Ever wonder why sometimes you see “center” and other times “centre”? Sometimes you see “fulfill” and other times “fulfil”? Many students of English have no clear notion of what exactly makes British and American English different, hence this post. I hope to clear up your confusion.
Some people call this “proper English” but it’s actually composed of many different people speaking many different dialects, only a small percentage of which is “received pronunciation” or BBC English. How small? Estimates show that 3-5% of British native speakers actually speak with this accent. So, please, let’s not worry about the accent.
British English is characterised by
- additional silent letters, like the “a” in paediatric, anaemia, orthopaedic and aesthetic or the “o” in edoema, foetus and manoeuvre;
- “our” in words like flavour, favourite, endeavour and honour;
- an additional “l” in words like counsellor, labelled, or traveller;
- “ise” in words like authorise, characterise, organise and accessorise (though “ize” is becoming more accepted);
- “yse” in words like analyse, catalyse and paralyse;
- “re” in words like centre, theatre, calibre and litre;
- “gue” in words like dialogue, catalogue and prologue.
British English also uses the semi-colon after each bullet point and the full stop at the end of a list, where American English uses no punctuation with bullet points.
Americans have stereotypically “worse” speech, but that depends highly on where a person is from. Many people tell me they find American English to be easier to understand, but whether that is because they are more familiar with the accent through the American media or because Americans use fewer rare and complex words, I don’t know.
American English is characterized by
- deletion of those pesky silent letters, like the “a” in pediatric, anemia, orthopedic and esthetic or the “o” in edema, fetus and maneuver;
- “or” in words like flavor, favorite, endeavor and honor
- a single “l” in words like counselor, labeled, or traveler
- “ize” in words like authorize, characterize, organize and accessorize
- “yze” in words like analyze, catalyze and paralyze
- “er” in words like center, theater, caliber and liter
- “g” or “gue” in words like dialog/dialogue, catalog/catalogue and prolog/prologue
Fortunately, most differences in British and American English are in the spelling or everyday vocabulary domain and so should not have a dramatic impact on research or professional situations.
This is by no means an exhaustive list (though this is a pretty exhaustive list), so use the dictionary and spelling function on each document–choose UK or US English and just follow the dictionary’s recommendations.
As a new academic year begins, here’s a thought :
For more than 2200 years, people have been exhorted to take action, to dare, to aspire to achieve great things. How can you use this expression in your life today?
Colleague: I can wait to publish this article until next year when I have more experience.
You: Fortune favors the brave! You might get accepted already–you never know.
I’ve decided to sign up for this writing course even though I’m not finished writing my article yet. It will stimulate me to get it done and you know, fortune favors the brave!
Child: The slide is scary!
You: Fortune favors the brave! Go for it!
The difference between less and fewer is actually really easy!
Use less with things that you can’t count:
There is less violence in the world today.
Less time is wasted on silly things.
He’s got less money than he had a year ago.
Use fewer with things that you can count:
Strong verbs are easier to read and use
Fewer and fewer people know how to use this correctly.
And the most famous:
If you can stop believing in these myths, you’ll make writing that paper much easier on yourself.
5. I need to use big words.
Generally, you’ll already have quite a few big words to describe the specifics of your research. Since you can’t change those words, you should try to balance it out with shorter, simpler words in between. The most common example is “use” instead of “utilize”. Using shorter, more normal works gives your reader a chance to catch her breath!
4. Passive voice makes me look objective.
Passive voice does not have the power to cause objectivity. Passive voice takes away the agent of an action, that’s all. Sometimes the passive voice can help you (e.g. when discussing methods or processes), but other times it can hinder you (e.g. when drawing conclusions). If used incorrectly, it can actually make you look like you are not taking responsibility for the conclusions you’ve drawn or decisions you’ve made.
3. I need to have a complicated sentence structure because my topic is complicated.
Actually, the more complicated the topic, the more simple and straightforward the structure should be. A complicated structure blocks your message because you give your reader two things to decipher (structure and message) rather than just one. Think of your structure as something that the reader shouldn’t notice at all. Focus on your message.
2. I should use a thesaurus to avoid repeating any words.
On the contrary, you will need to repeat certain words exactly and consistently to avoid confusing your reader. If you’re writing about type 2 diabetes, for example, and you call one group “the obese group” and then later call that same group “overweight,” your reader will wonder whether you’re talking about the same group. Remember that rarely do you find two words that are exact synonyms. If you change it up, have a reason, don’t just change the words because you think you are using them too frequently.
1. The only way my article will get accepted is if I write the way everyone else is writing, even if I don’t like it myself.
Have the courage to write an article you would want to read. Don’t use words you wouldn’t normally use when talking about your research. If you read a sentence and can’t understand it yourself, then no one else can either. Publishers and journals want you to write clearly, concisely and actively; they don’t want jargon-laden, noun-heavy paragraph-long sentences.
In the Netherlands, you don’t hear will frequently enough among non-native speakers of English. Maybe this is because we actually contract it to make I’ll and you’ll (and those are terrible to pronounce!) or maybe because in Dutch you frequently use the present tense to talk about the future.
Whatever the reason, adding will back into your vocabulary is an easy way to sound more fluent quickly.
| Instead of…
| I see you tomorrow
|| I’ll see you tomorrow
| You join us later?
|| You’ll join us later?
| He goes to Amsterdam this Friday.
|| He’ll go to Amsterdam this Friday.
| They are late tonight.
|| They’ll be late tonight.
Biologist Mark Pagel shares an intriguing theory about why humans evolved our complex system of language. He suggests that language is a piece of “social technology” that allowed early human tribes to access a powerful new tool: cooperation.
You think you’re studying the right way, but you don’t feel like you are getting anywhere? Most likely you just need to change your approach to become more efficient. Fluency in English doesn’t happen overnight and it doesn’t happen in school. So take your learning outside of the classroom and make improving your English an active part of your daily life.
5. Be consistent
Invest (a little time every day) in a vocabulary trainer on your smartphone or tablet.
4. Focus on the right things
Groups of words, not individual words. If you read one online article per work day in English, take one expression from the article and add it to your vocabulary list. Take expressions from your (English-speaking) colleagues’ emails and add them to your vocabulary trainer. You probably know many of the words already, but can you use them together with such flair?
3. Write every day
When you talk, you need someone to listen. Writing can happen alone and it is one of the easiest ways to convert your passive knowledge into active knowledge. You can write your emails, your to-do list, your meeting minutes in English, or even start a blog or journal.
2. Use your down time
Change your subtitles from Dutch to English. Dutch subtitles are a crutch that is preventing your brain from processing the English that you hear on the TV all the time.
1. Connect with context
This is for all the high school students out there: no one can memorize lists of random words. Add context to your vocabulary lists: write a short, catchy sentence for every word. You’ll have an easier time remembering the words within a context.