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Spelling: UK vs US

last updated: 8 May 2018 (approximate reading time: 3 minutes; 544 words)

I talked before about how spelling doesn’t matter and yet how it is still significant.

More important than simply knowing how to spell words is the ability to be understood and you can still be understood if you spell “incorrectly”. I say incorrectly, whatever incorrectly means because trying to be sure about what is correct spelling can be challenge.

Having suggested that spelling doesn’t matter, let me move on to my next heresy: American English spellings (and grammatical practices) should be preferred over British spellings.

UK vs US English

Let me briefly address the Brits. And here, in case there’s any doubt, I write as a British subject.

Culturally, we won. English is the most widely used language around the globe, but our variant is not the most widely used.

American English is the most widely written and most widely understood. It is also the direction in which British English is moving. Maybe slowly, but one autocorrect at a time, one Disney movie at a time, British English is becoming more Americanized.

My suggestion to my fellow Brits—and to the citizens of the Commonwealth who speak and write a more British-infused version of English—is to adopt American English as far as makes sense. If there’s a question about spelling (color or colour, for instance), then choose the American variant.

Choose the American variant because it will be more widely understood. Choose the American variant because British English readers understand American English more than the converse. Choose American English so your writing doesn’t become dated as American English becomes more accepted in the British English world.

But!!!

There will be times when British English speakers feel an overwhelming need to choose British English words—and in that case, go ahead and choose the British English—but use the American English spelling (if there is any variation).

The most obvious example of a word where British English speakers need to use the British English variant is trousers.

If you’re a Brit and you’re talking about trousers, then use the word trousers. There’s no need to Americanize…American English speakers will catch on and there’s less scope for confusion.

If you can be more specific you may get past this challenge. So for instance, if you can talk about the specific type of trousers, such as jeans, then do so. Jeans are jeans in any variant of the language.

And for the American English speakers who might be wondering what all the fuss is about, in British English, pants are underwear. No ifs, no buts, no ambiguity—underwear. If you use the word pants to a British English speaker, they will always picture you walking down the street in your underwear.

Coming the Other Way

While I am an advocate of American English in most but not all cases, also be aware of the terms that are coming the other way.

For instance the Britishisms of mobile phone and text message have largely displaced the Americanisms of cell phone and SMS. That said, even the term mobile phone seems pretty archaic these days—everyone talks about phones, and then uses these devices to do most things except phone calls.

As with spelling, there is no right or wrong in your choice of phrase. All you need to ensure is that you’re understood.

Filed under

Category: writing
Tags: British English   American English