Posted on

British English versus American English

The following text about British English versus American English comes from our forthcoming Berkshire Manual of International Style, which is our extensive copyediting manual expanded to serve as a guide that other editors and publishers can use. Senior editor Mary Bagg is doing the lion’s share of work on it, and we’ve been working closely together, having fun finding good examples and anecdotes as we refine our instructions for a larger readership. I have never worked as a copyeditor and depend on our professionals, so I’m getting some educational benefits myself. I hadn’t realized, for example, that Americans don’t put an “s” on towards.

Many of our authors, of course, are native “British-English” speakers. Because we are a US-based publisher, our guidelines, word preferences, and punctuation are based on “American English.” Some authors from the United Kingdom are quite willing to “Americanize” for us—for instance, they’ll use elevator rather than lift or vacation instead of holiday. Others expect our copyeditors to make the changes, whether that means replacing a word (mail the letter, not post it), correcting British spelling to conform to US rules (focussed to focused, modelled to modeled), or changing quoted material punctuated like this (‘The population decreased by 10 percent’.) to look like this (“The population decreased by 10 percent.”). Although many US-based readers would take British-isms in stride, we edit our articles for consistent usage within and across projects, so please be diligent about changing British terms, spellings, and the use of single quote marks to their American counterparts. Some common differences between UK-based and US-based spelling include towards/toward (all such “movement prepositions”—for example, backward and forward, inward and outward, upward and onward—drop their final “s” in the United States), aeon/eon (the “long E” sound of “ae” has its roots in Latin), behaviour/behavior, and organization/organization. One particularly vexing word, scheme, deserves notice. In the United Kingdom scheme has a specific definition as “a plan that is developed by a government or large organization in order to provide a particular service for people.” Examples from the MacMillan dictionary include:

  • The proposed scheme would solve the parking problem.
  • Have you joined the company’s pension scheme?

Most US readers (and writers) would use the word plan or program in these contexts; in the United States the word scheme often implies an illegal or underhanded way to achieve a goal (e.g., a Ponzi scheme). We ask that copyeditors edit the word scheme based on the context and content of the article. If the author uses it generically (“the government has devised a number of schemes to improve parking in London”), changing schemes to plans or programs might be the most reader-friendly approach. But if the author is writing about a specific scheme, especially if it has a name or is associated with a certain action or result, a good solution would be to insert a brief parenthetical definition of the British usage after the first occurrence of the word. Check out the Johnson blog (—so-named for dictionary maker Samuel Johnson and sponsored by UK-based Economist magazine, whose own style guide is published online—to get a feel for the way British authors and editors consider the use and abuse of language to affect politics, society, and culture around the world. Although much of the Economist’s style guide necessarily points to the use of language in journalism (and doesn’t always jibe with our style or our authority, The Chicago Manual of Style), some of the blog postings offer sage advice that is pertinent, or at least worth considering, for authors and editors. For instance, one blogger deems the word challenge as one of the English language’s newest clichés: “No one nowadays has to face a change, difficulty, task or job,” writes R.L.G. “Rather these are challenges—fiscal challenges, organisational challenges, structural challenges, regional challenges, demographic challenges, etc.”

The new Berkshire Manual of International Style will be available online soon, free of charge, and we’ll be offering book/ebook versions, as well.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *