I might have done." (Instead of simply "I might have.")

  3. I apologise/apologize for the long post. The collective noun thing … drives … me … crazy.

    In the toward/towards category, British often say whilst instead of while. “He smoked whilst dining.” Same for among/amongst.

    Yesterday, I discovered one I hadn’t encountered before, carburetter instead of carburetor. Our spelling is closer to the French.

    Ever since he was a little kid, my brother insisted saying aluminium instead of aluminum, for which we Americans get a lot of flack. A few weeks ago my friend Thrush pointed out aluminum was the earlier spelling (following an even earlier form, alumium). Sir Humphrey Davy, who was working to isolate the element, published using the spelling ‘aluminum’. The Canadian and American scientific community adopted that spelling and stuck with it. However, a British reader objected that its ending didn’t end in -ium like so many other elements (except for platinum, etc.) Davy changed the spelling once again and that’s what Britain, Australia, and South Africa use.

    South Africans use mostly British spelling but they tend to say jammies more than PJs, pajamas, or pyjamas.

    There’s a brilliant Canadian comedian whose name escapes me, but he says between the British and Americans, Canadians are thoroughly confused and dodge the question of spelling. Maybe Melissa or Melodie can think of him, but his history lessons and his explanation for the queen left me rolling.

    I offer one major bit of advice. In England, never ever ever pat a woman on the fanny. It’s not where you think it is.

  4. Jeez, John, It's almost like a foreign language. :)

  5. Paul, I really didn't think there were so many differences until I started writing them down.

    Leigh, you brought up a number of points I knew nothing about. I've noticed whilst and amongst, but never carburreter, and I love the aluminum/aluminium argument.

    I can see I must talk with you offline about fanny.

  6. A subject dear to my heart, John. Strictly speaking, New Zealand English is UK English, with a handful of minor local variants. But because of the huge influence of popular culture from television, and lately the Internet, we are awash in US English. So, if I talk about my car and say hood and trunk, or bonnet and boot, or gas or petrol, no one trips up over it or even questions it. Same too with spelling. And I agree, the Harvard comma is the way! :)

  7. Very good and you haven't even yet ventured into lowland Scots!

  8. Thanks, Stephen. I'm not surprised to hear that NZ (and probably Australian?) English usage has taken on some US flavor as well.

    As for the Oxford/Harvard/serial comma, I long ago decided that it never hurts, and can often add a lot of clarity. If I'm not mistaken, the AP stylebook still demands its omission, so the serial comma is not used in journalism.

  9. Janice, I would be broadcasting my ignorance if I tried to!

  10. Didn't Sherlock Holmes or Dr. Watson knock Mrs. Hudson up early one morning? Were they Americans, they would have awakened her. On this side of the pond, "knocking someone up" has a very different meaning!...

  11. PS: "The United States and Great Britain are two countries separated by a common language" is commonly attributed to George Bernard Shaw, although it doesn't seem to appear in any of his published works. On the other hand, Oscar Wilde wrote in The Canterville Ghost that "We have really everything in common with America nowadays, except, of course, language."

  12. Hey Josh! Holmes and Watson, those sly devils. Yep, as Leigh said, it pays to be careful when using certain terms.

    When I used that quote (two countries separated by a common language), I couldn't remember where it came from. I think I like Wilde's even better.

    Thanks for the comments, old friend!

  13. Yup. (Saying a general yup to so many things said above!)

    In Canada, we're taught British English. When you become an author with a trad publisher, they ask you to write American English and follow Chicago style. Man, it gets confusing. I'm always being corrected by my publisher.

    Where I find it fun (and sometimes frustrating): I used "Pits!" in one book. My publisher said my US audience wouldn't understand that. I also was told to change our typical swear words here: Bloody, and Bugger.

    Rob, I also leave out the 'the'. Never even thought about it. (I was in hospital.) My Dad is English, and that may account for this.

    When I go to the states, I'm told I have an English accent. When I got to England, they say I sound American.

    Which reminds me of a funny story. I was in a pub in Bournemouth with my Dad many years ago. I ordered a pint of bitter. The publican said, "Darlin', that's a pretty strong brew. You won't be used to it."
    "Strong?!" I yelled. "I'm Canadian!" And they all laughed.
    I still don't understand American beer. :)

  14. Forgot to say: smashing column. One might even say, brilliant.

  15. Thanks, Melodie--I can't believe I haven't asked you about these things before. And WHOA I had no idea Canadian authors are usually told by their publishers to Americanize (Americanise?) the usage. Interesting!

    Hope you're going to Bouchercon this fall. New Orleans has a language of its own, as well.

  16. Worse, John (and I'm writing a column on this) We are told not to set our stories in Canada. Agents up here say they can't sell novels set in Canada to American publishers. And I bet if you think about it, you haven't seen many. There are lots written. We can sell them to Canadian publishers (and sometimes British). I set my Land's End series in Arizona (which I know well) and the south of England (which I also know.) It has done extremely well in the US. I expect if I set it in Toronto, it would never have gotten off the ground. More when I write that column.

  17. Well, I was going to do a "knock you up" reference but I see Josh beat me to it.

    I did a similar column a few years back that focused on phrases that have completely different interpretations here and across the pond. For anyone interested, it's available here: http://www.sleuthsayers.org/2013/10/our-common-language_8.html

  18. Melodie, NO ONE understands American beer. Which reminds me, “taking a piss” in the UK means (mis)leading someone down the garden path, so to speak.

    What agents really mean is they might have to work a little harder to sell a novel, so they claim.

    Dale, I remembered your excellent article once you mentioned it. Thanks for reminding us.

  19. Melodie, I'm looking forward to that column. The whole not-setting-novels-in-Canada idea seems crazy, to me.

    Dale, I already figured you and Josh think alike, and now I know for sure. As for your earlier column, I now remember that one. Well done!! I wish I'd remembered it earlier so I could've stolen from it.

    Leigh, that's yet another phrase I didn't know. (Or at least didn't know its other meaning.)

  20. To add to what others have said about "knocked up": An English friend told me a joke about a young English woman who lived and worked in the United States for a while. When some American friends asked her how she liked it here, she shocked them by saying, "Oh, everyone's being wonderful! My landlord knocks me up every morning, and my boss gives me a really good screw." "Screw," of course, is English slang for "salary."

  21. Bonnie, that's too good--you have to use that in a story soon!

  22. John, I wrote a column very similar to this one, and will send it to you directly. I remark in the column that the British have a penchant for using two letters where one will do. (honour, programme, etc.) which to my way of thinking puts them at a distinct disadvantage in today's world of texting.
    As for words, a "ladder" is a run in one's stocking.
    there are plenty of others I am sure.

  23. Herschel, you're right--using more letters than necessary seems to be the opposite of "writing tight," which is what we're always being encouraged to do. As for texting, I'd hate to think anything would make me hit more wrong keys than I do now.

    Yes, do send that to me directly, and--as the British would say--"Directly I receive it, I'll let you know."

  24. Hi Fran--many thanks! This crazy stuff is fun, isn't it?

  25. Pat Marinelli21 May, 2016 16:06

    Great post, John. I had a British grandmother so I know most of the differences. Learned them growing up.

    I fight with my critique group all the time about toward and towards, regard and regards, gray vs. grey, and blonde vs. blond. I can't convince them one is British and one is American...or that regards are a salutation and blonde relates to female and blond is male, except for the color blond.

  26. Well done, John.

    I recently judged a contest entry from an author in Australia. That was interesting. I found a lot of what you describe. My advice was to decide on her audience and then defer to that audience's correct usage.

    Marilyn (aka cj petterson)

  27. Hey Pat--yes, sounds as if you had a close-up look at these differences.

    I confess I've never thought of blonde/blond as being part of all this. For years now I've treated blonde as a noun and blond as an adjective: The blonde on the corner has blond hair. (Now that my hair is gray/grey.)

    Marilyn, many thanks. I too have judged contests that contained UK entries--and I hope I've never let the differences influence my judging. As I mentioned in the column, the British usage isn't even distracting to me. You make a good point, though, about gearing what you write toward the audience you're trying to reach.

  28. John,

    I'm also familiar with most of the differences but enjoyed reading your column.

  29. That's kind of you, Jacqueline--and thanks for stopping by.

  30. Blond is masculine, blonde is feminine. The blond guy escorted the blonde woman to lunch.

  31. I was just about to say that!

  32. I've heard about a hundred different arguments about blond/blonde. I realize that in French blond is masculine and blonde in feminine. To me, the noun/adjective definition makes more sense. Different strokes for different blokes . . .

  33. I love the list. I recognized most of the items, and they are the cause of interesting discussions with my editor because I set my Anita Ray series in India, which follows British grammar and spelling. What I really dislike is seeing the British punctuation for single and double quotes making their way into American books. Quotes outside a comma or period make my eyes wobble.

  34. Thank you, Susan--I bet you DO have some interesting discussions with your ed. about grammar/spelling in India. And I agree with you, about quotes and ending punctuation. Thanks for chiming in, here!!

    Quick note: To those friends who have commented on blond/blonde: I've been looking back through old notes, and here--for what it's worth, which isn't much--are my views: I prefer using "blonde" as a noun referring to a woman with blond hair: (The blonde strolled into the detective's office.) I suppose "blond" could be used as a noun describing a man, as well, but I've never yet had a need to do that, in my writing. And I prefer using "blond" as an adjective to describe hair color whether it's a man or woman. (He has blond hair, she has blond hair, but she's the blonde.) To me, that just looks and sounds right. My opinion only.

    Maybe I should say "Different brush-strokes for different folks."

  35. Thanks for sharing this post with us.


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