Your Copy Sucks: Talkin’ British

Letter ULately a lot of folks have asked me questions that come down to a matter of Britishocity. Is it “gray” or “grey?” Is it “theatre” or “theater?” It’s okay if you’re confused about these things because, to be honest, you probably had little to do with dumping a bunch of Twinnings into Boston Harbor. Or is that Harbour?

We’ve whined about the differences between American and British English before, but spellings are a whole ‘nother animal. Or is that animaul? (Hint: it’s not.) If you care, here are some commonly mixed-up spellings that differ across the pond.

    TJ Dietderich’s Not At All Complete List of American/British Spellings (Beta)


This side is American/This one is British

Theater/Theatre

Gray/Grey

Humor/Humour (This British Law of U’s holds for most words that have an -or in American English, e.g., color/colour.)

Analyze/Analyse (The British Law of S’s holds for most words that end in -ze in American English, e.g., materialize/materialise.)

Favorite/Favourite

Fulfill/Fulfil (Yeah, sometimes we just add an extra L to the British spelling.)

Defense/Defence (Sometimes we switch a C for an S.)

Center/Centre

Dialog/Dialogue

Pajamas/Pyjamas

Judgment/Judgement

Traveling/Travelling

. . . and so on.

How the hell did it get like this, you may ask in a shrill voice. Dude, I’m with you. This is getting ridiculous. It’s as if on July 5, 1776, Jefferson and Franklin sat down and thought, how subtly can we divorce ourselves linguistically from Old Blighty? Oh, I know. Let’s drop some U’s, change some letters to other letters that sound exactly the same, add L’s, then drop other L’s, switch some R’s with E’s, and heck, while we’re at it, let’s confuse generations of Americans with the word GRAY.

(I’m sure Franklin and Jefferson were only peripherally involved, but I need someone to yell at, you know?)

If you’re like me, you’re looking at this list and thinking, dang, I’ve been spelling it theatre and dialogue this whole time. Am I going to have to switch to the American spelling now? What does this mean for my cultural identity!?

Easy fix. I absolve you. I know it’s a slippery slope, but in this instance, I say don’t give one more iota of brain cells’ worth of thought about this rule. We KNOW what you mean when you write “grey” instead of “gray.” Except in some extreme cases (Really, Britain? Manoeuvre instead of maneuver? Got any other vowels you wanna squash in there while you’re at it?), no one is going to be overly confused if you use a British spelling instead of the American one.

Here’s the thing about English: it changes. It fluctuates and shifts constantly. There are whole swathes of Asia learning a new version of English called Panglish, and although we English-speakers will probably never understand it, it’s poised to be the most common variety of English in the next hundred years. They won’t be spelling things in Panglish the way we do. And who cares? We’ll be dead.

If someone wants to look down their long, probably bespectacled noses at you for using a British spelling, or a colloquialism, or not following the rules as written down in X book (and there are a lot of those books, all saying different things), that’s fine. They can live their lives thinking they’re correct in all things English. But wait five minutes, or a year, or a generation, and they’ll be wrong.

When it comes right down to it, English doesn’t care about the rules. It cares about you being as creative, clear, and consistent as possible. That’s it. Everything else is a matter of style and taste, and we all know there’s no accounting for that.

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  • benbush

    Nice list. And I applaud your final sentiment. Couple of points, though…

    I'm writing from the UK side of the pond, so this isn't easy for me to say, but my understanding is that American English isn't necessarily the bastard child you, and the majority of of people over, here accuse it of being. Lots of the spellings used in the US are in fact the traditional forms and it is here that divergence has taken place (from memory I think the -ize/ise and -or/our words are good examples). It's a while since I read it but I seem to remember Bill Bryson's Mother Tongue deals with this misconception at length.

    To your list I would add Aluminum/Aluminium: surprising there's no consensus on what should surely be an internationally accepted word. And I'd question judgement/judgment: I always use the latter and I know The Times (of London!) does the same; I think perhaps that one's just a matter of style.

    Finally, Twinnings? Are you trying to come up with a new spelling all of your own? 😉

  • benbush

    Nice list. And I applaud your final sentiment. Couple of points, though…

    I'm writing from the UK side of the pond, so this isn't easy for me to say, but my understanding is that American English isn't necessarily the bastard child you, and the majority of of people over, here accuse it of being. Lots of the spellings used in the US are in fact the traditional forms and it is here that divergence has taken place (from memory I think the -ize/ise and -or/our words are good examples). It's a while since I read it but I seem to remember Bill Bryson's Mother Tongue deals with this misconception at length.

    To your list I would add Aluminum/Aluminium: surprising there's no consensus on what should surely be an internationally accepted word. And I'd question judgement/judgment: I always use the latter and I know The Times (of London!) does the same; I think perhaps that one's just a matter of style.

    Finally, Twinnings? Are you trying to come up with a new spelling all of your own? 😉

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  • A British company publishes my company's magazine…let me tell you the editing process for this is a nightmare. I edit their spelling and even use of certain phrases that our American readers just wouldn't understand.

  • Oh no, I would no more accuse American English of being a bastard child than I would accuse Old English of being a total hoe. Silly jabs at Jefferson aside, it's just another way of saying the same thing; it's cool to watch the evolution or devolution or whatever you like to call it, but I wouldn't categorize it as positive or negative. As are so many things, it simply is.

    Re: judgement: I KNOW, isn't that crazy? What you feel right now is exactly the same feeling Americans get when they're told “dialog” is the correct spelling. It's just absolute tosh at that point, isn't it? Style guides, that's all it is.

    Re: Twinnings: Haha, my bad! I'd like to claim it was a clever ploy to try and get the company riled up to the point where they paid PRBC for coverage, but the fact is I can't spell Twinings for the life of me. Shouldn't it be Twhinings? #jk

  • Ouch, I do sympathize (sympathise?), I really do. “Translating” text from British to American or vice versa is very tedious, but necessary if you want to remain consistent. I've done it for British clients or British writer-friends, and it's a nightmare trying to get the tone correct for the audience.

  • jeffespo

    Thank you for this and for your help over the weekend with my questions on the topic.

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