OK, are you sitting down? Then let us begin:
In London in the summer of 1982, as I waited for my university studies to begin, I worked at various jobs—including, out of curiosity, a spell selling encyclopaedia sets door-to-door (at that time, of course, encyclopaedias were still only in print form).
In this case, the encyclopaedia in question was not the Britannica, but some American publication that I had never heard of, and whose name I can no longer remember.
At the first team briefing, the boss—a tall, blond, well-dressed man with a slick salesman manner who, in hindsight, reminds me of Donald Trump—told us that if we were to encounter doubts about the encyclopaedia being American, we should point out that there were only 42 differences between American English and British English (or some such number—I may be confusing it with Douglas Adams’ answer to Life, the Universe, and Everything)—so that shouldn’t be an issue .
As someone who had done most of his elementary schooling in New York, this claim seemed a little dubious to me, and indeed I soon discovered that that was not the only lie that he told us, and within two weeks I had left the job for the scam that it was.
In the years that followed, I came to realise how untrue his claim was. Today, when I am asked to translate a work into English, my first question is, “Which one—American or British?”
Most people—on either side of the pond—tend to think that the differences boil down to different spellings of a few words, such as colour/color, centre/center, etc. But as someone who has lived for years in both countries (and now, Canada) I can tell you that in reality, there are many marked differences that make a retroactive change from one to the other too laborious. These include different spellings; different meanings of the same word; different words for the same concept; language use and richness of vocabulary; and even punctuation.
I’m not even talking about slang, or the fact that one must always adapt the language to the speaker: the English of a precocious 13-year-old son of professors at Princeton University is very different from that of a truck driver in the same state (New Jersey)—not to mention that of a young bachelorette in London (all of which I have been asked to emulate in stories translated into English).
Although these differences might seem to be relevant only when translating fiction, they also apply in academic writing or non-fiction, especially when it involves rendering the speech of real-world individuals into that of their American or British counterparts to give a sense of their social background and education. But even in academic writing, or journalism, there are differences. Here, then, is a brief summary:
Many words are spelled differently. Here are just some of the best-known examples (for a more comprehensive list, see UK vs US spelling list):
Many words—such as braces, chips, dummy, fanny, first floor, football, gas, mad, pants, pavement, pissed, rubber, subway, trainers, trolley, and vest—have completely different meaning in the two countries (for a full list, see the list in Wikipedia).
Different terms for the same concept
Media folk and public figures in the US tend to use big Latinate words to impress, while their British counterparts will usually opt for simpler, more Anglo-Saxon terms. Thus, a weatherperson in the US might say probability of precipitation, while their counterpart in the UK would say chance of rainfall.
That said, in the thirty years or so, since the popular and folksy Reagan came to power, U.S. politicians have increasingly sought to use simpler language, to make themselves sound more like the common folk, and to avoid the dreaded accusation that they are part of the “elites”. This is why Bill Clinton (a Rhode Scholar) played up his humble Alabama accent and background to defeat the aristocratic George Bush Sr.; why Bush’s New England-born son, George W. Bush, a graduate of Yale and Harvard Business School, assumed a Texan accent and passed himself off as a simple Dallas oilman, to beat the well-spoken and equally aristocratic Al Gore (who, ironically, is a true Southerner, as he hails from Tennessee); and why Obama, a Harvard graduate and former editor of its prestigious Harvard Law Review, ran for President as a simple “community organizer” from Chicago.
The English, by contrast (and this case, I stress the English, rather than British—because the Scots, Welsh and Irish are more like the Americans in this regard) have no problems with their leaders being members of the elite, and in fact, even in today’s more egalitarian times, expect them to be so, or at least well educated.
A striking example of this was an interview held last year on BBC Radio with the head of the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF), Lord Coe (formerly Sebastian Coe), in which he strenuously denied accusations that the Federation had been trying to cover up or ignore the abuse of drugs in sports:
I don’t think anyone should underestimate the anger that is felt in our sport in the portrayal […] that in some way we have sat on our hands, at best, and at worst are complicit in a cover-up. That is just not borne out by anything we have done as a sport in the last fifteen years. […] The assumption that we’re not sharing this information is wholly false. […] We have some of the highest-calibre people in track-and-field – three professors who between them have years of experience in this area […] and to extrapolate culpability from one set of readings is very dangerous […]
It should be noted that Coe is not an academic, nor the product of a private school or elite university, and is known primarily as a former world champion middle-distance runner. Also, this was not a prepared speech, but something he said off the cuff—and yet his language is far richer than his counterpart in the U.S. might have used, who, if faced with the same accusation, would likely have phrased it as follows (differences in bold):
I don’t think anyone should underestimate how angry many people in our sport feel at how we’ve been portrayed […] as though we were doing nothing, or guilty of a cover-up. There is just no evidence for this in anything we have done as a sport in the last fifteen years. […] The idea that we’re not sharing this information is totally untrue. […] We have some of the most qualified people in track-and-field – three experts who have years of experience in this area […] and to conclude that someone is guilty from one set of readings is very dangerous […]
One of the least known differences between American and British English is punctuation. Americans tend to use double quotation marks, which are always placed outside other punctuation marks (such as the period or comma)—except in the case of the long (“em”) dash—while in the UK (especially in books and academic writing), single quote marks are generally preferred, and always placed inside other punctuation, unless the quotation is a full sentence with a subject, verb and object. Thus:
American (and, to some extent, Canadian) English is going through an interesting transition phase at the moment, which I refer to as the Death of the Present Perfect:
The present perfect tense—e.g. You have done—that most useful tense that English has and most other languages don’t, and which conveys the nuanced meaning of a past action whose effects are still valid—is currently dying in North America, and in some parts, it’s already dead. When MailChimp, for example, informs me:
When do they mean? Just now? Last Tuesday? Have they unsubscribed since then? If you said This person has subscribed, I would know that it has just happened, and it’s still valid, rather than a statement of something that happened in 2008 and is no longer true.
Likewise, when a sign asks me:
I can truthfully say: “Yes, I did. Back in 2013”—and since you didn’t use the present perfect tense (“Have you purchased a ticket?”), I may be legally entitled to claim that any such purchase in the past is enough to qualify me for parking at that spot.
Some think that just using the word just is enough—but it isn’t. In fact, it can only confuse matters—for example, when the newspaper tells me that:
— do they mean he has just spent $100,000, or that he has spent only $100,000?
A sure-fire way to tell an American—even from a Canadian, much less a Brit—is that Americans can no longer simply do things—they can only go ahead and do them. (If you don’t believe me, go ahead and watch some of these videos…)
(Originally written in reply to a question at Quora.com)
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