Can your boss see your pants? North American vs British English

Statue of LibertyDylan Brethour of Aegis Copy explores one of the perils of moving between English-speaking countries: suddenly losing the ability to spell.

Travelling from Canada to the US can feel like someone has absconded with a bag full of ‘U’s. Move to the UK from North America and discover that a legion of ‘Z’s have vanished into thin air. It isn’t ‘globalization’ any more, it’s ‘globalisation’.

Being Canadian, and so perpetually somewhere in the middle, I’ve noticed the weird nationalism that pops up around language. Talk about spelling and otherwise open-minded people develop a strangely emotional involvement with vowels. Working as a copywriter, I’m usually forced to choose a side. This has more to do with clarity than any strong feelings about our collective linguistic cold war.

Ask yourself:

  • Do you enjoy tea or gravy with your biscuit?
  • If Bob is pissed at the office is he going to get fired?
  • Does pudding usually come in a container with a peel-off top?
  • To what extent will you violate public nudity laws by giving up pants for the day?

These kinds of subtle (or not so subtle) changes make it tricky when you’re writing for a global audience. For larger companies the obvious choice is to direct different countries towards slightly amended websites. But it’s no longer just the largest companies that have a significant customer base overseas. Smaller businesses operating in multiple countries often choose to make do with a single website.

In that case the question is, how do you choose the right form of the language? I was recently writing for a British start-up who listed flavours on their website. Were their international audience searching for passionfruit or passion fruit, liquorice or licorice?

There is an inevitable point where you have to ask yourself will anyone anywhere notice or care? The answer is, of course, a resounding sometimes. It’s true that the hyphen in ‘co-operate’ will probably not be the thing that irrevocably alienates your audience. But people do pay attention to these changes. Colour/color, grey/gray, defence/defense are still the holy trinity of inter-continental screw ups.

For the British company I stuck with traditional UK spellings but exchanged ‘pudding’ for ‘dessert.’ The consequence was, hopefully, loyalty to the Queen’s English without confusing everyone else. The reality is that at least one nationality is not going to get the spelling they recognise. There is also Australian English as well as other interesting variations of the language to consider.

The best form of compromise (yes, I am Canadian) is a nod to the home country without neglecting the rest of the world. The fastest way to exclude other English-speaking countries (or anywhere else) is to forget that they exist. It’s useful to remember that not everyone has a ZIP code.

The great language divide is clearly not set in stone. The internet plays its part in blurring the lines between national spellings. By now most of us are used to reading English transported from another continent. ‘Zation’ rather than ‘sation’ has become an accepted spelling in the UK, even if it hasn’t quite made its way into the BBC style guide. Whether this will build a vowel-laden bridge between nations remains to be seen. Until then we have to decide whether we’ve been colonised or colonized by some linguistic interloper.

Originally published on the Aegis Copy blog.


12th June 2015

Rebecca Perl

Interesting post, Dylan. I used to work on a magazine for German teens. I had to learn to write in US-English, and retrain myself not to when I moved back to the UK. I always remember the day my American editor announced that “her fanny was killing her from sitting on it all day.” Er, ok…!

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