A dialogue: Beth and Greta discuss the 10 differences you need to know between British and American English
A last... clarity on some of the most common differences between US & GB English!
As a Brit managing executive english, I am often asked what the differences really are between British and American English and I can tell you they boil down to a lot more than just "fries" vs. "chips" or "elevator" vs. "lift". As Quantumcat, our communications arm, manages more and more content for international brands, so we see American English being the chosen business language for most of our clients. But of course a lot of our German clients tend to use British English because we’re in Europe and they favour it. But what really are the differences? What should non-native speakers really know when it comes to the nuances between the two languages? And who better to help me discuss this then Greta, our Head of Client Engagement and our favourite Texan.
Here‘s how the dialogue goes (please note this is written in British English but of course there are American English spellings to highlight my points).
Beth - Greta, there is an old saying that America and Britain are “two nations divided by a common language“. We have decided to provide our readers with a summary of the 10 most important differences that they need to understand. Where would you start?
tip 1: spelling
Greta – To be honest Beth, I think the first one we should look at is spelling. Like you say, I think most of our clients know that we say "elevator" and you Inselaffen (as the Germans call you) use the word "lift". But when we write texts for our clients some of the spellings are really critical. Take “digitalisation” for example. It’s got that Z in it for us and an S in it for you. Organise is another one that follows that. Then there are words like consumer behaviour which in American English is spelt BEHAVIOR. There is no U in it like you use. Travelled in American English has just one L and another really commonly misspelt one that I see is focussing. Which has 1 S in American English and 2 in British English. How do you spell center?
Beth – CENTRE.
Greta- We spell it CENTER same for THEATER. And be careful with words like defence, licence, offence. These have an S in American English and a C in British English. So my first piece of advice around tip 1 spelling is get that spell checker on!
tip 2: grammar
Beth – Thanks Greta. That’s really helpful. It brings me nicely to tip 2 because where grammar is concerned there are also so many differences and yet these are often missed with a spell checker. You remember that famous campaign from Apple in the 1990s "Think Different"? To a Brit it sounds great and very American. But as you know, we would say think differentLY. So grammar is really important when we write. Sometimes when I do a good job you’ll say to me “you did good, Beth”. But of course I would say “you did well”. The Americans just don't use the adverbs like we do. And there’s so many more examples. I am constantly correcting my clients when they use the 2nd conditional incorrectly: “If I won the lottery, I would buy a car…” what I hear from my German speakers is “If I would win the lottery, I would buy…” And yet I know the Americans use this form.
Greta – That’s right. But really we shouldn't write it. We know it is bad grammar. If I would see it written I would correct it – opps! There I go again.
Beth – You also don't use the present perfect like we do. I say: “I have been to a great conference recently”. But you would say “I went recently”. You would use the past tense when of course the Brits would always use the present perfect with the key words recently, since, for, never, ever, yet, already etc..
Greta – That's true as well. I might say, “I did it already”. Not “I have done it already“. But again it’s colloquial. If I were writing formally, I would use the correct form which is the British English model. But there are examples where both can work. For example you might say to me, “it's April, isn’t it”? And I would probably say to you, “it's April, right”? We don't use tag questions as much as you do. But to be honest neither one is right or wrong. It’s kind of a style thing. Think of advertising. You might see a slogan in both British and American English that would say: “You’re working too many hours, right? Buy our software and knock 2 hours off your day”. This sounds punchier than “You’re working too many hours, aren’t you”?
tip 3: style
Beth – Ah... now that's a good point because it brings me to tip 3 which is style. I think generally speaking the Americans say and write things more simply. I love that expression in German which is “blumig“ meaning flowery. But I think our language in British English tends to be more convoluted, meaning complex. I think we use more academic or poetic English on a day to day basis. So in business English – in a world where it's a skill to be simple – the American English choice is the fresher one here. As a writer, I definitely prefer the American style of being clear, simple and easy to understand.
tip 4: register
Beth – In fact this brings me to tip 4 which is closely related to it. The Americans are more direct and less formal. In British English, we are even more polite and this manifests itself in what is written because we use indirect language to do this. But there is a major thing about American English that I think contradicts this. You guys love your empty buzzwords. Sometimes you guys can say so much and actually have said nothing about the meaning behind.
Greta – Hell yeah! We love our Marketing BS. And actually, as this discussion is about practical tips, I would say that when we use American English we do use a lot more phrases, idioms, buzzwords and jargon and we don't feel the need to explain what they mean. I think in British English there’s a more emotional tone in the language - there’s more of a need to explain to a client or customer what the benefits will be to them personally. We just throw efficiency, agility and speed out there. This is another reason why it can be easier and punchier to use American English.
Beth – That's so true. We would say, “you’ll be able to manage your office better” we would not use just “efficiency” here it would be too empty sounding. Let’s look at some of the more obvious differences again because we talked about spelling and grammar but we have not looked at the nouns in business that are different. This is tip 5. Which would you say are the most important ones?
tip 5: noun choice
Greta – Oh wow! There’s a lot of them. Let me think. Well obviously the one that jumps to mind is "soccer" vs. "football" which actually can be a little confusing when making small talk. "Bathroom" vs the British "toilet" is also another one that comes up in small talk. As well as "pants" vs. the British "trousers". For you guys "pants" means something very different.
Beth – That’s right. I would fall about laughing if a guy came into a business meeting and asked me if I liked his new pants.
Greta – Right? We use "mad" to mean exciting. You use "mad" to mean crazy. We use "smart" to mean intelligent. You use "smart" to mean less casual. But when I think of words that have different meanings totally that we use more in business English then I think of "attorney" – you guys use "lawyer" – or "bespoke" we don't use that - we use "custom-made". You say "canteen" we say "cafeteria". We talk about "college graduates" not "university graduates". And of course we say "cell" instead of "mobile". You say "CV", we use "resume".
tip 6: political correctness
Beth – Wow, there’s a lot! So tell me about being politically correct because that is my tip 6. I have to say none of the experts can agree on whether the Brits or Americans are more politically correct. I would certainly say "chairperson". What would you say?
Greta – Honestly, I would say "Chairman" even as a woman.
Beth – So that’s interesting. There was a recent survey conducted by the Pew Research centre to see if there was any reaction to Trump’s less PC politics. It found that 67% of Britain’s think that too many people are offended by the language that others use. Only 59% of Americans thought that. But I do know that you guys are very sensitive over holiday season greetings. You would never write "Happy Christmas" right?
Greta – No way. We would always write "Happy Holidays" so as to acknowledge non-Christian communities.
tip 7: idiomatic language
Beth – I think being PC is certainly something you have to have in your head when you use either American or British English. Well how about we move on to tip 7 which is understanding how the idiomatic language is different. Can I shout out some British English idioms and you shout out the corresponding ones in American English?
Greta – Sure
Beth – If I don't trust you I would say: I would not touch you with a barge pole
Greta – I wouldn't touch you with a ten-foot pole
Beth – To ignore something - Sweep it under the carpet
Greta - Sweep it under the rug
Beth - To have a secret past - A skeleton in the cupboard
Greta - A skeleton in the closet
Beth – A drop in the ocean
Greta – A drop in the bucket (that means to have a tiny impact by the way)
Beth – To big up yourself or blow one's own trumpet
Greta - Blow one's own horn
tip 8: punctutation
Beth - So you see these are all different. So when we are writing in English we need to be careful even with the idiomatic language we use. Let’s come to tip 8 which is a little more dry so we’ll do it quickly. But punctuation is also different right?
Greta – Yep I would write that I am "Ms." Bruner. You would write your "Mrs" without a dot right?
Beth – Correct although I would have said point there, not dot :). And another thing that really gets me when I write American English - which is often - is that with quotation marks you put the full stop before them at the end of the sentence we put them after (see above).
Greta – Correct.
Beth – And you would write the "1980’s" with an apostrophe.
Greta – Correct. What you mean you don't?
Beth – No we omit it altogether.
Greta - I just learned another thing.
tip 9: time and dates
Beth – Well this kind of brings me to talking about time in British vs. American English which is tip 9. We talk about quarter “past” 10. You would say a quarter “after” right?
Greta – Yeah that’s right. And we would write it "10:15". But you guys use a dot, right?
Beth – Or a point, don’t you? But yeah we would write it as "10.15". Do you use 24 hour clock?
Greta – No we don't.
Beth – Us neither. We would write "10.00pm" not "22:00" like the Germans. But we do do it differently when it comes to days and months. Today is "5th April, 2018". I would write "05.04.18".
Greta – And I would write "04/05/18". And we would say it differently too. We would say "April 5th, 2018". With April first.
tip 10: accent
Beth – Not easy for non-native speakers, is it? That could get very confusing. Let's end with our final tip 10: accent. You pronounce a lot of words differently as well. This is less of a problem when you are writing but it can be an issue in understanding and speaking. Let me shout out a few typical business ones and you can be my echo. Our readers can google these to hear the differences:
Beth – route
Greta – route
Beth – privacy
Greta – privacy
Beth – schedule
Greta – schedule
Beth – mobile
Greta – mobile
Beth – advertisement
Greta – advertisement
Beth – globalisation
Greta – globalisation
Beth – brochure
Greta – brochure
Beth - And how do you say: “That’s the end of this blog spot.”
Greta – That’s the end of this blog spot.