I grew up speaking two languages, the British English of my parents and the American English of my friends and teachers at school. This has made me more aware of some differences between the two forms of English, but ignorant of others. Although I focus more on language differences than most people, I also don’t always recognize what is different.
This week in Las Vegas, I’ll be speaking about editing across the Atlantic with copyeditor Laura Cameron at the American Copy Editors Society national conference (4:30 p.m. Friday, followed by sherry). We’ll talk about some of the challenges in editing in a nonnative dialect, and we’ll explore some of the language differences that might trip up copyeditors.
Cameron has lived in England and has copyedited in both countries. I’ve done only a bit of editing of British texts. But technology means there is little geographic impediment, and publishing on the Web or in other electronic formats means there are more opportunities to publish for an international audience. “What kind of English?” is an increasingly more important question.
Someone once said we are two nations separated by a common language (it’s widely attributed to George Bernard Shaw, but no one can find where he ever said it). But the language hardly separates us. We may misunderstand each other at times, but we get the gist of Sherlock on PBS and the Harry Potter books.
When I am confused and I need a good source for differences in American English and British English, i tend to go to one or more of these sources:
- Oxford Dictionaries online: I often start with the Dictionary application on the Macintosh operating system. It gives me definitions from the New Oxford American Dictionary and the Oxford Dictionary of English. I can do similar comparisons on the Oxford Dictionaries website, which, for a fee, also gives me access to New Hart’s Rules, a standard guide for British editors. The website has a discussion of British and American terms and British and American spelling differences.
- Macmillan Dictionary: The online dictionary has definitions and spellings from both sides of the Atlantic, andit allows a quick switch from American to British and back. The dictionary was created with both forms of the language in mind, and the Macmillan Dictionary blog often has discussions about global English.
- M. Lynne Murphy’s blog and Twitter account: An American-born linguist at the University of Sussex, Murphy blogs about language differences at Separated by a Common Language. She also tweets a Difference of the Day most days at the cleverly named @lynneguist Twitter account.
- Wikipedia: There are many sites with fun lists of British and American word differences (elevator vs. lift, truck vs. lorry), but some of the most comprehensive lists and best discussions are supplied by Wikipedia. It has an extensive look at spelling differences and pages upon pages of word differences.
- Not One Off Britishisms: For a look at whether a British term has made a successful incursion into U.S. parlance, Ben Yagoda has created a blog with dozens of entries. Some are British terms common enough to be fairly well understood by American readers. Some are so rare they are probably still best avoided. The site will be useful to American copy editors trying to make sense of a British term or usage.