American English vs. British English

British or American English: why it matters. And why it sometimes doesn’t.

From funny accents to elementary grammar to words and spelling – eggplant, anyone? – the differences between British English and American English have been well documented. But what does this mean when it comes to writing for an international audience?

Scratching the surface

For all the fuss, in fact most differences are superficial: a Brit wouldn’t (always) hold a -ize against an American, and hopefully the Americans consider the extra letters in colour and foetus charming. A bit of awareness and care is enough to iron out issues such as sweater vs jumper, truck vs lorry, elevator vs lift. There is some confusion with words that have two meanings, such as ‘public school’ which has the exact opposite meanings in the US and UK, or ‘first floor’ which would be at ground level in the US, the floor above in the UK. And of course, some grammatical discrepancies may touch a nerve with some readers. But all in all, written English is actually more universal than spoken English – a Texan is more likely to understand something a Scot has written and vice versa than if they tried to converse over the telephone.

Right on target

So why do we distinguish between UK and US English? At Supertext, we ask our clients to choose one and stick with it. This helps us provide copywritten or translated content that is consistent – key in establishing a brand voice. It also gives us an idea of the target audience. Take a European university looking to attract students from abroad. Do prospective students hail primarily from Europe? Are the main competitors other European institutions? Then UK English probably makes sense – after all, the EU still officially uses UK English, despite Brexit. An Asian manufacturer looking to export to mainly the US may decide early on in their localization strategy to use American English to emphasize familiarity with the US market. This background information is important, because we want to write copy that gets our client’s message across as clearly as possible.

Culture shock

Which brings us to culture, which shapes language to a large extent. If we’re writing for a UK or European audience, baseball idioms such as ‘throwing a curve ball’ might not resonate quite so much as in the US. Similarly, to say someone is ‘not cricket’ or ‘on a sticky wicket’ will probably confound anyone from outside the commonwealth, and ‘going down the pub’ is not quite the same as ‘a night at a bar’. Then there are other generalizations to consider, such as how Americans prefer direct, aggressive language while Brits rely more on dry humor, which may be cliché yet warrants a thought or two when trying to find the right tone for your brand. Add to this the prevalence of American popular culture across the world – though Harry Potter has bucked this trend – plus the emergence of ‘Globlish’ or international English, and we’ve opened up a big can of worms.

The voice

Generally, obvious factors such as spelling, grammar and vocabulary are the relatively easy factors to overcome. But when it comes to finding the right voice for your brand, choosing between two language variants adds an extra dimension to a task tricky in any language. But don’t worry, that’s what we’re here for – the Supertext polyglots are happy to help you make that choice.

Picture via Red White And Blue Bunting – Darren Lewis (CC0)

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