You’ve been asked to edit a document according to a dialect of English it wasn’t written in. Maybe it was written in British English and needs to be in American English. Maybe it was written in American English and needs to be in Australian English. What should you look for? How deeply should you edit?
Editing a document into your own dialect is fairly easy: you should easily spot areas that don’t sound right. Going from your own dialect into a second one is more difficult, especially if you aren’t familiar with the second dialect.
Lynne Murphy, reader in linguistics at the University of Sussex, demonstrated this fact during the opening of her talk, UK vs. US English, at the Society for Editors and Proofreaders’ 2017 conference.
Editing for a different dialect is not just a matter of swapping the order of ending punctuation and closing quote marks, but what else should you edit for? Murphy’s talk covered three categories editors should pay special attention to.
English dialects share many words but not always in the same way.
Idioms are a good place to start. Because idiom’s meaning doesn’t come from the sum of the individual words, someone unfamiliar with the idiom or enough of the culture won’t know the intended meaning.
Be alert, too, for the words that have different meanings in different dialects. A British vest is an undershirt, while an American vest is a sleeveless sweater. To further confuse the situation, Brits would call an American vest a waistcoat and an American sweater a jumper.
You’ll also come across words found in one dialect but not in the other. Cookie is found mostly in American English, while British English calls a small, flat baked good a biscuit. Crisps isn’t a term we use in American English; those would be chips to us. And of course in British English, chips are French fries. (Is anyone else getting hungry?)
Spelling differences are not so straightforward, either. Many English speakers recognize that –or and –ize are American English spellings, while –our and –ise are British English. But not everyone is aware that the –ise ending isn’t universally used in British English. And Canadian English splits the difference by using –our and –ize. You need to be familiar with the spelling conventions of the dialect you’re editing for.
But what counts as different spellings and what counts as different words? Mum isn’t the same as Mom, just as Mom isn’t the same as Ma. You’ll want to consider such distinctions as you edit.
Each dialect has its own grammatical tendencies. If you really want a manuscript to sound like the dialect you’re editing for, you’ll want to pay attention to grammar as well. Grammar differences might not jump out at readers, but they will contribute strongly to the tone of the piece.
One difference that Murphy points out is that while in British English try and is accepted usage, in American English it’s only acceptable in informal prose. Try to is the preferred term for formal usage in American English. She also pointed out that American English uses that more frequently and the simple past more than the present perfect. These differences might be small, but when you take them together, they affect the overall tone.
The best way to become familiar with another dialect is to immerse yourself in it. While an extended stay in another country might be out, you can read, listen to, and watch media in that dialect. Works that are less formal and have more cultural references, such as fiction and sports news, can expose you to more differences than formal works.
When editing in Word, you can switch the dictionary for your file to a different English dialect. This will give an early warning with spelling. While Word’s dictionaries tend to trail mainstream dictionaries, the software does have dictionaries for many English dialects. My version of Word (Word 2010) has dictionaries for 18 dialects.
When you have questions, check one or more of these resources:
- Dictionaries that cover the dialects you’re working with.
- Global Web-based English (GloWbe) corpus.
- Speakers of the dialect. International editing groups, such as the Editors Association of Earth, are a good resource.
- The British Council’s “British English and American English” webpage.
- The Punctuation Guide’s “British versus American Style” webpage.
- Any editing resource written for the dialect you’re editing for.
When someone asks you to edit for dialect, they may just want you to edit the punctuation. That’s an easy edit. But if they want the document to truly be written in another dialect, you now know what you can do for them.