Miscellany 4: Divided by a common language

Miscellany 4: Divided by a common language

Continuing our exploration of the origins, conundrums and variety of language.

On either side of the pond, we are familiar with some of the more obvious differences between British and American English – namely, spelling discrepancies like ‘colourful’ vs ‘colorful’ and ‘realise’ vs ‘realize’.

(We may be less familiar with the explanations for these spelling divergences, which include the fact that the British public, once happy to use both -ise and -ize endings, was shoehorned into exclusively using the former in the 1990s with the rise of default computer spellings).

But what about the more subtle differences? Surely, we’ve diverged in more than just our propensity for certain letters in the past couple of centuries. Indeed we have. For one thing, punctuation varies more than most realise (or realize).

Take the comma, for instance. Ironically, modern day people living in the birthplace of the Oxford comma are far less likely to use the hotly debated mark than their American counterparts. Not only that, but Brits tend to drop commas in other places where it doggedly hangs on in American English – e.g. after ‘e.g.’.

Then there are quotation marks. Brits are far more comfortable with single quotes than are Americans, who use them strictly to demarcate quotes within quotes. Even more contentious is the placement of full stops – ‘periods’ in American English – at the end of quoted phrases. For grammar-savvy Americans, periods go inside closing quotation marks, full stop. Brits complicate things by only applying this rule to complete sentences.

The dash is another one. Simply put, Brits use en dashes and put spaces around them, while Americans use em dashes with no spaces. This causes more consternation than one might imagine.

And this has all just been about the nuts and bolts of written English. There’s much more to discuss, like groups of people being plural in British English and singular in American, or the acceptability of ending a sentence in a preposition (a big no-no in the US, less so in the UK), not to mention which preposition is used where (‘different to’ vs ‘different from’ being one example).

But, of course, writing style ultimately comes down to personal preference. Especially when you’re not beholden to a style guide, whether you throw commas about willy nilly or avoid them like the plague is more about what you’re trying to convey and how you’re trying to convey it than what your passport says. But that doesn’t mean we’ll stop wondering at the differing ways anglophones craft their phrases.

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Lark Knutsen
Lark Knutsen

Writer and editor